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18 U.S.C.S. § 1151(b) provides that Indian country includes all dependent Indian communities within the borders of the United States.
In 1943, the Secretary of the Interior created a reservation for the Neets'aii Gwich'in Indians on approximately 1.8 million acres surrounding Venetie and another tribal village in Alaska. In 1971, Congress enacted the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), which, inter alia, revoked the Venetie Reservation and all but one of the other reserves set aside for Native use by legislative or executive action, 43 U.S.C. § 1618(a); completely extinguished all aboriginal claims to Alaska land, § 1603; and authorized the transfer of $ 962.5 million in federal funds and approximately 44 million acres of Alaska land to state-chartered private business corporations to be formed by Alaska Natives, §§ 1605, 1607, 1613. Such corporations received fee simple title to the transferred land, and no federal restrictions applied to subsequent land transfers by them. § 1613. In 1973, the two Native corporations established for the Neets'aii Gwich'in elected to make use of an ANCSA provision allowing them to take title to former reservation lands in return for forgoing the statute's monetary payments and transfers of nonreservation land. See § 1618(b). The United States conveyed fee simple title to the land constituting the former Venetie Reservation to the corporations as tenants in common; thereafter, they transferred title to respondent Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government (the Tribe). In 1986, Alaska entered into a joint venture with a private contractor to construct a public school in Venetie. After the contractor and the State refused the Tribe's demand for approximately $ 161,000 in taxes for conducting business on tribal land, the Tribe sought to collect in tribal court. In the State's subsequent suit to enjoin collection of the tax, the Federal District Court held that, because the Tribe's ANCSA lands were not "Indian country" within the meaning of 18 U.S.C. § 1151(b), the Tribe lacked the power to impose a tax upon nonmembers of the Tribe. The Ninth Circuit disagreed and reversed.
Was the Tribe’s land an “Indian Country”?
The Court reversed the decision and held that, as established by ANCSA, the property was not "Indian country" within the meaning of 18 U.S.C.S. § 1151(b). The Court found that the landowners did not constitute a dependent Indian community under § 1151. Dependent Indian community referred to a limited category of Indian lands that were set aside by the federal government for the use of the Indians as Indian land and were under federal superintendence. After ANCSA, the landowner's property did not satisfy either requirement. There was no restriction on the landowners that the property had to be used or owned by Indians. Further, the intent of ANCSA was to remove federal superintendence and there was no showing that the federal government actively controlled, or intended to control, the property.