American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act

Alaska Natives, including the Aleut, Athabaskan, Inupiat, and Yup'ik Eskimos and the Tlingit and Haida Indians, settled their aboriginal land claims with the United States in 1971 under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) Public Law 92–203. Unlike the Native American tribes of the lower forty-eight states, who entered into treaties with the federal government and whose lands are held under trust by the federal government, Alaska Natives pursued a legislative settlement that required them to establish profit-making corporations and to hold their land under fee simple title. Congress and the Richard M. Nixon Administration saw ANCSA, with its major features of land, money, and corporations, as a means to assimilate Alaska Natives into the larger society. Natives, on the other hand, largely viewed ANCSA as a vehicle of economic self-determination.

The 1867 Treaty of Cession, under which Russia sold Alaska to the United States, held that "uncivilized tribes" were to be subject to the same laws as other American Indians. In subsequent legislation, the federal government recognized the use and occupancy land rights of Alaska Natives first in the Organic Act of 1884 and then in the Alaska State-hood Act of 1958, which allowed the state to select 103 million acres of land. Although the statehood act stipulated that Native lands were exempt from selection, the state began to select lands used and occupied by Native villages and to claim royalties from federal oil and gas leases on Native lands. Alaska Natives began to organize regional associations to protect their land ownership. As Natives protested the actions of the state, Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall ordered the suspension of federal oil and gas lease sales and adopted a "land freeze" on the disposition of all federal lands in Alaska. The freeze served to protect Native land rights and to block the construction of the 800-mile oil pipeline from Prudhoe Bay in the north to Prince William Sound.

With political pressure mounting to settle the land claims and to develop the oil resources of Alaska, Natives seized the opportunity to lobby Congress for a land claims settlement. Led by the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN), they were successful in securing legislation that has been heralded as the largest aboriginal land settlement. It also diverged dramatically from earlier historic land models with Indian tribes. However, in the haste to secure a settlement and with the focus on the size of the land settlement, structural issues that should have been analyzed were overlooked and ignored in the legislation.

Under ANCSA, Alaska Natives received a total of 44 million acres of land including surface and sub-surface rights. These lands were to be conveyed to twelve regional corporations and 203 village corporations that were organized under the laws of the state of Alaska. ANCSA also authorized the payment of $962 million for the extinguishment of all aboriginal claims.

Village corporations were entitled to receive 22 million acres of land, which were divided on a population basis. The regional corporations received full title to 16 million acres of land and the subsurface estate in the 22 million acres patented to the villages. The regional corporation land was divided among the twelve regional corporations on the basis of the total acreage in each region rather than population. The southeast Alaska Indian communities were allowed to receive only a single township or 23,040 acres. They had received a $7.5 million award in 1968 under the Tlingit and Haida judicial settlement for the federal withdrawals of 20 million acres of lands in southeast Alaska.

Two million acres were set aside for other purposes, including cemeteries and historical sites. Four Native urban corporations, which had formerly been historic Native communities but were predominantly non-Native cities in the 1970s, were allowed to select land from the 2 million acres. Native communities with populations less than twenty-five residents received land from this acreage. The total acreage for allotments, which had been filed before the passage of the Act, was also deducted from this entitlement.

Four million acres, which had been held by five reserves as trust lands by the federal government, were revoked by ANCSA. The Natives of these reserves formed corporations to hold their lands, including both surface and subsurface lands under fee simple title, but they were not entitled to the monetary benefits under ANCSA. Ironically, the only remaining reservation in Alaska was for the Tsimshian Indians, who had emigrated from Canada. They were granted the Annette Island reservation in southeast Alaska by Congress in 1891.

Natives who were not permanent residents of Alaska organized a thirteenth regional corporation. It received its pro rata share of the financial settlement, but it did not receive land, nor was it entitled to receive revenues from mineral or timber development of the regional corporations.

