Alaska Governor Bill Walker visited Haines Thursday to talk with the Chilkoot Indian Association about lands into trust issues.
Walker traveled to all corners of the state this week, visiting Akiachak, Tuluksak, Chalkyitsik, Barrow and Haines. Those towns are home to the four tribes and one individual who are plaintiffs in a decade-old lawsuit over the right of Alaska tribes to put lands into trust.
In 2006, the Akiachak Native Community, Chalkyitsik Village, Chilkoot Indian Association, Tuluksak Native Community, and Alice Kavairlook sued the Department of Interior over regulations that prohibited Alaska tribes from applying to put their lands into federal trust – something tribes in the Lower 48 can do.
In 2013, a U.S. District court agreed with the plaintiffs, saying the practice discriminates against Alaskan Tribes. The Department of Interior agreed with that decision in 2014. But the state of Alaska, under the Parnell administration, did not. The state filed an appeal to the decision.
Walker is facing a deadline in a few weeks to decide on whether to continue with or drop that appeal.
“I inherited that litigation so I’m trying to decide what’s the most appropriate path forward,” Walker said.
In his tenure so far, Walker has put off deciding whether to continue the appeal. If he were to drop it, Alaska tribes would soon be able to apply for lands trust status. Walker asked for a six-month delay in the case, and then a 30-day extension. Walker says he doesn’t think he’s likely to get more time.
“All week we’ve been around the state visiting with tribes that are involved in that issue,” Walker said. “And we’re doing that largely, almost predominantly, for one reason – to listen and to hear and have a consultation, have a discussion and hear why is that important to them.”
“It’s so important. I can’t even describe how important it is,” said Chilkoot Indian Association Tribal Administrator Harriet Brouillette.
“It weighs really heavy,” Brouillette said. “It weighs heavy on my heart. This is the land of my people. And we’re struggling to retain it. We’re struggling to hold on to a very small part of what was once ours — the places we went to subsistence hunt, and gather and fish.”
Brouillette says for the Chilkoot Tribe, the ability to put lands into trust is about protecting the land they have left. She says that encompasses the land where their tribal office is located and the Chilkoot Estates subdivision. The tribe is not necessarily going to put that land into trust, but Brouillette says they want the option because it’s their right. She says much land has been taken from the tribe over the years.
“At one time this entire valley, down to Excursion Inlet and further, belonged to the Chilkoot people. And as European explorers began to discover this area, they began to take possession of the land.”
Walker wouldn’t say if he is leaning one way or the other on whether he might drop the state’s appeal. But he says conversations with people like Brouillette will factor into his choice.
“For me it’s a matter of gathering information and most importantly it’s listening to what people have to say,” Walker said. “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 amount of reading of legal briefs.”
Walker says one concern he has about allowing Native tribes to put lands into trust is giving more power to the federal government.
“I like decisions made as close to home as possible,” he said. “Decisions made in Washington D.C. about land use in Alaska, I’m concerned about that, quite honestly.”
For Brouillette, it’s about giving power to Native tribes. She doesn’t want things like this to continue happening:
“My father, his family is from Yandeist-aki, which is at 4 mile, where the airport is now,” she said. “He used to fish at 4 mile and was pushed out by newcomers. Then he started fishing at 7 mile and was pushed out there. And then he was pushed out at 8 mile. That’s just an example, one person. You think of all the Native families in this community that are trying to live a traditional lifestyle, live our lifestyle – it’s nearly impossible now.”
Brouillette says she couldn’t tell what choice Walker would end up making, but the fact that he sat down and talked with the Council impressed her. She says it shows that Walker is trying to understand what the issue means to the tribes who have fought for the right to put lands into trust for decades.