Gaining Ground: Tlingit and Haida Tribes Expand Juneau Land Base
After a five-year hiatus, the federal government accepted a fee-to-trust acquisition of Alaska Native land for just the second time. The Central Council of the Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska (Tlingit & Haida) had its application for a plot of land in Juneau approved by the US Department of the Interior (DOI).
Juneau Indian Village
“Trust lands are a cornerstone of federal Indian policy and are key to federal and private sector funding and investment,” says Tlingit & Haida President Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson. “The ability for Alaska tribes to petition for trust land acquisitions maximizes tribal government resources, eligibility for federal programs and services, and fosters economic development.”
The land—known as Lot 15, Block 5 on Capitol Street in Juneau—is within the historical and cultural area long known as the “Juneau Indian Village.” Trust status means the parcel cannot be sold, alienated, or transferred without federal approval.
With the acceptance of this application, Peterson looks forward to putting adjacent parcels into federal trust.
“A lot of federal Indian program assistance requires a Tribe to have a land base, and this decision means Tlingit & Haida will no longer be a so-called ‘landless tribe’ but instead be eligible for a much wider range of land-based programs,” Peterson says. “An example of this is the $2 billion bond authority in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 that was limited to projects located on tribal land held in trust or federally restricted status. Tlingit & Haida was not eligible to participate in this recession recovery assistance because it had no such land.”
A Long History
“Fee-to-trust land acquisitions, also called ‘land-into-trust,’ transfer a land title to the federal government to be held in trust for the benefit of an individual or a tribe. Acquisition of land in trust is essential to tribal self-determination and will help maximize the Tribe’s eligibility for federal services and programs,” according to the DOI website.
It is also a means to address the historic loss of Native land across the US through treaty betrayals, conflicts, and land grabs.
Between 1887 and 1934, the federal government took nearly two-thirds of reservation lands from tribes without compensation. The Dawes Act of 1887 allowed the federal government to break up tribal lands by assimilating Native Americans into mainstream US society. Directing them into farming and agriculture meant dividing tribal lands into individual plots, and only the Native Americans who accepted the division of tribal lands were allowed to become US citizens. This resulted in the government stripping more than 90 million acres of tribal land from Native Americans and selling that land to non-Native US citizens, according to the National Park Service.
In 1934, the Indian Reorganization Act, referred to as the “Indian New Deal,” was enacted, along with an amendment, the Alaska Indian Reorganization Act. The trust process was created as a tool to help tribes regain original land bases.
Locking in Authority
Hurdles in the land-into-trust process have delayed tribal efforts to build housing projects, manage law enforcement agencies, and develop local economies.
In March 2013, a federal district court held that the introduction of the Alaska Exception rule was invalid, as it discriminated among Alaska tribes by barring the acquisition of most land in trust, except for the state’s lone reservation, the Metlakatla Indian Community.
By providing authority to take land into trust in Alaska, an authority not revoked by the Alaska Native Lands Claim Settlement Act, Congress in 2014 recognized that restoring tribal lands to trust status was important to tribal self-governance, according to the Federal Register.
Applications from all Alaska tribes were accepted in 2014. Almost three years later, the Craig Tribal Association on Prince of Wales Island became the first tribe to successfully gain a fee-to-trust certification.
It was also the last, after the incoming Trump administration notified tribes that the rule for Alaska would be withdrawn.
Last year, the Biden administration reversed the reversal, announcing actions to honor the nation-to-nation relationship with tribes and improve their ability to establish and consolidate their homelands. This included affirming the authority to take land in Alaska into trust.
In November, DOI Solicitor Robert Anderson ruled that Secretary Deb Haaland’s “land into trust authority and reservation proclamation authority for Alaska Natives and tribes remain intact.”
The Tlingit & Haida application was first in line when the trust process restarted.
“Alaska tribes have been unfairly left out of the fee-to-trust process up until recently,” says Peterson. “This decision not only reflects a firm commitment by the United States to provide Alaska tribes the same opportunities to exercise tribal self-determination as tribes in the Lower 48 but also recognizes the importance of rebuilding and restoring tribal homelands.”
Trust in the Process
One plot, marked yellow, of Juneau Indian Village has been accepted into trust, and Tlingit & Haida has applied for the federal government to acquire more.
A fee-to-trust application must pass through a lengthy process, beginning with a review of the application. That’s followed by encoding the fee-to-trust system of record, response to an incomplete application, a site visit and certificate of inspection and possession, preparation of a preliminary title opinion, preparation of a notice of application, an environmental compliance review, comments taken for the notice of application, clearance of objections to the preliminary title opinion, analysis preparation and notice of decision, public notice preparation, final certificate of inspection and possession, acceptance of conveyance, recording of final title, recoding land titles and records office, and the completed application packet.
Tlingit & Haida continues moving ahead in the application process for more lands. Peterson explains that many of the parcels were once held subject to a restriction that prevented their alienation or taxation, but the Bureau of Indian Affairs terminated those restrictions when the tribe purchased the land from its members. Thus, Tlingit & Haida is trying to restore those protections.
“The work is not done yet,” Peterson says. “We still have fee-to-trust applications pending that we are hopeful the US Department of the Interior will approve.”