Southeast Alaska’s largest tribal organization has applied to the federal government to put seven parcels in downtown Juneau into a federal trust.
For decades the federal government had prevented Alaska Native tribes from putting lands into trust that can exempt it from local laws.
But a court decision last year overturned the so-called Alaska exemption opening up new opportunities for tribal sovereignty that mirrors Indian country in the Lower 48.
The Juneau-based Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska is nearly at the end of the process. Its application calls for putting seven downtown parcels into a federal trust. The land includes the Andrew Hope Building and surrounding parking on what was once a summer village inhabited by the Aakʼw Ḵwáan.
“It’s going to stay a parking lot. We have really no plans to get into any kind of big ventures there or anything. In fact, we need more parking — not less,” said Richard Peterson, the Central Council’s president. “So you’re not going to see us throw up a five-story shopping center or something like that.”
He said putting land into trust would be a milestone and make the tribe eligible for more federal grants.
So far only one other Alaska tribe has completed the process — and the issue remains complex.
Tribal sovereignty can affect anything from local zoning to police and fire coverage.
“When land goes into trust under these circumstances it removes regulatory authority over the parcels,” Juneau City Attorney Amy Mead said. “Those issues need to be worked out before the city can take a position. We really don’t know what Central Council’s position is with respect to how we’re going to coexist.”
The tribe plans to work all that out with the city, Peterson said.
“We want to have an agreement so that we have law enforcement,” he said. “We certainly are worried about fire protection so we want to talk to them about what that means.”
The city has asked for 30-day extension beyond the May 5 deadline imposed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Mead said the law requires the Juneau Assembly to deliberate in an open meeting and scheduling that takes time.
“These are very new in Alaska so we’re doing the best we can trying to find our way through this process,” she said.
The city’s appeal to slow down the process hasn’t created acrimony.
“You know I understand their desire to want a little extra time to make sure they can take a look at things,” Peterson said. “I don’t think we really have any opposition to that.”
A ruling by the Bureau of Indian Affairs over the city’s request for more time is expected within the week.
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