Confusion exists between the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and the federal government

State of Alaska Attorney General's Office
State of Alaska Attorney General's Office(KTVF)
Published: Jan. 18, 2023 at 11:53 AM AKST
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - Confusion exists between the 51-year-old Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) and the federal government’s ability to take lands into trust in Alaska.

The State of Alaska and U.S. Department of the Interior filed a lawsuit, Tuesday, Jan. 17, against Bryan Newland, the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, asking the U.S. District Court to uphold ANCSA settlement terms that were agreed to by the federal government and Alaska Natives in 1971.

Congress passed ANCSA in 1971. The Act extinguished Alaska Natives’ aboriginal claim in exchange for the transfer of 44 million acres of land and $962.5 million in funds. Congress also revoked most reservations that were created with the exception of Metlakatla, and provided for the creation of more than 200 state-chartered village and regional corporations, which are owned by Alaska Natives as for-profit businesses subject to state law, as detailed in a press release from Alaska Attorney General Treg R. Taylor.

For 46 years after the passing of ANCSA, lands were not taken into trust on behalf of Alaska Natives. Then in 2017 things changed and the department accepted lands into trust in Alaska, for the first time. According to the filed complaint, “And now, after nearly 50 years of certainty, the State and Alaska Natives have entered a period of uncertainty.”

State of Alaska v. Bryan Newland, Assistant Secretary, Indian Affairs, U.S. Department of the Interior, complaint.

Between 2012 and 2022, there have been five different conclusions on determining the department’s interpretation of the “lands into trust” issue in Alaska. Two have concluded that the Secretary of Indian Affairs retains the authority to put Native lands into federal trust, two have withdrawn their opinions, and one has agreed that the Secretary lacks the power to take lands into trust.

“We believe that this issue of tribal lands was settled with the passage of ANCSA in 1971, and that has been the law of the land for more than 50 years. If we are wrong, the court needs to clarify it,” said Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy.

According to Dunleavy, “The purpose of the case is to receive unambiguous legal clarity for the State, local governments, the tribes and all Alaskans, on the question of placing Native land into federal trust for the tribes.”

ANCSA makes Alaska unique and different from any other state in the union. “ANCSA was a compromise that was meant to avoid the Lower 48′s reservation system in Alaska,” said Attorney General Taylor. “Congress meant for Alaska to be different. In order to avoid confusion and give certainty to all the parties involved, we need the courts, hopefully the highest court, to tell us once and for all what the law actually is.”