Alaska Natives have won a victory in their battle to regain and protect land the United States and the State of Alaska took through various land determination laws such as the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, and the Alaska Native Interest Lands Act. This last spring, in March, Federal Judge Contreras issued a decision in favor of Alaskan Tribes, in the Akiacuaq verses Salzaar case.
It has taken a Federal Court seven long years to make a ruling in favor of Alaskan Tribes, allowing Tribal Governments to transfer lands into trust status. The Akiachak vs. Salzaar lawsuit was filed in 2006; Salzaar was the Secretary of Interior at the time, and the presiding judges’ decision has made it possible to put Tribal lands into trust status with the Department of Interior, free from eminent domain and taxation.
Akiacuaq Chief, Phillip Peter Senior explained, in Yup’ik, their motivation for filing this lawsuit against the United States of America.
“we want control of our lands, all of our lands, taking care of the land ourselves, instead of others lording over us, our ancestors who have long since gone on before us, would talk about someday having control over our lands again, we believe in that hope and that is why we are at this point today,” says Peter.
Under the old law, the Metlakatla Indian Community was the only Alaskan tribe allowed to put Indian lands into trust. When lands are put into trust, they are protected from being taken away through eminent domain and taxation.
Yupiit Nation activist, Mike Williams Senior of Akiak says, “we lost a lot of land already, and we can’t afford to live without the land, our land is our life,” said Williams, he continued, “all federally recognized tribes to put lands into trust, which will protect it for future generations with the establishment of indian country, in our traditional lands is necessary.”
Calista, which serves as the Yukon/Kuskokwim Regional Corporation, owns subsurface lands, while the village corporations own the surface lands. Spokesman Thom Leonard says Calista will work with the tribes.
“we can all work together to ensure continued Federal protection of subsistence rights and activities, continued economic development, and building infrastructure out in the region,” said Leonard.
Native American Rights Fund attorney Heather Kendall – Miller was one of two NARF attorneys who tried the case. In the hearing, Kendall- Miller urged the Department of Interior to abide by its fiduciary responsibility.
“it’s a situation where the Department of Interior should actually take responsibility and put a process in place, so we don’t have a situation where people are running to our Senators and asking them to fix it for us,” said Kendall-Miller.
She was speaking to the Secretarial Commission on Indian Trust Administration and Reform who is preparing a report and recommendations for the new Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell, on issues relating to Indian Country and Alaska Natives.
Commissioner Tex Hall, chairman of the Three Plains Indians Tribes commented on the landmark decision concerning Alaskan Indigenous lands.
“I’ve heard a lot about the issues about keeping Alaska pristine, keeping it Native, and upholding the hunting and fishing right that you’ve fought for so long,” said Commissioner Hall.
Mike Williams Senior says despite the favorable ruling, there is more work to do.
“we need to amend the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, this land has been ours since time immemorial and we need to protect it in perpetuity,” said Williams.