Federal Policy Shift: Key Players Favor Alaska Tribal Trust Lands
After decades of opposing Alaska Native tribal trust lands, the federal government is taking major steps to once again allow lands to be taken into trust for the 228 tribes in the 49th state.
On April 30, Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs Kevin K. Washburn announced the Department of the Interior’s reversal of long-standing policy that has been carried out under Democratic and Republican administrations since the early 1970s. In doing so, he proposed a rule that would allow the Secretary of the Interior to consider petitions from Alaska Native tribes that would allow Interior to take land into trust for them.
“Acquiring land in trust is one of the most important functions that the Department of the Interior undertakes on behalf of tribes,” Washburn said in a press release. “Restoring tribal lands to trust status is essential to ensure cultural preservation, self-determination and self-governance and to advance the social and economic development of tribal communities.”
The public, Washburn added, would have 60 days to comment, and a series of tribal consultations would take place before Interior would finalize its decision.
Tribal reactions have been widely supportive.
“Alaska Native tribes have been waiting for this for a long time,” says Heather Kendall-Miller, a lawyer with the Native American Rights Fund who for 19 years has battled in court Interior’s earlier decisions not to take lands into trust for Alaska tribes based on the department’s previous interpretations of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANSCA) of 1971.
“This is a pretty big shift in policy,” she adds. “The federal government is now recognizing and acknowledging that its trust responsibility to tribes in Alaska is identical to those in the lower 48.”
Before ANSCSA, there were many tribal trust lands in Alaska, Kendall-Miller notes. But the reservations that previously existed there were forced to revoke their reservation status under a provision of the law. Some Alaska Natives followed provisions that allowed them to get their lands back, but many others did not, and since that time many have felt their sovereignty has been eroded.
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