Law | Opinion | Trust

Jenny Bell-Jones: Opposition to tribes in Alaska defies justice

President Barack Obama meets with Native leaders in Anchorage, Alaska, on August 31, 2015. Photo by Pete Souza / White House

Professor Jenny Bell-Jones wonders why some critics of the land-into-trust rule in Alaska are questioning the very existence of tribes in the state:
Assistant Secretary of the Interior, Ada Deer, did not invent Alaska’s tribes. Including tribes on the federal register makes their relationship with the federal government clear, but tribes must already exist in order to be placed there. Recognition for Alaska’s tribes was long overdue but it was in no way magic. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) left tribes with little to no land but it certainly did not extinguish their existence as governments or the inherent sovereignty that those governments possess because their inception predates that of the United States. There was a hurried attempt to settle Native claims to land so that the pipeline construction could proceed. ANCSA was not intended to meet the political needs of Alaska Natives for self-governance. Tribes are the political entities best positioned to meet those needs. ANCSA corporations are not governments nor should they be expected to try to govern.

In the same way that the federal government cannot invent tribes, it also cannot simply eliminate them. When this was tried during the 1950s termination era of federal Indian policy, it had disastrous effects, worsening poverty for Indians and increasing the cost to states for services. Terminated tribes fought to be reinstated and some were ultimately successful while others are still litigating. Termination policy did not eliminate the people who formed those tribes and still actively participated in their functions; those people were obviously very much invested in the existence of their tribes and did not want to lose what they had.

One really has to wonder why anyone would want to eliminate tribes. Some people convinced themselves that assimilation was “in the best interest of Indians” but that theory has long since been de-bunked. Forced assimilation never brings good results. The real intent behind allotment and assimilation was to divest Indians of their lands and resources and we would hope that would not be an objective today. Individual Natives who wish to assimilate into non-Native society and disassociate themselves from tribal activities can do this, so the argument that Alaska Natives are somehow being forcefully prevented from assimilation is also unsound. No one will be forcing anything unwanted on tribes ... unless someone tries to terminate their existence.

Get the Story:
Jenny Bell-Jones: Opposition to tribes and trust lands in Alaska defies sense and justice (Alaska Dispatch News 9/17)

Relevant Documents:
Dear Tribal Leader Letter from Kevin Washburn (April 30, 2014)

District Court Decisions:
Akiachak Native Community v. Jewell (September 30, 2013)
Akiachak Native Community v. Salazar (March 31, 2013)

Federal Register Notice:
Land Acquisitions in the State of Alaska (December 23, 2014)

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