Indian Country just days away

Byron Mallott being sworn in as lieutnant governor. James Brooks photo, Wikipedia


Using his veto authority, Governor Bill Walker last week pulled the plug on Citizens’ Advisory Commission on Federal Areas in Alaska. That’s the group that advises on state land policy as it pertains to access to federal lands.

Walker simply defunded it and by doing so made a policy call: He will not fight the federal government on overreach.

Citizens can thank or blame Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott for the death of CACFA, depending on where they stand on the issues.

But make no mistake, the dismantling of CACFA is a signal about what’s just ahead: Indian Country in Alaska, also known as Indian reservations. It’s happening this month and it’s historic, if Walker doesn’t act this week.


The Citizens’ Advisory Commission on Federal Areas in Alaska (CACFA) is made up of Alaskans with an interest in protecting land access granted by the Statehood Compact and other acts, such as the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA).

Members of the commission stay keenly informed about federal laws that pertain to land rights among the different entities — Native, State, and Federal.

The commission’s job is to be Alaska’s watchdog for federal laws pertaining to federal lands in Alaska.

They study. They deliberate. They inquire. Ultimately, they write letters advising on policy. CACFA is a policy-advising body.

Byron Mallott being sworn in as lieutnant governor. James Brooks photo, Wikipedia
Byron Mallott being sworn in as lieutenant governor. James Brooks photo, Wikipedia


In 2011, CACFA wrote a letter of concern about land selections being made by the Sealaska Corporation that were outside of the original ANCSA areas designated for such. The group had a problem with how the selected lands would affect certain communities on Prince of Wales Island.

“After much thought the Commission has concluded that the corporation’s land entitlement can be adequately met with lands from the ANCSA withdrawals areas added by Congress in 1976. Therefore, for the following reasons we cannot support passage of S. 730 or H.R. 1408,” the group wrote to Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

That stance sat poorly with the Sealaska Corporation, with which the Lt, Gov. Byron Mallott is closely aligned. A shareholder, Mallott was a board member until 2014, when he ran for governor. His son is the president and CEO of Sealaska. Mallott has been upset with CACFA over that and other stances the group has taken because Mallott advocates for Native rights, whereas CACFA advocates for all Alaska rights.

CACFA has been an expression of Alaska’s need to exert its interests and influence in land use decisions made by federal agencies. Mallott holds the opposite view. And according to the Walker Administration, Walker and Mallott are one and the same, a two-for-one governor. And Mallott loathes CACFA.


Fast forward to this week and the “Akiachak Case.” This case relates to the termination of CACFA as a policy advising panel of experts, and the diminishment of Alaska sovereignty in the eyes of federal law.

The Akiachak Case is the first step to tribal reservation systems known in the Lower 48 as “Indian Country.” Alaska has, since 1971, had an ANCSA exception to Indian Country, with no reservation land left except Metlakatla. The complete inventory of Alaska’s prior reservation status is here.

Four tribes and an individual asked Interior Secretary of State Sally Jewel to eliminate the “Alaska exemption” to reservation land. They want the ability of Alaska Natives to have lands put into federal trust, a Balkanization that ANCSA sought to prevent.

With reservation status, management of fish and game resources would become an unholy nightmare. That’s just one of the problems with creating reservations in Alaska. The land also becomes self-governed and free of state taxes and regulations. Tribal members and business entities would become exempt from state rules on marijuana, gaming, and anything else that is regulated. The State of Alaska will lose access to historic trails still being contested with the federal government.

Mary Bishop of the Alaska Outdoor Council explained the challenges more fully last year in an opinion that appeared in the Fairbanks NewsMiner. But here are the Cliff Notes on this complex case from teh 1990s to present day:

In the 1990s, well over two decades after ANCSA became law, three tribes contended that the Indian Country exemption in the law is wrong. Litigation was next, and a series of legal actions on each side, which we won’t detail here.

In 2014, the DC district court judge agreed with the complainants and the Department of Interior began the process of accepting applications from tribes, while the State of Alaska’s appeal went forward.

On July 1, 2016 the DC Circuit Court also ruled that ANCSA was wrong in disallowing reservations in Alaska.

The State of Alaska has until July 22 — next Friday — to ask for a stay. After that, tribes and individual Alaska Natives can ask for their lands to be put into federal trust, aka reservation status.

Before appealing to the US Supreme Court, the State could ask for a second opinion from the same court. The request has to be filed within 14 days. 

If Walker does not file a request for rehearing, the Department of the Interior can start taking lands into trust next week. If the State does request rehearing, that date is to be determined, but would certainly be later.


In his campaign for lieutenant governor, Byron Mallott told a group in Bethel that he fully supported tribal sovereignty.

“By not recognizing tribes, it also continues to keep a divide between us as Alaskans that needs to be done away with,” he told them, according to KYUK radio.

But after he joined forces with Bill Walker, Mallott just said that he hoped Walker would change his mind on that issue.

In 2014, Lt. Gov. Mallott said he supported Walker’s decision to appeal the federal court ruling, but he also supported putting lands into federal trust and again, he hoped Walker would drop the case.

Today, in 2016, Gov. Walker may walk away from the Akiachak challenge, in which case he will have made a decision to not fight for state sovereignty.

His decision will change Alaska forever. It’s a win for some, a loss for others, and a blow against the State of Alaska.