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Leisnoi Inc. v. Stratman

September 08, 1998


Before: Jerome Farris, Diarmuid F. O'Scannlain, and Michael Daly Hawkins, Circuit Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: O'scannlain, Circuit Judge:


D.C. No. CV-96-00361-HRH

On Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Alaska H. Russel Holland, District Judge, presiding

Argued and Submitted July 14, 1998--Anchorage, Alaska

Opinion by Judge O'Scannlain


We must determine whether a "Village Corporation " may prevent a "Regional Corporation" from authorizing sand-and-gravel mining near Kodiak under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.


In 1971, Congress enacted the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act ("ANCSA"), see Act of December 18, 1971, Pub. L. No. 92-203, 85 Stat. 688 (codified at 43 U.S.C.S 1601-1629a), a "legislative compromise" designed to resolve land disputes between the federal government, the state of Alaska, Alaskan Natives, and non-native settlers. City of Ketchikan v. Cape Fox Corp., 85 F.3d 1381, 1383 (9th Cir. 1996). Under this compromise, Alaskan Natives received, in exchange for the extinction of all claims of aboriginal title, approximately forty-four million acres of land and nearly $1 billion in federal funds. See 43 U.S.C. SS 1605, 1607, 1613. Much of this land was distributed in fee simple to "Regional Corporations"*fn1 and to "Village Corporations."*fn2 ANCSA divided the state of Alaska into twelve geographic regions, each with a Native-owned Regional Corporation. See 43 U.S.C.S 1606(a). Within these twelve regions are many villages represented by Village Corporations, over 200 in total. See 43 U.S.C. S 1607.

Unfortunately, through the years, the Regional and Village Corporations have often found themselves in court as adversaries. See, e.g., Koniag, Inc. v. Koncor Forest Resource, 39 F.3d 991 (9th Cir. 1994); Tyonek Native Corp. v. Cook Inlet Region, Inc., 853 F.2d 727 (9th Cir. 1988). The litigation has had much to do with the fact that twenty-two million acres of ANCSA land are "dually owned": The surface estate belongs to the Village Corporations, and the subsurface estate to the Regional Corporations. See 43 U.S.C. SS 1611, 1613. Because of ambiguities in these abutting land rights, controversies have arisen.

This case is yet another chapter in the ongoing saga that pits surface-estate owner against subsurface-estate owner. In 1974, the Department of the Interior certified Leisnoi, Inc., as a Village Corporation for the Native village of Woody Island. Leisnoi thus became eligible to select over 115,000 acres of land, which it would hold and manage on behalf of the Native village of Woody Island. See 43 U.S.C. SS 1611, 1613. In its application for land benefits, Leisnoi indicated that the Native village was located within two townships on the historic, western side of Woody Island. Generally, a Village Corporation like Leisnoi is allowed to select "all of the township or townships in which any part of the village is located, plus an area that will make the total selection equal to " its allotted acreage. 43 U.S.C. S 1611(a)(1) (emphasis added). Leisnoi selected some land on Woody Island, as well as some land on Kodiak Island and Long Island.*fn3 As explained above, Leisnoi's interest in this land is only in the surface estate.

The Regional Corporation of Koniag received the subsurface estate in the land that Leisnoi selected on Kodiak Island. This land is located near Kalsin Bay, some twelve miles and a channel of water away from the physical structures that identify the Village of Woody Island. Pursuant to a quitclaim deed, Koniag transferred sand-and-gravel rights in a portion of this land to Omar Stratman, who has thus stepped into Koniag's shoes for purposes of this appeal. Leisnoi and Stratman are avowed enemies who have found themselves in court on many occasions over the past twenty years. See Leisnoi, Inc. v. Stratman, 835 P.2d 1202, 1214 (Alaska 1992) (summarizing litigation between the two). The dispute in this case arises from Stratman's mining activity on this "dually owned" land on Kodiak Island. Since July 1996, Stratman has been extracting gravel from his subsurface estate. As one might imagine, such operation can damage the surface estate, see Chugach Natives, Inc. v. Doyon, Ltd., 588 F.2d 723, 732 (9th Cir. 1979), and destroy artifacts buried in the ground. Wishing to prevent these deleterious effects, Leisnoi asserted that Stratman must obtain its consent before proceeding. Not surprisingly, Stratman disagreed.

Seeking injunctive and declaratory relief, Leisnoi filed suit in federal district court. Stratman responded by moving to dismiss the case under Rule 12(b)(6) or, in the alternative, for summary judgment. The district court granted the motion to dismiss.*fn4 According to the court, under ANCSA, a subsurface-estate owner (such as Stratman) needs to obtain the consent of a Village Corporation (such as Leisnoi) only when he wishes to mine lands "within the boundaries of a[ ] Native village." Leisnoi, Inc. v. Stratman, No. A96-0361-CV, at 16 (D. Alaska filed Jul. 3, 1997) (quoting 43 U.S.C. S 1613(f) (internal quotation marks omitted)). As the district court saw it, Kodiak Island was simply not within the "boundaries" of the Native village of Woody Island.

Leisnoi timely appealed.*fn5


Leisnoi contends that the district court misconstrued the section of ANCSA that vests in Village Corporations the power to withhold consent from, and thereby to preclude, mining operations. Section 14(f) of ANCSA provides that the right "to explore, develop, or remove minerals from the subsurface estate in the lands within the boundaries of any Native village shall be subject to the consent of the Village Corporation." 43 U.S.C. S 1613(f) (emphasis added). According to Leisnoi, the "lands within the boundaries of a[ ] Native village" include all lands patented to the Village Corporation, or at least all such lands that the Native village has historically used. Under either interpretation, the lands within the boundaries of the Village of Woody Island would encompass that portion of Kodiak Island on which Stratman has performed his gravel operation, and Leisnoi would be entitled to an injunction.*fn6 Stratman counters that the boundaries of a Native village should instead be defined by physical structures that indicate occupancy. If his view prevails, then Leisnoi's consent is not required, as the Village of Woody Island has structures only on Woody Island, not on Kodiak Island.


[1] When construing statutory language, this court assumes "that the legislative purpose is expressed by the ordinary meaning of the words used." Seldovia Native Ass'n, Inc. v. Lujan, 904 F.2d 1335, 1341 (1990) (quoting Richards v. United States, 369 U.S. 1, 9 (1962) (internal quotation marks omitted)). Of course, because words can have alternative meanings depending on context, we interpret statutes, not by viewing individual words in isolation, but rather by "reading the relevant statutory provisions as a whole." City of Ketchikan, 85 F.3d at 1385 (internal quotation and citation omitted). We thus interpret the phrase, "lands within the boundaries of ...

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