The Secretary of the Interior was authorized to prepare a roll of all Natives who were of one-quarter or more Alaska Native, who were born on or before the date of enactment of ANCSA, and who were living on or before December 18, 1971. The secretary's roll was to also include the village and region of each enrollee. Both regional and village corporations issued one hundred shares of stock to each Native enrolled in their region and village. Some Natives were enrolled as at-large shareholders, that is, shareholders only in regional corporations because their permanent homes were away from villages that were certified to participate in ANCSA. The number of shareholding Alaska Natives enrolled to Native corporations totaled more than 78,000.

The hunting and fishing rights of Alaska Natives were extinguished under ANCSA. However, Congress adopted a subsistence priority for rural Alaskans in 1980 within the Alaska National Interest Land Conservation Act.

ANCSA is unique in many aspects and one provision is the antithesis of profit-making corporations. Under Section 7(i), regional corporations are required to distribute 70 percent of their profits from mineral and timber development to other regional corporations. A minimum of 50 percent of 7(i) revenues must be distributed to village corporations and at-large shareholders. The intent of Congress was to equalize the resource revenues between regions that were resource rich and those that were resource poor.

Initially, Natives had assumed that their tribes, clans, or communities would be the recipient of lands, but by 1968 corporations were proposed as the vehicle to implement the land settlement. Many Natives had had experience with the ineptness of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and did not want to have their land held under trust and subject to the control of the federal government. The idea of Native control of their lands had gained prominence. Acceptance of the corporate model was clearly evident by the 1971 AFN Convention theme, "In the White Man's Society, We Need White Man's Tools."

Congress wanted to avoid creating any reservations or "racially defined" organizations and supported corporations as the vehicle to implement ANCSA. With this objective in mind, Congress limited the restrictions on the transferability of ANCSA stock for twenty years, or until 1991. Congress also rejected any possibility of keeping the enrollment open for those children born after 1971.

The conflict between for-profit corporations and Native values emerged as 1991 approached. Natives became alarmed that the expiration of the restrictions on the sale of stock could lead to non-Native control and ownership of Native lands. At the 1982 AFN Convention, Natives voted to make the "1991" issue its top priority and to seek amendments to ANCSA to protect Native land.

AFN was successful in securing the amendments that provided the legal authority to protect ANCSA land and control of their corporations. The 1991 amendments provided automatic protections for land and Native corporation stock. The stock would remain restricted unless shareholders voted to remove the restrictions. Undeveloped land was also automatically protected. The law also allowed for the issuance of stock to Natives born after 1971 and to those who missed the initial enrollment upon approval of a shareholder vote. In recognition of the cultural value of caring for elders, the amendments also allowed for special benefits to elders or those shareholders who were sixty-five years or older.

AFN was not successful in securing a tribal option, which would have allowed for the transfer of ANCSA lands to tribal governments. ANCSA did not extinguish the two hundred tribal governments in Alaska, but those governments effectively lost their land base. A few village corporations transferred their land to tribes, but concern that the lands would not be treated as trust lands and protected by the federal government deterred the movement.

ANCSA corporations are different from other profit-making corporations. They pursue both economic and social goals seeking to protect their Native way of life and traditions. They have been variously successful; some corporations have expanded into the national and international markets, while others teeter on the brink of bankruptcy. They are also unique in that Congress recognizes Native corporations as federally recognized tribes for special statutory purposes in over a hundred federal legislative statutes that offer special benefits and protections.

Daniel R. Gibbs

Further Reading
Alaska Federation of Natives. 1991. "Making It Work: A Guide to Public Law 100–241 1987 Amendments to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act." Anchorage, AL: Alaska Federation of Natives.; Arnold, Robert D. et al. 1978. Alaska Native Land Claims. Anchorage, AL: Alaska Federation of Natives.; Case, D. S., and David A. Voluck. 2002. Alaska Natives and American Laws. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press.; Jones, Richard S. 1981. Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 (Public Law 92–203): History and Analysis Together with Subsequent Amendments. American National Government Division. Report No. 81–127 GOV. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service.; Worl, Rosita. 2003. "Models of Sovereignty and Survival in Alaska." Cultural Survival Quarterly 27, no. 3 (Fall).

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