Alaska State high court dismisses case based on tribal sovereignty

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - A case between two tribes over the alleged misuse of federal transportation funds has been dismissed in Alaska's Superior Court.

The Douglas Indian Association's case against the much larger Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska was dismissed Jan. 13 based on a tribe's sovereign immunity from state interference.

The DIA filed a lawsuit in April 2015 against leaders of the Central Council over what they claim was an unfair withholding of nearly $1 million in Tribal Transportation program shares from 2005 to 2012.

"There was no way DIA's story would be told unless we (went to court), and either way we're out a million if we do nothing and out a million if we lose because of sovereign immunity," DIA Tribal Administrator Andrea Cadiente-Laiti told the Juneau Empire Wednesday.

The six-year partnership between the two tribes ended in 2013. DIA officials claim federal funds allocated for its tribal members were misused during that time. Leaders from former and present administrators offered some repayment, but DIA did not agree to any of the offers and chose instead to take the case to court.

DIA was the first federally recognized tribe in the Juneau-Douglas area. The tribe has a membership of roughly 700, while Central Council represents 30,000 Indians worldwide.

Central Council President Richard Peterson said he did not know why a smaller tribe with limited resources would risk taking such a case to court.

"It was a calculated risk, one unfortunately for them that they lost," Peterson said. "We've all put legal fees out there that we're not going to recoup. Is that the best way to spend their monies, because they are a small tribe?"

Sovereign immunity was used because of continued legal fees that would put tribe funds at risk, Peterson said.

But DIA Tribal Administrator Andrea Cadiente-Laiti said their use of sovereign immunity was not in line with its original purpose, which she said is only to dismiss lawsuits that jeopardize the larger tribe, not to block smaller tribes.

The DIA council will consider an appeal, Cadiente-Laiti said, but they are still trying to get over the defeat.

"The newness of this disappointing information hasn't worn off," she said.

Published: Wed, Jan 27, 2016