One square block: State legal action asks feds to resolve Indian Country in downtown Juneau

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One block of Juneau is now designated as “Indian Country,” which means it has its own laws. State and city laws don’t apply on this small piece of land just below the Governor’s House. The Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska have jurisdiction, even though downtown Juneau was never inhabited by Tlingit or Haida tribes, due to the excessive rain.

The State of Alaska has taken legal action against the Department of the Interior’s decision to put that block into trust with the federal government to create Indian Country.

In a motion for summary judgment filed today in the U.S. District Court for Alaska, the State argues that Congress did not grant the Secretary of the Interior the authority to change the compromises established in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971.

At the center of the controversy is the Interior Department’s Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, Bryan Newland, who granted a petition to place lands into trust in Juneau.

The State contests this action, asserting that the Assistant Secretary lacks clear authority from Congress to alter the balance of territorial jurisdiction in the state.

Alaska Attorney General Treg Taylor said, “ANCSA was a carefully crafted compromise aimed at settling land claims and empowering Alaska Natives through the establishment of Alaska Native Corporations.

The decision to create a reservation in downtown Juneau appears to contradict the spirit of ANCSA and raises questions about the land claims in Alaska.

“For decades prior Solicitors concluded that the Lower 48 reservation system did not exist, could not exist in Alaska—that was the compromise made under ANCSA to settle lands claims in the State and give Alaska Natives–according to testimony at the time–more self-determination through the creation of Alaska Native Corporations. The Assistant Secretary’s action to completely reverse historical understanding and policy by creating a reservation in downtown Juneau, Alaska, seems to fly in the face of ANCSA and throws into question what the land claims are in Alaska. To avoid confusion and give certainty to all the parties involved, we need the courts, hopefully the highest Court, to tell us once and for all, what the law actually is,” Taylor said.

“To ensure clarity and avoid confusion, we are seeking the courts, potentially the highest Court, to definitively determine the law.”

The State’s motion highlights the implications of creating Indian country in Alaska, as it would shift territorial jurisdiction away from the State to the federal government and the respective tribes. Indian tribes within Indian country have extensive authority over both their members and the land, including non-members. In contrast, States are generally restricted from exercising their sovereignty within Indian country.

“By creating Indian country in Alaska, the Secretary is shifting territorial jurisdiction away from the State and placing it with itself and the Tribe. Within Indian country, Indian tribes have broad authority not only over their own members but over the land and non-members. States, on the other hand, are generally precluded from exercising fundamental attributes of their sovereignty within Indian country. While this may not seem significant here, given that this case is about an unused 787 square foot parcel, there are currently 227 federally recognized tribes in Alaska. That is potentially 227 new territorial jurisdictions,” the state said.

ANCSA, passed by Congress, explicitly avoided establishing a reservation system in Alaska. The act extinguished Alaska Natives’ aboriginal claims while providing compensation in the form of $962.5 million and 44 million acres of land.

The act revoked the few reserves/reservations that had been created in Alaska, with the exception of Metlakatla, and allowed for the formation of over 200 State-chartered village and regional corporations owned and operated by Natives as for-profit businesses subject to State law.

The State contends that such a significant decision as placing an Alaska tribe’s lands into trust should be determined by Congress and not left to a federal agency.

23 COMMENTS

  1. This is so stupid. Once again, the imperial federal government “helping” where no help is needed or wanted.

    So much of the government needs to be carved up like a Thanksgiving Turkey.

  2. Laws are made by legislative action; regulations are made by designated agencies. If this is a change in law, it should be done through proper legislative process. At least that is how the system is meant to work. We are ruled by elected legislators, not appointed bureaucrats. People in high places need reminded of that.

  3. I suggest the State stand down. It might be useful and interesting for people to see how Indian Country is governed and what happens there.

  4. I would add that based on current trends, it is only a matter of time before Alaska Natives repudiate and seek to nullify ANCSA, and, once again, claim ownership of all of Alaska. There appear to be many non-Natives that will agree with approach.

  5. This is exactly what Mary Peltola went to Congress to make happen.

    Peltolas husband Buzzy, ran the Federal Refuge on the YK Delta. Thanks in large part to him, the State has a lawsuit over the management of Fish on the lower Kuskokwim.

    The same pathetic refuge just tried to take over the States portion of the Kanaktok River in Quinhagak. Thanks too Senator Sullivan and a few States’rights advocates living out here, we turned back the federal overreach this Spring.

    If you want a State divided into three distinct and different land masses with different governing bodies, then sovereignty is for you.

    Me, I believe 50 States make America and that’s the entire distinction of what makes us who we are.

  6. How about we grant sovereign jurisdiction and tax free status to every privately owned property in Juneau? Property owners gets to make and enforce laws applicable to that jurisdiction, adjudicate criminal activity however the property owner sees fit, in whatever language is determined, with no interference by state and/or municipal authority. If this sounds like a good idea to you, you’ve just confirmed my suspicions about government employing the best and brightest!

