Land bill will ensure Native culture prospers

Posted: Monday, June 14, 2010

Friday was Kamehameha Day in Hawai'i, a holiday celebrating the unification of the Hawaiian Islands in the face of an ever-increasing intrusion of the outside world centuries ago.

Kamehameha the Great, the monarch who first established the unified Kingdom of Hawaii, strengthened his people's culture by preventing the islands' colonization. His brilliance is in how he accomplished it. The unification ensured Hawaiian independence so tradition and culture would survive, but he also accepted European and Asian influence.

Alaska Natives also have fought to maintain their culture, but with a different approach. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) is unlike any other legal approach to addressing the rights and needs of Native peoples in the United States, with its creation of corporations to generate wealth for tribal shareholders.

In Southeast Alaska, Sealaska Corporation has a very strong social and economic presence. All who live in Juneau know many people directly employed by Sealaska and even more who are shareholders. Everyone in Southeast is affected by the economic activities of Sealaska and village corporations like Goldbelt. The region would be hurting badly without these essential corporate entities.

There has been a vigorous debate this year over federal legislation to finalize Sealaska's land selections under ANCSA. The bill was introduced over a year ago, and many in smaller communities across the region have voiced opposition to the proposition that certain lands they've enjoyed using for years might be transferred to Sealaska's ownership. This criticism only looks at part of the problem and the ways in which it might be solved.

Sealaska is clearly entitled to this land, but the controversy comes from it wanting to select lands outside the original agreement.

The legislation currently under consideration is a compromise, which would convey less actual acreage to Sealaska in exchange for lands that are of higher value to Sealaska shareholders.

Many who oppose the Sealaska bill are flatly opposed to all logging on the Tongass National Forest. Those individuals won't be happy with any Sealaska land selection because of its logging interests.

Logging is part of Sealaska's highly-diversified portfolio that enables the corporation to make profits, pay dividends to shareholders and support Alaska Native culture through organizations like the Sealaska Heritage Institute, which founded Celebration. This bill conveys to Sealaska between 65,000 to 75,000 acres from a pool of almost 80,000 acres - half of the lands originally considered. The actual parcels of property have been carefully scrutinized, and the list has changed to reflect public comment from across the region. The vast majority of the lands already are accessible by existing road networks, and the legislation would ensure public use. Also, significantly less old-growth tress will leave public ownership if this bill is passed than if Sealaska selected lands it was granted in the original agreement.

The lands would include documented, sacred sites that are currently without protection, and about 3,500 acres would be designated for archaeological and historic places, which will be preserved and incorporated into cultural-preservation plans and activities at the regional and village levels. Another 5,000 acres will be set aside for future economically-beneficial, non-industrial uses like cultural tourism and possible small-scale renewable energy generation for rural communities. These forward-looking provisions are among the most innovative and attractive features of the Sealaska lands bill.

Many changes have been made to specific land allotments, but at the end of the day it will not be possible to satisfy skeptics who are generally opposed to private land ownership. Sealaska's final receipt of its land allotment is long overdue, and this bill should become law this year to remedy the situation.

Sealaska has tried very hard to be a good neighbor and regional community leader in proposing what it has proposed. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who introduced the bill, has listened carefully to voices from across the region as she tweaked the legislation.

We'll all be better off once the bill has become law. Alaska Natives living in Southeast will be able to continue to unify and strengthen their culture and also their future. It is also good for the rest of us fortunate enough to call this part of the Great Land our home.

• Ben Brown is an attorney living in Juneau.

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