A small, vacant lot in downtown Juneau is at the center of a dispute between the state of Alaska and the U.S. Department of the Interior. It’s the latest development in a years-long effort by the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska to protect traditional lands.
Last week, Tlingit and Haida President Chalyee Éesh Richard Peterson signed a deed to place a small parcel of land into federal trust. Putting land into trust makes the tribe eligible for certain federal programs and services, including some tax credits and exemptions. It could essentially create Indian Country — a small spot where tribal law would apply, to the exclusion of many state and local laws.
The piece of land put into trust is less than 800 square feet, near the corner of Capitol Avenue and Village Street. But Peterson said it’s about more than just the land. It’s a landmark decision about tribal sovereignty and self-determination.
“These lands were unlawfully and illegally taken through the years,” he said. “We’ve legally and lawfully tried to get them back and tried to protect them into perpetuity.”
The Central Council has four other applications pending. If the Interior Department approves them, a total of 3.5 acres owned by the tribe would be put into trust. Peterson said there are no immediate plans to change how the land or buildings are used, but one goal is to make sure the tribe can keep using the part of town known as the Juneau Indian Village as its headquarters.
Now, the state of Alaska is challenging the Interior Department’s decision on the first lot, saying it “undermines key terms” of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act by creating a reservation. The act established Alaska Native corporations rather than a reservation system.
“This could throw into question the laws that apply as you walk through a single city block,” Alaska Attorney General Treg Taylor said in a statement.
In its lawsuit, the state argues that putting this land into trust “jeopardizes the State’s rights to tax and to enforce land use, natural resource management, environmental, and public safety regulations on that trust land.”
Land placed in trust can become exempt from most state and local taxation and regulation, and it could give the tribe legal jurisdiction over that land beyond the rights a land owner has.
In 2006 the Akiachak Native Community and other tribes sued the Interior Department, seeking review of a policy that barred Alaska Native tribes from putting land into trust. The State of Alaska appealed that decision, but the challenge was dismissed. Then, under the Obama administration, land-into-trust regulations were revised to allow Alaska Native tribes to submit applications for the first time since 1980.
In 2017, the Craig Tribal Association became the first Alaska tribe to be approved for such an application.
Then, under the Trump administration, the Interior Department withdrew the revision. But the department issued a new solicitor’s opinion late last year that allows land to be put into trust for Alaska Native tribes again.
Peterson said having Indian Country in Alaska opens up new federal funding opportunities in the form of tribal economic development bonds. They can only be spent on facilities within a reservation, largely excluding Alaska Native tribes from the program. He said the state has an opportunity to collaborate with tribes and move forward.
“The state isn’t hurt by our sovereignty,” he said. “There are countless states in the union that thrive and prosper right alongside their tribes.”
Peterson said the state’s lawsuit is setting the relationship between tribes and the state back.
“This endangers all applications for future land to trust for all tribes — not just in Juneau, not just in an urban center, but all the rural applications,” he said.
The Interior Department also has pending applications from the Ninilchik Traditional Council and the Native Village of Fort Yukon.