After talking in-person with tribes including the Chilkoot Indian Association, Governor Bill Walker has decided to continue the state’s fight against allowing Alaska tribes to put lands into trust. Lawyers for the state filed an opening brief Monday appealing a U.S. District Court ruling that would clear a path for Alaska tribes to put lands into trust.
Walker’s visit to Haines and four other Alaska communities earlier this month marked the first time an Alaska governor had visited in-person with tribes specifically to talk about their efforts to put lands into federal trust.
“For me it’s a matter of gathering information and most importantly is listening to what people have to say,” Walker said during his visit to Haines. “And we’ve heard some very heartfelt statements about their past, their generation, where they want to go, their concern about their children, their grandchildren. You can’t replace that with any reading of legal briefs.”
In 2006, the Chilkoot Tribe, along with three other Alaska tribes and one Native individual, sued the Department of Interior. They argued that not allowing Alaska tribes to put lands into trust, which Lower 48 tribes are allowed to do, was discriminatory. In 2013, a U.S. District court agreed with the plaintiffs. The Department of Interior developed new rules to allow Alaska tribes to apply for trust status. But the state of Alaska responded with an appeal.
Gov. Walker inherited that litigation. He had a deadline of August 24th to decide whether to drop the appeal or continue it. As part of that decision making process, he visited Haines, Akiachak, Tuluksak, Chalkyitsik, and Barrow. Those are the five communities where the plaintiffs in the lands into trust lawsuit are located.
Harriet Brouillette is tribal administrator for the Chilkoot Indian Association. Earlier this month, she said she was glad Walker met with them about an issue that she feels is extremely important.
“This entire valley used to belong to the tribe and our land base just kept shrinking,” Brouillette said. “And for our tribe, it’s more important to hold onto what little we have. We just have so little left of what was our homelands. So having our land protected by putting it into trust is very important to us.”
Reached by phone today, this was Brouillette’s reaction to Walker’s decision to continue the appeal:
“I am very disappointed, but not surprised. I think he has a lot constituents to satisfy. So I imagine that right now he’s going to take the time to figure out what’s best for all of the constituents. Now maybe my idea of the right thing to do is not the same as his.”
Brouillette says the Chilkoot Tribe will continue the fight for the right to put lands into trust. She says she’s hopeful for more discussions with the governor.
“I felt very good about his visit to Haines, disappointed in the outcome, but I felt like he is definitely reaching out and wants to know more about what we are hoping for.”
Lawyers for the tribes have a deadline of September 23rd to respond in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.