What tribal sovereignty is — and isn’t




For the past 30 years I have been an occasional student of Alaska tribal sovereignty.  I am committed to improving the knowledge of this issue among all Alaskans.

To begin with, each of Alaska’s 225 plus tribes are sovereign; each holds sovereign immunity from suit for breach of contract – absent a formal document waiving that sovereignty.

The Alaska Supreme Court affirmed that each tribe has sovereign powers over matters that directly affect their people — such as membership, marriage, adoption, inheritance and divorce. This legal concept is well-explained in the October, 2017 opinion by then-Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth,  linked here.

Tribal sovereignty does not depend on the existence of “Indian Country,” the territory over which a tribe holds governing authority.

Attorney Gabriel Galanda explains in his 2009 American Bar Association  article that “Tribal sovereignty is the single most important element of practicing [law] both because it protects tribal coffers from suit and because of its sacred importance…” In September, 2018  the ABA published a “primer” on doing business with sovereign tribes.

Alaska urgently needs such a primer, one addressing the Alaska situation, where tribes do business within Indian Country and tribes do business outside of Indian Country — and tribal businesses can incorporate under tribal, state, or federal law.

Tribal sovereign immunity complications are likely unknown in the Alaska business community. An ironic Alaska example occurred when on Sept. 8, 2017, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that a Juneau area tribe could not be sued in state court by the Douglas Indian Association for alleged mismanagement of joint federal tribal transportation funds.

Why? No waiver of immunity had been negotiated between the tribes.

Years ago Alaska required agencies acquire tribal “waivers of sovereign immunity” when interacting with tribes for land and fuel agreements.  I saw no recognition of that need in the state’s 2017 tribal agreements.

Second, Indian Country in Alaska is virtually the same as Lower 48 reservations, asserts the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

In 1971 Congress passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which most people thought settled the question of Indian reservations and Indian Country.  So how does Indian Country now come to exist in Alaska?  It is done through the Interior Department’s “fee-to-trust” program, administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  That program allows tribal land which is owned in fee title to be transferred to federal trusteeship. 

Because of an Interior Department 1978 interpretation of ANCSA, the fee-to-trust program was not available to Alaska tribes.  But in 2014, the Bureau of Indian Affairs made a new rule to void this “Alaska exception” to fee-to-trust.

“Yet in no clearer way could Congress’ intent be undermined than by recreating something, through an administrative [BIA] process, that Congress expressly extinguished by law,” asserts State Attorney General Kevin Clarkson in a Jan. 25, 2019, letter to Interior in which he presents arguments against fee-to-trust lands in Alaska.

Following ANCSA, Alaska’s first tract of BIA-approved Indian Country is a parcel in downtown Craig, accepted for trust in 2017.  The Craig Tribal Association’s website notes the tribe’s tax-free Smoke Shop, its mission, and sovereign immunity.

Indian Country in Alaska is free of state and municipal taxation, regulation and zoning. Think marijuana, gaming, tobacco, fuel, fish and game harvest. Consider the effect on competing private business.

Tribal members living within Indian Country have all rights of federal, state and municipal citizenship.  They vote on bonding issues but are exempt from state and municipal taxation.  Their property is generally expected to receive the usual state and municipal services.  Federal courts may attempt a balancing act weighing state interests  against tribal interests.  “And, as with all balancing tests, the result is a crapshoot,” notes the 2017 ABA article.

Land in downtown Juneau, Fort Yukon, and Ninilchik has been submitted for trust status.  Native allotments within the Fairbanks City and Borough could be transferred to fee ownership of a tribe, which might then submit it to BIA for fee-to-trust status—tax and regulation free within the city or borough.

Alaska’s one pre-ANCSA reservation is Metlakatla, established by treaty with Canadian Indians.

Through ANCSA, regional and village Native corporations received 11 percent of Alaska lands plus almost $1 billion. Tribes did not receive money or land.  But both money and land have since gone to tribes through grants and for-profit businesses.  Some village corporations have turned over ANCSA lands to tribes.  Tribes can receive land through purchase and gift—and now own millions of acres.

Those who understand Indian law best are those who passionately and patiently advocate for increased tribal authority and financial benefit available through judicious use of this complex body of law.

However, they do not necessarily have the broader interests of all Alaskans in mind. That responsibility lies with the state.

I urge the Dunleavy Administration to move forward by providing an informative primer for the benefit of all Alaskans.

Mary Bishop has lived with her family in Fairbanks and Interior villages since 1961.


  1. Tribal courts are a huge mistake. They don’t follow the Indian Civil Rights act. They circumvent constitutional rights granted to all Americans. They steal Native rights as an American citizen, with no conquences because they hide behind sovereignty, which means you can’t sue them.

    • …that’s because….duh, what sovereignty is all about, you should know about it right? I mean, come on, who are you foolin’

  2. “They vote on bonding issues but are exempt from state and municipal taxation. Their property is generally expected to receive the usual state and municipal services.”
    This factoid must be loudly, assertively hammered into each and every discussion about when and how to stiff productive Alaskans with income and sales taxes.
    Remember Anchorage’s Assembly, according to Peoples Assemblyman Weddleton, wants to stiff productive residents with a $15M bum tax to fix its problem with castoffs from Sacred Areas such as these.
    So it seems reasonable to ask whether taxing productive Alaskans to subsidize Something For Nothing lifestyles will lead to an exodus of worker bees, a deepening recession, and eventual collapse of the Great Alaska Socialist Experiment.
    One can only hope.

  3. Applying ‘special’ status and ‘tax-free’ benefits to only one segment of Alaskans, namely 15% of the population, will only drive people and business away. As the other 85% of Alaskans are asked to make sacrifices and contribute more, this issue will be extremely hard to ignore and it’s likely to get very ugly.

  4. Other issues regarding Tribal Sovereign Immunity is the fact that there is no Treaty with the UNITED STATES GOVERNMENTS, if no Treaty then the UNITED STATES GOVERNMENTS as well as the STATE OF ALASKA INC (a state within a state) has NO JURISDICTION over any Tribal member as individuals.
    When arrested, hauled off to prison, dragged through the court system, offered a contract to do prison time (like sheep lead to the slaughter, have no clue as to what their words real mean (such as: “Do you understand me” meaning they put you under their feet giving them authority over you by you accepting with your answer, Yes-giving them jurisdiction))…they are doing business with individuals from the Tribe by committing FRAUD on all Alaska Indigenous Natives who are Trbal Members of differentTrbes in Alaska!

    • i am happy that someone knows something, thank you john for the explicit explanation…very true, few know this or are afraid to speak out….thank you for speaking out…i stand with you…:)

  5. I think Mary is way off her rocker, she does not know not even a little about sovereignty…and many of you are correct, it will take business away from the State of Alaska, which is a “For Profit” corporation…i mean, come on, wake the hell up or go back to sleep….

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