WASHINGTON (AP) - Nearly two million acres owned by a village of Alaska natives is not "Indian country" where tribes have broad regulatory and taxing powers, the Supreme Court ruled today.
The unanimous decision is a big victory for Alaska authorities and a setback for the Village of Venetie, an Athabascan Indian tribe of some 350 people who live in Venetie and Arctic Village in north central Alaska.
Had the ruling gone the other way, the tribe would have gained broad authority over environmental regulation, hunting and fishing and health and safety matters for an area about the size of Delaware.
State officials had claimed such authority, and today's decision confirms their view.
Writing for the court, Justice Clarence Thomas said tribal land that is not a reservation qualifies as Indian country under federal law only if it has been set aside by the federal government for tribal use and is under federal supervision.
The Alaska lands in dispute "do not satisfy either of these requirements," Thomas said.
The decision reversed a federal appeals court ruling that said the disputed lands should be treated as Indian country - a ruling state officials said would yield "a crazy quilt of jurisdictional enclaves crippling the state's ability to implement crucial statewide regulatory programs."
But the Native American Rights Fund, an advocacy group, accused state officials of exaggerating the importance of the lower court's ruling.
A 1971 federal law, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, conveyed 44 million acres of Alaska lands to more than 200 native villages recognized as Indian tribes. The law abolished all but one Indian reservation in Alaska.
In 1986, the village government sought to impose a 5 percent business tax on a contractor building a state-funded school in Venetie. The tax bill was $161,000.
When neither the contractor nor the state would pay the tax, the village government sought to take the case before a tribal court. But Alaska officials turned to a federal judge for help, contending that the tribe lacked power to impose a tax.
When the case was argued before the nation's highest court in December, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor noted that the village, even if its lands were not recognized as Indian country, could obtain taxing power simply by incorporating as a municipality under Alaska law.
But Anchorage lawyer Heather Kendall had told O'Connor that doing so would sacrifice the village's culture. "The Venetie people make their decisions by consensus, by looking to tribal elders," Transforming into a municipality would impose "a totally alien form of government," she said.
Thomas wrote for the court today that the 1971 law wiped out the Venetie reservation and ended federal supervision.
"Whether the concept of Indian country should be modified is a question entirely for Congress," Thomas added.
The case is Alaska vs. Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government, 96-1577.