'Landless' Natives try for redress

Murkowski reintroduces bill to compensate Southeast communities left out of settlement

Posted: Tuesday, May 19, 2009

In 1971, Congress settled the aboriginal claims of all Alaska Natives: It gave them 44 million acres, $1 billion and mandated the creation of 13 regional and more than 200 Alaska Native corporations. But for unknown reasons, it left out Natives from five Southeast communities.

Thirty-eight years later the Natives of Haines, Tenakee, Petersburg, Ketchikan and Wrangell are still trying to get in on the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young, both Republicans, introduced the latest versions in the Senate and House this year.

"At this point, Wrangell people, they'll take what they can get," said Bucky Bjorge, representative to the Southeast Alaska Landless Coalition from Wrangell. "They've had nothing for so many years. They got their feelings hurt, culturally, because they (Congress) said, 'This is not an Indian community," But it is. It's the oldest one in Southeast."

This is not a new story. These Natives want recognition from Congress to form five new Alaska Native village corporations. They are asking for 23,040 acres of federal land each, or what the other villages got, and $650,000 in startup funds each. About 4,300 people, or 21 percent of the shareholders of Sealaska Corp., Southeast's regional corporation, would be eligible to join.

Congress has seen many versions of this settlement over the last 20 years. Past bills were met with opposition from environmental groups. Murkowski said this latest bill, like small bills in general, might have a better chance if she can attach it to a longer bill. The Landless Coalition reps applaud her persistence, but they are not holding their breaths.

Taking public land in the Tongass National Forest and putting it in private hands continues to be controversial. The land conveyance adds up to about 160 square miles, and the bill doesn't say where or what they can do with it.

That's a major flaw in the bill as it's currently written, according to the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council's Mark Gnadt, speaking for 14 local environmental groups. SEACC doesn't object to Congress seeding these new village corporations with money. But if the landless Natives want Tongass National Forest land, they ought to work it out with other locals in public - before a bill becomes law, not after, SEACC said.

"Just doing this stuff in D.C. isn't necessarily the right process," said Gnadt.

"What's more public than a Congressional bill?" responded Al Hill, the Tenakee rep who also speaks for the entire Landless Coalition. "And how far does that extend to, that everybody has a say? We could be at this for years and years."

He's not opposed to negotiating, but neither does he think the bill needs fixing.

The Left-Outs, as they're known, don't all agree on what they should do about the land. Some, like Bjorge of Wrangell, said asking for cash might be a way around the Tongass controversy.

"The land's been picked over," said Bjorge. "Everybody's in favor of getting a cash settlement."

But Charles "Snuffy" Paddock of Haines said his tribe wants nearby traditional lands: "If we don't have any lands, we don't have heritage. And once the money's gone, then what? What do you do for your grandkids?"

Yet Paddock anticipates that his group may be offered mountaintops rather than traditional burial grounds. So he wonders whether the solution might be to settle for some federal lands in the Lower 48 - deserted Air Force bases or prisons, for example.

"That would not do justice," said Hill, who insists that justice requires they get ancestral lands. "We live off the land. It is our mother. It gives us what we need to subsist."

What would they do with their settlement, if Congress approved it? They have batted around ideas, from logging to ecotourism to carbon banking. These towns need jobs badly. But it is hard to talk about land and money they don't have.

"We don't know what plans we could be making," Bjorge said.

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or kate.golden@juneauempire.com.

This story has been corrected. It originally misstated the number of member environmental groups in the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.

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