A U.S. Senate bill that would increase younger Alaska Natives' chances of receiving dividends from Native corporations passed the Indian Affairs Committee on Wednesday.
Senate Bill 449 would reduce the shareholder votes needed in each corporation to pass resolutions allowing shares for descendants when they turn 18.
The bill would be an amendment to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which gave Natives shares in regional, urban and village corporations if they were born before Dec. 18, 1971.
Currently, corporations need a "super majority" from all shareholders to pass such a resolution. Under this circumstance, Sealaska board member Rosita Worl said it would be impossible to pass a resolution giving younger Natives shares.
Worl estimates 80 percent of all shareholders would have to vote and historically only 60 to 70 percent have voted on issues during annual meetings.
"To get 80 percent would really be a stretch," Worl said.
The new legislation would require only "50 percent plus one" of members present at the meeting to pass the resolution so that it becomes a company bylaw.
Elliott Bundy, spokesman for Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said no date has been set for when the vote will go to the Senate floor, but Murkowski doesn't expect much opposition.
Native communities have been divided over the issue because the enrollment of young descendants would dilute the amount given in each dividend.
Sealaska, the regional corporation for Southeast Alaska, has about 17,200 shareholders, but spokesman Todd Antioquia said he is not sure how many adult descendants would be enrolled if the company passes the resolution.
Sealaska's board is still reviewing whether enrollment should be extended to descendants with either one-eighth or one-fourth Native lineage. Antioquia estimates there are about 13,000 descendants of the original shareholders with one-fourth lineage.
Worl, who supports the issue, said Sealaska could prevent dividend dilution by increasing the company's profitability. The market is looking to buy parts and materials made by minority corporations now that the census shows larger minority groups in America, she said.
The board also will review an idea to stagger the number of stocks given to descendants, such as 25 the first year, so that the dividends' values don't shrink right away.
The average shareholder owns 100 shares; dividends of $2 to $3 per share are paid twice a year.
"This is something that young people say they have a moral right to participate in the ownership of the land," Worl said.
For some urban and village corporations, such as Kake Tribal Corp. and its 700 members, getting votes for a resolution is not a problem, said Gordon Jackson, chairman of the board. The company needs to find a way to increase profits first. In the case of Doyon Limited in Fairbanks, the company in 1992 allowed young adults to enroll but has not included adults turning 18 since that date.