Indian law is often complicated and obscure.  But one bit of Indian law just got a lot more concrete for the Southeast community of Craig: the concept of land into trust.

APRN’s Liz Ruskin reports on the first Alaska tribe to apply to put property in trust with the federal government.

The Craig Tribal Association wants to place slightly over one acre in trust. It’s in downtown Craig, and it’s the building that houses the tribal offices. Parts of it are leased to the Head Start program and the Alaska Court System, and it has a big hall the tribe rents for weddings and dinners.

Craig tribal president Clinton Cook Senior says if the Interior secretary agrees to take the News Tiletribe’s building and the adjacent parking lot into trust, the tribe of about 450 will be better able to chart its own future.

“The goal for all tribes is to be able to be self-determined, away from the state and municipality telling you what you can do with you land.”

Tribal lands held in trust have a legal status similar to Lower 48 reservations. Trust lands are free of some types of state and local regulation — exactly which is a complicated question. Cook says the tribe has no plans to change the use of the property, but they have pondered some ideas. Among those ideas is gaming.

“There’s really no gaming in Craig, because if you do have a gaming – you have to file through the state and city, and get a gaming license and you’re subject to a lot of taxes. Land into trust will eliminate a lot of tax burden on a casino or a gaming.”

Cook says they’ve also thought about retail opportunities.

“The marijuana business is something that has been touched upon by our tribal council. But just talking about it. It doesn’t mean we’re going that way. It means it will allow us to do this, with land into trust.”

The federal rules allowing Alaska land-in-trust have been on hold due to a legal challenge. But the state dropped its opposition, opening the door for tribes to begin applying.

Cook says he thinks BIA officially received the Craig application first because there’s little or no opposition in the city of Craig, which has a population of about 1,200. The tribal president says he doesn’t know if the municipality objects. The city already exempts nonprofits and the tribe from its tax rolls, so he doesn’t think the city would be hurt by the change. The Craig city administrator declined to be interviewed for this story, saying he wanted to hear the tribe’s intentions first.

The idea of having pockets of Indian Country around Alaska is certainly controversial in some circles. Don Mitchell is an Anchorage attorney and author. He’s become the arch-enemy of many Native advocates because he disputes the legality of tribal sovereignty in Alaska. He says the Craig application illustrates that the potential impact isn’t just to distant acreage.

“One thing that people do not understand is the statute gives the secretary the authority to take title into trust of any land, located anywhere. So in this case, the first example out of the block is down in the Southeast Alaska community of Craig. It could just as easily be in downtown Anchorage.”

The BIA has asked for comments on the Craig proposal. The agency is accepting them through the first week of November