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A tiny Juneau lot is the latest battleground in a dispute over tribal sovereignty

A tiny Juneau lot is the latest battleground in a dispute over tribal sovereignty
The piece of land held in trust near the corner of Capitol Avenue and Village Street in Juneau is less than 800 square feet. (Photo by Katie Anastas / KTOO)

A small, vacant lot in the city of Juneau is at the center of a dispute between the state of Alaska and the US Department of the Interior. It is the latest development in a years-long effort by the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska to protect traditional lands.

Last week, Tlingit and Haida President Chali Ish Richard Peterson signed an agreement To place a small parcel of land in a federal trust. land in trust makes the tribe eligible for certain federal programs and services, including certain tax credits and exemptions. This could essentially create Indian Country – a small place where tribal law would apply, to the exclusion of many state and local laws.

piece of land held in trust less than 800 sq ft, Near the corner of Capitol Avenue and Village Street. But Peterson said it’s about more than just land. This is a historic decision about tribal sovereignty and self-determination.

“These lands were taken illegally and illegally for years,” he said. “We have tried legally and legally to get them back and try to save them forever.”

Four more applications are pending with the Central Council. If the Department of the Interior approves them, a total of 3.5 acres of land owned by the tribe would be put into the trust. Peterson said there are no immediate plans to change how the land or buildings are used, but one goal is to ensure the tribe can use the part of town known as Juneau Indian Village as its headquarters. Could

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Now, the state of Alaska is challenging the Interior Department’s ruling on the first part, saying it “undermines key terms” of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act by creating the reservation. The act established Alaska Native corporations instead of a reservation system.

“It could call into question the laws that apply when passing through the same city block,” said Alaska’s Attorney General Treug Taylor. in a statement,

In its lawsuit, the state argues that placing this land in trust “jeopardizes the state’s rights to tax and enforce land use, natural resource management, environmental and public safety regulations on that trust land.”

Southeast Alaska Native Veterans Memorial Park is in the heart of the downtown area known as Juneau Indian Village. (Photo by Katie Anastas / KTOO)

Land held in trust may be exempt from most state and local taxation and regulations, and it may give the tribe legal jurisdiction over that land beyond the land owner’s rights.

In 2006 the Akiachak Native Community and other tribes sued the Department of the Interior, seeking review of a policy that prevented Alaska Native tribes from putting land into the trust. Alaska State appealed that decision, but the challenge was dismissed. Then, under the Obama administration, land-in-trust rules were modified to allow Alaska Native tribes to submit applications for the first time since 1980.

In 2017, the Craig Tribal Association became the first Alaskan tribe to be recognized for such application.

Then, under the Trump administration, the Department of the Interior withdrew the amendment. but the department issued a new attorney’s opinion Late last year that allowed the land to be put back into trust for Alaska Native tribes.

Peterson said that having Indian country in Alaska opens up opportunities for new federal funding in the form of tribal economic development bonds. They can only be spent at facilities within the reservation, largely excluding Alaska Native tribes from the program. He said that the state has an opportunity to cooperate with the tribals and move forward.

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“The state is not infringing on our sovereignty,” he said. “There are innumerable states in the confederacy which flourish and prosper along with their tribes.”

Peterson said the state’s lawsuit is forging a relationship between the tribes and the state.

“It jeopardizes all applications for all tribes’ trusts for future lands — not just in Juneau, not just in an urban center, but all rural applications,” he said.

The Department of the Interior also has pending applications from the Ninilchik Traditional Council and the Native Village of Fort Yukon.

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