Indian leaders said everyday life won’t be affected by Wednesday’s Supreme Court ruling that a tribe does not have regulatory or taxing powers over two million acres of Alaskan wilderness.
The unanimous decision was a big victory for state officials and a setback for an Athabascan Indian tribe of 350 people who live in Venetie, an Arctic Village in north-central Alaska - about 400 miles northeast of Anchorage.
Ricky Frank, a member of the Venetie village council, said Wednesday he wasn’t surprised the high court ruled against them, but “I’ve been on this earth ever since I was born, and my father before me and his father before him for 10,000 years. So nothing’s going to change.”
The tribe fought to gain authority over hunting and fishing, law enforcement and environmental regulations in an area about the size of Delaware. If the court ruled in the tribe’s favor, other Alaska tribes may also have been granted jurisdiction over tens of thousands of acres.
A 1971 federal law, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, conveyed 44 million acres of land to more than 200 native villages.
In 1986, the village government sought to impose a 5 percent business tax on a contractor building a state-funded school in Venetie. The tax bill was $161,000.
When neither the contractor nor the state would pay the tax, the village government sought to take the case before a tribal court. But Alaska officials turned to a federal judge for help, contending that the tribe lacked power to impose a tax.
Writing for the high court, Justice Clarence Thomas said tribal land that is not a reservation qualifies as Indian country under federal law only if it has been set aside by the federal government for tribal use and is under federal supervision.
The Alaska lands in dispute “do not satisfy either of these requirements,” Thomas said.
The decision reversed a federal appeals court ruling that said the disputed lands should be treated as Indian country - a ruling state officials said would yield “a crazy quilt of jurisdictional enclaves crippling the state’s ability to implement crucial statewide regulatory programs.”
Alaska Attorney General Bruce Botelho said he received the decision with a sense of accomplishment, but also a “sense of sadness knowing this appeal has caused divisions between friends.
Gov. Tony Knowles announced Monday the formation of a commission to examine Indian self-government issues in Alaska.
“With the Venetie case now behind us, the work of this commission in hearing the concerns of Alaskans and recommending ways to bring Alaskans together through greater self-empowerment is more vital than ever.”