February 25, 2014

U.S. Law and Indian Country in Alaska

Today marks the 16th Anniversary of Alaska v. Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government (1998), a Supreme Court case that ended with the denouncement of Indian Country in the state of Alaska (522 U.S. 520). In 1986 the Venetie tribal council imposed tax on contractors doing business on their land in partnership with the state of Alaska. The Supreme Court granted writ of judicial review on appeal from the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The Ninth circuit had ruled in the tribe's favor, saying the tribe occupied the legal jurisdiction of "Indian Country" and was within their rights to collect taxes from said contractor. Through unanimous decision the court asserted that the tribe was without the power to tax the contractors because the parcels of land were not located on a reservation. As I understand it, the tribe owned the land fee-simple without a trust-status (based on their opting out of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act) whereby the government would recognize a tribe's right to tax such activities. The ruling in the case was that "Indian Country" failed to exist in Alaska, since (as they saw it) the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act made such claims impossible.

The term “Indian country,” as defined by federal statute 18 U.S.C. § 1151:

(a) all land within the limits of any Indian reservation under the jurisdiction of the United States Government, notwithstanding the issuance of any patent, and, including rights-of-way running through the reservation,

(b) all dependent Indian communities within the borders of the United States whether within the original or subsequently acquired territory thereof, and whether within or without the limits of a state, and

(c) all Indian allotments, the Indian titles to which have not been extinguished, including rights-of-way running through the same

However, the court saw that due to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (43 U.S.C. 1601 et sec.), 
claims to "Indian Country" for Alaska Natives was non-existent.

Majority opinion delivered by Judge Clarence Thomas:

To this end, ANCSA [the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act] revoked “the various reserves set aside … for Native use” by legislative or executive action, except for the Annette Island Reserve inhabited by the Metlakatla Indians, and completely extinguished all aboriginal claims to Alaska land. §§1603, 1618(a). In return, Congress authorized the transfer of $962.5 million in federal funds and approximately 44 million acres of Alaska land to state-chartered private business corporations that were to be formed pursuant to the statute; all of the shareholders of these corporations were required to be Alaska Natives. §§1605, 1607, 1613. The ANCSA corporations received title to the transferred land in fee simple, and no federal restrictions applied to subsequent land transfers by them.

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