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Alaska tribes win land trust suit against Secretary of Interior

Alaska Dispatch

A Washington, D.C. district court has found that the Secretary of Interior has the authority to take land into trust for Alaska tribes. Advocates say the ruling places Alaska Natives on equal footing with other Native American populations.

Judge Rudolph Contreras ruled in favor of the Akiachak Native Community in its lawsuit against Secretary Ken Salazar. The tribal government for the village, which is on the Kuskokwim River near Alaska's southwestern coast, argued that a federal regulation blocking the secretary's acceptance of trust land only in Alaska was unlawful.

In 2006, four Alaska tribes and one Alaska Native sued Salazar to repeal the regulation, according to a press release from the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), which represented the tribes during the case.

After "many ambiguous pronouncements and years of internal debate," the secretary agreed with the tribes, according to the judge's decision.

But the state intervened, arguing against Akiachak. The state argued the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971 prohibited the secretary from taking land into trust. Congress granted $962.5 million in state and federal funds and upwards of 44 million acres of state land to private corporations and provided shares in these corporations to Alaska Natives as a result of the ANCSA.

The court disagreed with the state, however.

Attorney Heather Kendall Miller argued the case on behalf of Alaska tribes. The ruling is an important recognition of tribal self determination and trust status will protect tribes from lawsuits, taxation and foreclosure, Kendall told Alaska Public Media.

"The ruling will allow Alaska Tribes to petition the Secretary to have non-ANCSA lands placed into trust and the opportunity to enhance their ability to regulate alcohol, respond to domestic violence, and generally protect the health, safety, and welfare of tribal members," NARF wrote in the press release.