The Supreme Court Monday agreed to decide whether millions of acres of land owned by Alaska natives can be deemed “Indian country” where tribes have broad regulatory and tax powers.
The justices said they will review a federal appeals court ruling that found 1.8 million acres of land in north central Alaska to be Indian country.
Alaska officials say the lower court’s ruling could yield “a crazy quilt of jurisdictional enclaves crippling the state’s ability to implement crucial statewide regulatory programs - including fish and game, land use and environmental programs.”
But the Native American Rights Fund, an advocacy group, said Alaska officials were overstating the importance of the lower court’s ruling.
A 1971 federal law, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, conveyed 44 million acres of Alaska lands to more than 200 native villages recognized as Indian tribes.
One such group was the Village of Venetie, an Athabascan Indian tribe of some 350 people who live in Venetie and Arctic Village. Under the 1971 law, the Village of Venetie tribal government received ownership of 1.8 million acres - an area roughly the size of Delaware.
In 1986, the village government sought to impose a 5 percent business tax on a contractor building a statefunded school in Venetie. The tax bill: $161,000.
When neither the contractor nor the state would pay the tax, the tribal government sought to take the case before a tribal court.
But Alaska officials turned to a federal trial judge for help, seeking a ruling that said the tribe had no power to impose a tax.
The tribe contended it had such power because its lands are “Indian country” where federal law authorizes such tribal taxation.
The state’s lawyers argued that since territorial times Alaska had been governed “on the basic jurisdictional premise … that Indian country does not exist in Alaska.”
A federal judge ruled for the state, but a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that ruling and ordered the judge to decide whether the Village of Venetie government could impose its tax against the state.
“Venetie, having demonstrated that it qualifies as a dependent Indian community occupies its territory as Indian country,” the appeals court ruled.
It added: “This nation has a special relationship with and responsibility toward Native American citizens. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act is a unique and innovative attempt to meet that responsibility.”
The appeals court said the 1971 law cannot be read to detract from Alaskan tribes’ self-determination “absent a clear and unequivocal expression by Congress.”
In the appeal acted on today, Alaska Attorney General Bruce Botelho argued for the state that the appeals court ruling “directly impacts the validity of state and tribal jurisdiction over the more than 40 million acres” of land conveyed under the 1971 federal law.
“While dispersed throughout the state, this land in the aggregate is larger than 32 of the individual states … If permitted to stand, the 9th Circuit decision could nearly double the amount of Indian country in the United States,” he said.