The room on the fourth floor of Sealaska Plaza was packed with more than 30 people. They’d gathered as part of Native Alaskan Heritage Month to hear Edward Thomas, president, Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indians of Alaska and a director on Sealaska Corp.’s board speak about tribes and Native corporations.
Thomas was in what looked like a hand-crafted blue vest with large brown buttons. He was soft spoken, but in the quiet room his voice was clear.
He said initially Native Americans welcomed and assisted European settlers. That attitude prevailed in Southeast Alaska where Natives mostly welcomed traders, even while there were some troubles.
The interaction between Native tribes and Native corporations makes Alaska’s Native lands rights unique in the U.S.
Alaskan tribes were not as directly affected by the idea of Manifest Destiny, the expansion of the United States and white settlers across North America. This obviously brought conflict with Native Americans who already lived on these lands. The result was years of war. This made for certain outcomes when conquered tribes negotiated land settlements, typically resulting in reservations.
In Alaska, lands were taken primarily by acts of Congress or executive orders, not in post-war treaties.
Before the 1920s, Native Americans had to renounce their tribes and ways of life to be granted U.S. citizenship. The Alaska Native Brotherhood advocated for U.S. citizenship for all Alaska Natives, which was granted finally in 1924 with the passage of the Native American Citizens Act, Thomas said.
The Indian Reorganization Act, passed in 1934, allowed tribes to set up corporations. This was particularly important in Southeast Alaska due to heavy interests in fishing — the Klawock Corporation was able to purchase the local cannery. Natives near Ketchikan set up the Ketchikan Indian Corp., now called the Ketchikan Native Community.
A year later Congress passed the Tlingit and Haida Jurisdiction Act. It did not return land to the tribes, but it set up jurisdiction for the Tlingit and Haida people. This allowed the tribes to continue to sue the government for a land settlement.
The Alaska Native Claim Settlement Act was passed by Congress 40 years ago. At the time, the Act was the largest land claims settlement in U.S. history. It was intended to resolve claims by First Alaskans to traditional lands they had inhabited for hundreds or thousands of years. Approximately 44 million acres were designated for return to First Alaskans through 12 regional Native corporations and over 200 village corporations.
Alaska has about 230 recognized tribes.
As two separate entities, Native tribes and Native corporations sometimes conflict, Thomas said. The Settlement Act did not give the land back to the tribes, it gave the land to a state-created corporation. Some tribes feel that scrapping ANCSA would result in land transferring from corporate hands to tribal hands, he said.
However, Thomas said he believes ANCSA is mostly beneficial “not just in the development of business, but in the development of people. I think you will have to admit that ANCSA was one of the biggest and most aggressive settlements in the nation when it comes to aboriginal lands and the rights of the Native American people,” Thomas said.
Thomas said he believes tribes and corporations can be collectively stronger if they work closer together.
Weak rural economies and high energy costs make survival difficult for Natives in Southeast Alaska, Thomas said.
“You have to make a choice as to whether to stay there or not,” he said. The combined strength of tribes and corporations could help, he said.
Thomas was born and raised in Craig. He received degrees from Sheldon Jackson College and the University of Alaska Fairbanks and a master’s degree in education from Pennsylvania State University. Thomas has served as chairman of the board of the Shaan-Seet Corp. of Craig, president of the Southeast Alaska IRA Councils and as First Vice President of the ANB Grand Camp. Thomas also worked as a classroom teacher and high school counselor. After receiving his master’s degree, he took a job as Indian education counselor in Sitka. He then worked as Indian education director in Ketchikan.
Thomas’s speech was delayed to Thursday due to heavy snow on Monday.
Next week, Sealaska will host Sealaska Corp.’s President and CEO Chris McNeil, to talk about the legal status of Alaska Native corporations and economic self determination.
Sealaska Heritage Institute hosts a noon lecture series to celebrate Native American Heritage Month in November. The brown-bag lunch series focuses on the impact of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. The hour-long lectures are held in the fourth floor boardroom at Sealaska Plaza in Juneau.
Sealaska Heritage Institute is a regional nonprofit representing the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people of Southeast Alaska. Its mission is to perpetuate and enhance Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures.
The lecture series is sponsored by Sealaska Heritage Institute, MRV Architects, McDowell Group and Kathy Ruddy of Juneau.
• Contact reporter Russell Stigall at 523-2276 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.