December 18, 2011, was the 40th anniversary of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. There were discussions about the act’s many defining roles in shaping Alaska’s politics. Many celebrations were held in Anchorage.
However, few mentioned the 1998 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Venetie vs. the state of Alaska. The case had the potential to throw land jurisdictions in Alaska into chaos. It represented a major push for tribal government and gave a voice to those who refused to go in the direction of ANCSA.
After ANCSA passed in 1971, Venetie and Arctic Village accepted the option to receive their tribal reservation land via a village corporation. It then transferred that land back to the tribe.
In 1986, the tiny, dusty, remote village of Venetie quietly challenged Neeser Construction Inc., in tribal court to collect $161,000 in taxes for conducting business on tribal lands. Venetie claimed the lands were “Indian country” and wanted to tax Neeser, which had built the new school. The village enacted the business activity tax the same year.
The tribe felt it still had its original governing powers, despite ANCSA. Sarah James, one of the tribal leaders, said in a recent interview that the company was willing to pay the tax — until the state intervened. Neeser then refused to pay the tax. The state of Alaska — coming to Neeser’s aid — took the tribe to U.S. District Court. The case then moved to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where Venetie won.
The court concluded Venetie’s lands constituted “Indian country,” as it is known in the contiguous United States. This meant the tribe had taxing power.
Venetie’s win coincided with the village of Tyonek’s win in federal court, gaining the title of a historic tribe. Native leaders and seven Native dance groups descended on Tyonek and they celebrated into the night.
The state of Alaska immediately took the Venetie case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Interested parties from all over the country jumped into the fray by filing briefs with the Supreme Court in support of either side,” according to Karol Dixon, writing in “Indian Country in Alaska: A Rhetorical Analysis,” in Cultural Survival Quarterly (May 7, 2010).
A number of legislative groups and attorney generals filed briefs in support of the state of Alaska. On Venetie’s side were the Pueblo, Ute, Navajo and Shoshone tribes, Tanana Chiefs Conference, the National Congress of American Indians and the Alaska Federation of Natives.
Thousands of Alaska Natives marched in the streets behind the Venetie tribe in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau. Native American tribes in the states were called to march across the country to Washington, D.C., to hold vigils during the oral arguments before the court. Fort Yukon’s churches were filled with Natives praying for the case to be won in favor of Venetie.
“(A) January 1997 press release from the state of Alaska stated its primary concern: ‘Within Indian country, tribes have broad authority over matters of taxation and regulation, while states are precluded from exercising such fundamental sovereign powers,’” Dixon wrote. “The state argued in its brief that the affirmation of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling would create chaos in Alaska and bring ‘enormous uncertainty and confusion’ on state and local jurisdictions.”
Rep. Al Vezey, R-North Pole, called “tribal sovereignty an ‘absolute evil’ during a House floor debate,” the Anchorage Daily News reported on July 5, 1997.
The state appropriated $1 million to hire private attorney John Roberts to represent it before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Gwich’in high school students at the Venetie school in question wrote four letters to the justices, pleading the village’s case.
But the court ruled, 9-0, in the state’s favor on Feb. 25, 1998.
The justices concluded that ANCSA had revoked reservations in Alaska, so Venetie had no power to tax because its land was no longer Indian country.
After the news hit Arctic Village, tribal leader Gideon James famously said, “We are still here, just as our ancestors were, and the views of nine black robes 10,000 miles away cannot change that.”
Fourteen years after the Supreme Court decision, I visited Gideon James at his home in Arctic Village. James rose from his newspaper-covered couch and walked across a piece of cardboard smeared with caribou blood. He went to the counter, sliced pieces of caribou meat for dinner and explained the case.
“They had to bring in materials and use our roads, airport and dump sites. This is why we have to tax, that’s what city (government) do,” he exclaimed. “We won in the 9th Circuit.”
Next, I stopped by Ernest Erick’s home in Venetie. He said the case could’ve become a vehicle to allow other tribes to gain greater powers over their traditional lands. “We wanted to give them the opportunity to go our way,” he said.
I then visited Eddie Frank, a tribal board member during the case. The state fought hard to govern Venetie, but now it doesn’t do so, he said.
He said he has called the Alaska State Troopers many times about crimes in Venetie but has never seem them come.
“I think one of us will have to get killed before they come,” he said, laughing but half-serious.
Frank also said he never sees state officials physically in his village.
“The state is not in the villages,” he said. State and federal officials should visit villages, so he can explain the challenges of village administration, he said.
“ANCSA corporations are not capable of being governing entities,” he said.
Gary Harrison, chief of the Chickaloon village near Anchorage and an advocate for Alaska Native rights on the international level, believes the federal government lied to Venetie.
“Venetie acquiesced to ANCSA’s land designation, because they thought their land would be protected,” he said.
Today, the original tribal leaders of Venetie and their allies among Alaska’s Native leaders continue to search for ways to improve the rights of tribes and individual Natives, as well as Native land rights. The Alaska Inter-Tribal Council passed a resolution at its 2008 annual meeting calling upon governments to “Vacate Venetie,” meaning the 1998 court decision. However, the Venetie decision remains law, and the present status of Alaska Native tribal rights remains uncertain.
With the passing of ANCSA’s 40th anniversary, the Venetie decision continues to be in its shadow and stands as a symbol for those who do not want to go its direction. No one knows what the future holds for Alaska Native people, but friction continues between Team Venetie and Team ANCSA.
Matt Gilbert was raised in Arctic Village and in 2010 earned a master’s degree in rural development from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.