A Haines tribe is calling a recent decision by a U.S. Court of Appeals a historic victory. The Chilkoot Indian Association was among five plaintiffs in the lawsuit challenging what is known as the “Alaska exception,” which prohibited Alaska tribes from placing their lands into federal trust with the Department of the Interior. After years of litigation, including an appeal from the state, the federal court sided with the tribes. Alaska tribes can now petition for sovereignty over their lands.
“It’s a historic decision and our name is on that lawsuit,” said Harriet Brouillette, the tribal administrator for the Chilkoot Indian Association. “And that means a lot and I think our people should be very proud of that fact.”
She said the tribe got involved in the case because there was inequality between the rights of tribes in Alaska and the rest of the United States.
“We weren’t being treated equally,” she said.
In the 1930s, the Indian Reorganization Act was put into place, which allowed the U.S. Secretary of the Interior to acquire trust lands. Placing land into trust gives it permanent protection for a tribe’s exclusive use. Reservations are an example of this. But the 49th State was excluded from that right because of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which distributed land to Alaska Native people and created Native corporations.
About 10 years ago, Akiachak, Tuluksak, Chalkyitsik, the Chilkoot Indian Association and a Barrow individual filed suit. They said the Alaska exception violated the Indian Reorganization Act’s anti-discrimination provision by treating Alaska Native tribes differently. The district court agreed and struck down the Alaska exception. But the process was put on hold by an appeal from the state of Alaska.
Gov. Bill Walker took an unprecedented step and visited the tribes involved in the suit last year, while he tried to decide whether his administration should continue that appeal.
“I like decisions made as close to home as possible, decisions being made in Washington, D.C., about land use in Alaska — right now 62 percent of our land is in federal control, so adding to that, I’m concerned about that,” Walker said last August.
Walker ended up continuing the appeal. But early this month, the court dismissed it. Now, tribes can move forward with petitioning for federal trust status.
“What this will do is give us some sovereign authority over our own land so that we can make decisions just like any other tribe in the Lower 48 does about how we use our land,” Brouillette said. “And like any other sovereign nation we won’t have to ask permission of anybody but ourselves.”
Brouillette said the tribe applied years ago to put land including the Chilkoot Estates subdivision and other small parcels into trust. But she said the Chilkoot Tribe is different than the other plaintiffs in the lawsuit in that it doesn’t have much land.
“What was once our land is now a checkerboard of various ownerships that have nothing to do with the tribe.”
Brouillette said the court decision is a rare positive event after many losses for the tribe.
“If you look at Main Street, the section from the where the borough office is down past where the Aspen Hotel is, that was all once a village. And we have tribal members who still remember it being a village and remember visiting family there. And now we see a brewery there and a chain hotel, and that’s kind of disheartening. And now (there is) a big argument about what’s going to happen about that last little parcel and so I sit here in my office thinking ‘Gosh, that was our village.’”
Brouillette said the status they hope to gain for their remaining property would give the tribe authority over taxes and could allow for economic development opportunities.
Because the Chilkoot Indian Association’s land is limited, she said the land into trust decision’s symbolic importance may outweigh the practical changes the future holds.
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