ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — The U.S. Department of Interior announced this week that it will consider taking Alaska tribal land into trust.
The move could lead to pockets of "Indian country," where tribal courts and governments would have authority to create their own laws and justice systems, the Anchorage Daily News reported (http://is.gd/bUHu9y).
Currently, the only Indian country community with a reservation in the state is Metlakatla, in southeast Alaska.
The state opposes the move.
A judge in Washington, D.C., last year agreed with Alaska Native tribes, supported by nonprofit law firms, which sued in federal court saying the Interior Department should have been taking land into trust years ago.
The state has appealed the decision, but the Interior Department acted on the U.S. district court judge's decision.
The department is opening a 60-day comment period on the subject.
Attorney Matthew Newman with the Native American Rights Fund said he expects the state, Alaska Federation of Natives, tribes and Native corporations to submit comments. He said it's possible the proposed rule won't be adopted, based on comments.
"I would not be bold enough to say it's a sure thing," Newman said. If the regulation is adopted, it would only authorize the Interior Department to accept applications for trust status, he said.
Acceptance of Indian country in Alaska was among recommendations last year from the Indian Law and Order Commission, which was born from a 2010 federal law. The bipartisan commission attributed high rates of sexual assault and domestic violence in rural Alaska to the state's centralized judicial systems and law enforcement.
The commission recommended that tribes get increased authority to enforce in tribal courts laws they for themselves.
"The basic thrust of the Indian Law and Order Commission's recommendation is that the state of public safety for Alaska Natives, especially for Native women who suffer high rates of domestic abuse, sexual violence and other offenses, is unacceptable; providing trust lands in Alaska in appropriate circumstances would provide additional authority for Native governments to be better partners with the State of Alaska to address these problems," the Interior Department said in announcing the proposed rule Wednesday.
The rule barring the department from taking Alaska tribal land into trust dates back to 1980. That's when the program was created for lower 48 Native Americans. It is among "Alaska exceptions" denying Alaska Natives the same rights as lower 48 Indians and it is partly the legacy of the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
The president of the National Congress of American Indians said he was "greatly encouraged" by the proposed rule change.
"The trust relationship between the federal government and tribal governments is the foundation of all policies affecting Indian Country," Brian Cladoosby said in a statement released Thursday. "That Alaska Native peoples have been cut out of this critical arrangement is unacceptable and has created myriad problems for those tribes."
Information from: Anchorage (Alaska) Daily News, http://www.adn.com