Tribal Recognition, Sovereignty, and Jurisdiction 

After the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971 there were challenges by the State of Alaska as to the existence of tribes in Alaska. In 1993 the Bureau of Indian Affairs clarified the matter by specifically listing Alaska tribes as such on the List of Federally Recognized Tribes, and Congress confirmed the list in 1994. At this time there are 229 federally recognized tribes in Alaska. Being federally recognized tribes means that tribes have ‘sovereignty’ which is the authority to govern. There are limitations on tribal sovereignty, and on tribal jurisdiction which is the authority of tribes to make and enforce law. Tribal jurisdiction in Alaska has been the subject of debate for the past several decades, and will continue to be well into the future. However, at this time tribes in Alaska are operating tribal courts and have jurisdiction over their internal affairs and membership based jurisdiction particularly in the area of domestic relations such as adoptions, child custody and protection, and domestic violence. The main concepts students are expected to learn from this Unit are: 

  • Alaska tribes were very active during the 1980s in asserting that tribes still existed in Alaska after the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Tribes organized tribal courts and heard a wide spectrum of cases, pursued constitutions under the Indian Reorganization Act, published ordinances in the federal register, and brought cases pursuing their existence and jurisdiction in front of federal and State courts. 
  • Alaska tribes were specifically listed as such on the Bureau of Indian Affairs list of federally recognized tribes in 1993, which was confirmed by Congress in 1994.
  • Jurisdiction is the authority to make and enforce laws, and tribes in Alaska have jurisdiction over internal affairs and which is generally membership based. The amount of jurisdiction tribes in Alaska have will be debated in state and federal courts for some time to come. 
  • Tribes in Alaska are increasingly taking on the responsibility of delivering services including health care, social services, housing, utilities, educational assistance, employment, and juridical services. 
  • Federal Indian law is a complex field of law that is dynamic and evolving over time. The basic principles of federal Indian law apply to all tribes in the country such as the notions of inherent sovereignty, government-to-government relationships, federal trust responsibility, and the plenary power of Congress.