State challenges petition to create Indian Country in Juneau

State officials on Tuesday filed a motion seeking summary judgment against a petition approved by Interior Department officials to take into trust lands in downtown Juneau to create Indian Country. 

Alaska Attorney General Treg Taylor said the state is challenging the action approved by Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Bryan Newland on grounds that Newland had, on his own, decided to alter the balance of territorial jurisdiction in Alaska without clear authority from Congress. 

Late last year the Bureau of Indian Affairs announced that it would accept a vacant property in Juneau into trust for the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. Trust lands, also known as Indian Country, are under the jurisdiction of tribes and generally not subject to state law. 

The state explains its motion for summary judgment by saying that “by creating Indian Country in Alaska, the Secretary is shifting territorial jurisdiction away from the state and placing it with itself and the tribe. Within Indian country, Indian tribes have broad authority not only over their own members but over the land and non-members. States, on the other hand, are generally precluded from exercising fundamental attributes of their sovereignty within Indian country. While this may not seem significant here, given that this as this about an unused 8787 square foot parcel, there are currently 227 federally recognized tribes in Alaska. That is potentially 227 new territorial jurisdictions.” 

State officials also noted that the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) extinguished Alaska Natives’ aboriginal claims, but in exchange authorized the transfer of $962.5 million and 44 million acres of land. 

Congress also expressly revoked the few reserves/reservations that had been created in Alaska – except Metlakatla – and provided for the creation of more than 200 state-chartered village and regional corporations, owned and operated by Natives as for-profit businesses subject to State law, the complaint states. This model makes Alaska different than any other state, the complaint contends. 


Given this uniqueness, the state’s motion asserts, that placing an Alaska tribe’s lands into trust is a major question for Congress to answer: that only Congress, not a federal agency, can upend ANCSA’s settlement and create Indian country in Alaska.