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Sealaska's final selection

Posted: November 30, 2011 - 12:00am

From a historical point of view, Sealaska’s final selection of 85,000 acres — the focus of considerable controversy — is a small matter, especially compared to what might have been.

Admittedly, even 1 acre acquired by Sealaska near land of personal concern could be a big deal, but consider for a moment how Native claims in Southeast might have played out under different circumstances.

Prior to Alaska becoming a state, there was only one Alaska Native organization representing the interests of Alaska’s indigenous people: the Grand Camp of the Alaska Native Brotherhood and the Alaska Native Sisterhood, composed of delegates elected from the Tlingit and Haida communities of Southeast Alaska. This organization, founded in 1912 and now on the eve of its centennial, can count among its many accomplishments the protection of Alaska aboriginal claims from premature settlement or extinguishment when legislation was taking shape to admit Alaska to the Union.

At best, a pre-statehood settlement of all Alaska Native claims would have involved thousands of acres and a few million dollars. Without the ANB/ANS, it is all but certain there would have been no Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 involving 44 million acres and a billion dollars, nor the subsequent Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 by which 80 million acres of Alaska land received wilderness protections.

Ironically, the success of one element of the Grand Camp’s complex and multi-pronged fight on behalf of Alaska aboriginal rights — a lawsuit decided by the U.S. Court of Claims in 1959 — nearly resulted in the exclusion of the Tlingit and Haida people from the statewide settlement of Native claims.

As recounted by John Borbridge and Emil Notti at a recent Juneau luncheon recognizing the 40th anniversary of ANCSA, many Alaska Natives outside of Southeast believed the Tlingit and Haida people had already won their claims. Notti, an Athabascan who was serving as chairman of the Alaska Federation of Natives in 1968, recognized that the decision in the lawsuit had been a miscarriage of justice. (Briefly, the case was won in the U.S. Court of Claims in 1959, but it took another nine years to determine the cash settlement. By split decision, the loss by Tlingit and Haida of traditional harvest rights to fish and game were excluded from consideration, thus reducing the cash award by 90 percent.)

The AFN board divided evenly on the question of admitting the Tlingit and Haida people to the statewide claims effort, an impasse broken by Notti’s tie-breaking vote. Borbridge then became one of the most prominent Native negotiators in the lobbying effort, and the organization he headed at the time, the Tlingit-Haida Central Council, became an important financial contributor to the cause.

The politics surrounding the lawsuit were such that Sealaska and the 12 village and urban corporations of Southeast, with 22 percent of the Alaska Native population, were limited to only 2 percent (660,000 acres) of the land settlement. If decided on a per capita basis, the ANCSA corporations of this region would have selected nearly 9 million acres, more than half of the Tongass National Forest. While such a total conveyance would have been unlikely for many reasons, had justice prevailed the Alaska Native corporations of Southeast would at least have laid claim to a much greater share of the 44 million than they were allowed.

An accurate understanding of history lends perspective to present-day issues. When considering Sealaska’s final 85,000-acre selection, think about how it might have been had the Tlingit and Haida people won the right to select several million acres of Southeast Alaska.

As it is, land designations within Southeast Alaska have changed enormously since ANCSA, and especially ANILCA, became law. State and municipal land selections, and multiple wilderness protection and exclusion zones, now circumscribe Sealaska’s original selection areas. The situation is new, and so too should be the solution.

Metcalfe has provided communication services for Alaska Native organizations throughout Southeast since 1980, including a series of shareholder newsletters for Sealaska in 1988. For a copy of his essay, “The Sword and the Shield: The Defense of Alaska Aboriginal Claims by the Alaska Native Brotherhood,” produced under a grant from the Alaska Humanities Forum, contact him by email at metcom@gci.net.

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