A dispute between the Douglas Indian Association and Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska has been decided in favor of Central Council by the Alaska Supreme Court. The court reaffirmed that one tribal entity cannot sue the other, even in a contract dispute.
On Friday, the court upheld the sovereign immunity of the Council and also said the Council does not have to show the court or the Council’s former contracted partner how it spent federal dollars.
The case goes back to how federal taxpayer money was distributed between the two tribes, which are located in Juneau and Douglas Island.
Both the organizations are federally recognized tribes and for years were eligible to receive federal transportation funds through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The two organizations formed a consortium to receive and distribute the funds. They signed a contract.
Then, Central Council broke the agreement, according to Douglas, and didn’t use any of the funds to help Douglas with its transportation needs. Douglas wanted out of the agreement, and wanted its share of the funds back, but Central Council didn’t comply with the request and wouldn’t give an accounting of how the funds were spent.
In 2015, Douglas sued Central Council and two of its officials, President Richard Peterson and Tribal Transportation Manager William Ware.
Central Council resisted Douglas’s efforts to open up the books and records to legal discovery, which would have shown how the money was spent. Central Council filed a motion to dismiss the case, asserting tribal sovereign immunity.
Douglas said that it was at least entitled to “jurisdictional discovery.”
But the judges ruled on Friday that under the doctrine of tribal sovereign immunity, an Indian tribe is immune from lawsuits unless Congress has authorized the suit or the tribe has waived its immunity.
The court wrote: “We respect Douglas’s position as itself a tribal sovereign, which ‘believes that the transparency and accountability that come with providing discovery are consistent with the high standards it associates with sovereignty.’
“But we are mindful of the concerns raised by amicus Tanana Chiefs Conference, representing rural tribes in interior Alaska, that even ‘limited’ discovery could be financially ruinous for many tribes in [the Conference’s] region’ as funds are shifted from critical programs and rural village economies to urban lawyers in Anchorage, Fairbanks, or Juneau.
“We find the latter consideration more compelling given that protecting tribal assets has long been held crucial to the advancement of the federal policies advanced by immunity.”
The judges wrote that tribes can waive their immunity for transparency and accountability reasons or protect their interests when entering into a contract with another tribe, but that’s a decision best left to the tribes themselves to assert their self determination, economic development, and cultural autonomy.