  7. No matter the outcome, this cannot end well. Too much disrespect. We all need to stop shouting “mine” and seek ways to work with each other for our mutual prosperity. We’re not going to roll back history or human migration – get over it. Reopening ANCSA by any party is a very bad idea. The State has no choice other than to fight this. But “you should go back where you came from”, some say, and if we honestly do that we will all meet back at the ziggurat in Babylon where no one can understand each other.

  8. This is just the beginning, or rather a continuum of past activists gradually making it impossible to earn a living in Alaska. If the environmentalists have their way, Alaska will be one large National Park, peopled only by natives on reservations. Look at life on reservations in the lower 48 to see that Native Alaskans will lose more than they would gain. First the feds never settled the land settlements with the State of Alaska that were mandated by Congress. Then the feds started making it impossible for Alaskans to earn a living out of state lands by instituting more and more regulations. The feds have never settled the final land swap with the state and we now have more and more federal treachery out in the open from the Biden Administration. This small parcel seems inconsequential, but mark my words, had the Dunleavy Administration not seen it for the precursor that it is, the reservations would have sprung up like weeds all over the state, finally ending any self determination the state had left. More bad moves by the big federal government people. Fight now or lose it all.

  9. This is fine, let them have the block in Juneau as a sovereign nation. This means JPD and Capitol City F&R cannot respond there unless they receive payment. We could set up toll booths so this foreign nation can pay for using our roads and sidewalks. AEL&P can send them a bill for any utility work done. This could be a money maker for the CBJ.

    • I’d settle for them paying to use the bus system.

      If this stands, should non native CBJ raise rent and taxes on Sealaska. Treat them like a Canadian business and regulate them accordingly?

      This crap does nothing but cause friction in a fairly cordial if not friendly co existence.

      As intended.

  10. First, move the capital out of Juneau, then give them the town,and the politicians. They can keep those!!

  11. As Mr Rogers would say “Kids, can you say Indian Gaming Casino?” This is EXACTLY how this process starts. Learn from history folks.

  12. The Anchorage assembly seems to be on the same track of creating discontent with their statements. Most of Anchorage was useless, unusable ground when the railroad chose it for a base. Nobody was displaced yet the assembly infers that a grave injustice occurred.

  13. United States Department of the Interior, Office of Solicitor, Washington, D.C. M-37045 Memorandum, Reaffirmation of the United States Unique Trust Relationship with Indian Tribes and Related Indian Law Principles states that Congress enacted Public Law 280 which transferred criminal and civil jurisdiction over Indian lands from federal to state governments in a number of states. In 1958 Alaska became one of those P.L. 280 states.

    The federal trust agreement and working in collaboration with all governments could have avoided confusion about jurisdictional issues. I’ve been writing letters since 2013 to the U.S. Secretary of Interior. January 2020 I wrote a letter to the Assistant Secretary of Interior Tara Sweeney regarding sovereign immunity and our constitutional rights. Governor Dunleavy appointed two Special Assistants to take care of my request in February 2020. No action and/or resolution to date.

    We are encouraged to contact our elected representatives regarding our concerns but then our concerns fall to the wayside and life goes on and on.

  14. Who says it was never inhabited? First in time first in line. The indigenous people fought with the Russians over a hill, not the whole area. The Kostlivizov Memorandum explains Russian holdings as a few houses and gardens, and they bought some land from an old Indian who lived there. The Boundary Council between Russia, United States and Great Briton confirmed that Russia didn’t own all of Alaska and even the northern boundary wasn’t set until a few years after the Treaty of Cession, and it was the US and Canada that finally set it, so it didn’t even meet international standards at the time of the Treaty for the selling of land. So much for all the Treaty hogwash. Don’t believe anything they teach you in their indoctrination centers they call schools.

    • I’ve wondered for a long time about indigenous forms of land ownership and titled holding? Were areas surveyed, mapped, and marked? What made the entire region “Theirs”?

  15. Who’s to say any land anywhere wasn’t used by any earlier people. Does the original owner of my antique car still have a claim to it, even though he sold it for less than value long ago? No, whoever has title now is the owner. That’s the breaks. It’s not a racial issue.

  16. The Act of 1871 formally incorporated the municipal (city state) government of the District of Columbia as a separate nation operated according to its own government and code. U.S. v Anthony 24 Fed. 820 (1973) No one seems to be complaining about that being a foreign enclave. So maybe if the Indigenous people have the good sense to not incorporate, it might be interesting and we might learn something. Most Indigenous claims are based on ancient Covenants with what we might call God, and the boundaries were natural boundaries, mountains, rivers, and sometimes trails. Some areas were shared.

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