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Indian Nations Law Update - January 2015

January 12, 2015

Alaska tribes move closer to parity with other federally acknowledged tribes

Alaska Native Villages have long been subject to limitations on their rights of self-determination that do not apply to other federally acknowledged tribes. Two of these limitations may soon be eliminated.

On Dec.18, President Obama signed into law the Alaska Safe Families and Villages Act. Title IX of the 2013 amendments to the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) had expanded tribal jurisdiction to cover certain domestic violence offenses committed by non-Indians. Section 910 of VAWA, however, expressly excluded Alaska tribes from the expanded jurisdiction. The Alaska Safe Families and Villages Act eliminates the Alaska exception from the VAWA.

Also on Dec. 18, the Department of the Interior (DOI) announced that it has abandoned its forty-year-old policy of refusing to take land into trust for Alaska Natives. In 1971, Congress had enacted the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), which settled all Alaska land claims and revoked all but one of the Native reserves. The Department of the Interior subsequently determined that the ANCSA prohibited the Secretary of the Interior from taking land into trust for Alaska Natives under Section 5 of the Indian Reorganization Act. This prohibition was incorporated into the Part 151 federal fee-to-trust regulations issued in 1980. In 2013, the District Court for the District of Columbia held that the exception for Alaska tribes was arbitrary and capricious and could not be enforced. Akiachak Native Community v. Salazar, 935 F.Supp.2d 195 (D.D.C. 2013). When the DOI initiated the process to revise the regulations, the State sought an injunction. The court declined to enjoin the DOI’s processing of the new Fee-to-Trust rule but enjoined the Secretary from taking land into trust for Alaska Natives contrary to the existing rule pending disposition of the appeal.  Akiachak Native Community v. Jewell, 995 F.Supp.2d 7 (D.D.C. 2014). On Dec. 18, the Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs announced that the DOI has finalized revisions to the Part 151 regulations to permit Alaska Native Villages to apply to the DOI to have land taken into trust. Actual acquisitions in trust will not occur until the appeal in the Akiachak case is decided.

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