Gov. Walker Meets With Kuskokwim Tribes on Trust Lands

Governor Walker visited southwest Alaska villages earlier this week. Photo by Governor’s Office.
Governor Walker visited southwest Alaska villages earlier this week. Photo by Governor’s Office.

Governor Bill Walker was in Akiachak and Tuluskak Tuesday to discuss a lawsuit involving tribal lands into trust, according to officials in Akiachak. Walker’s office kept his first visit to southwest Alaska since his election low profile amid high interest in a case that could reshape jurisdiction on Alaska Native lands.

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Governor Walker arrived in Akiachak around 10 a.m. and spent a couple of hours meeting with tribal officials and community members before flying to Tuluksak.

Phillip Peter is chairman of the Akiakchak Indian Reorganization Act or IRA council, which opposes any further delays.

“Akiachak already won the case. I said to them we’re not going to drop this issue, it’s already been approved by the court,” said Peter.

The Governor was traveling Wednesday on the North Slope where he was talking with other tribes about trust lands and was unavailable for comment. Press Secretary Katie Marquette says Walker is reaching out to tribes like those in Southwest Alaska.

“…To talk to them about lands into trust issues, he has additional meetings across with other tribes in villages across the state to continue to talk about land into trust issues,” said Marquette.

The Department of the Interior announced new rules last year to allow Alaska tribes to put land into trust. Alaska Native leaders say the change, after years of litigation, brings them one step closer to self-determination.

Trust status for tribal land protects it from taxation and alienation – the taking or sale of land — and gives tribes greater jurisdiction. Under the new rules, tribes could put lands they own into trust, including land they’d purchased, received through an inheritance, or lands transferred to tribes by Native Corporations.

The state has fought the issue over the years. Walker inherited the 2013 lawsuit from the Parnell administration. Most recently, Governor Walker asked earlier this year, for a six-month delay in the case. The state is not talking about its plans now, but Akiachak officials say the Governor wants another six months.

Cori Mills, an assistant attorney general with the Department of Law, says the first six-month extension ended in July, the state then received a 30-day extension and now faces a deadline of August 24th.

“That’s the deadline in place now. Whether the state makes a different decision or wants to withdraw the appeal, that’s yet to be seen and will be determined by August 24th in whatever is filed by that time,” said Mills.

The state can also ask for more time.

After the meeting, described as a first for the community, Akiachak’s Phillip Peter is hopeful that Governor Walker seems willing to work with them.

“The Governor is willing to work with the tribes about the land into trust issues. I was saying to the Governor that we’re going to go forward and work with the state of Alaska on this land into trust issue,” said Peter.

Akiachak and Tuluksak were plaintiffs in earlier litigation to allow trust lands.

Ben Matheson is a contributor with the Alaska Public Radio Network.

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