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FAIRBANKS - Alaska Native tribal leaders hope they've found a sympathetic ear with new leadership at the U.S. Department of the Interior.
The new assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, Larry Echo Hawk, visited Fairbanks on Monday to hear testimony during a government-to-government consultation with local tribes. It was part of a week-long statewide tour that also includes stops in Stevens Village, Barrow, Ketchikan and Metlakatla.
In his comments to the crowd of about 150 people at the David Salmon Tribal Hall, Echo Hawk pledged he'll be an advocate for Native concerns.
"I see it as my duty to do all I can to empower tribal nations," he said.
During a four-hour "listening session," Echo Hawk and Bureau of Indian Affairs Director Mike Black heard speakers discuss their concerns, many of them focusing on weakened ties to their ancestral lands and subsistence issues.
Many said it was time to revisit the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, a 1971 law that settled aboriginal land claims by transferring 44 million acres of land to Native corporations.
Dot Lake village council president Bill Miller echoed the testimony of many speakers, calling ANCSA an "experiment" that has stripped natives of land ownership and subsistence rights in favor of a corporate model.
A repeated theme was that ANCSA has disenfranchised a generation of Natives by excluding them as shareholders in Native corporations.
Children born after Dec. 18, 1971, weren't directly granted shares under the provisions of ANCSA, although federal law has since been modified to allow more flexibility for Native corporations to grant them to younger members.
Even so, the majority of Alaska Natives - about 61,000 - aren't shareholders, according to figures distributed at the meeting. Lincoln Bean Sr. of Kake described them as the "forgotten children," lacking tribal land or financial clout.
"Based on ANCSA, I'm an alien in my ancestral lands because I'm not a shareholder," said Leann Jackson, a youth advocate from Akiak.
Echo Hawk singled out the shareholder issue as something he would eye closely after returning to Washington.
"I've heard many important issues today. ... But that one has gotten my attention more than anything," Echo Hawk said.
U.S. Rep. Don Young, a fort Yukon Republican, attended part of the meeting and said he sympathizes with the issue. Although Young's late wife, Lu, was Athabascan, he said none of his 14 grandchildren are shareholders.
He said it's up to Native leaders to figure out how to address the problem, since a lasting solution will require congressional approval.
"I need you to put your heads together and figure out how it can be done," he said.
Other speakers testified about growing difficulty in living a subsistence lifestyle, including requirements that Natives buy duck stamps or stand in line for moose permits.
Barrow resident Charles Etok Edwardsen called ANCSA a "rotten real estate transaction," and said in a fiery speech that Natives should contest it in an international court.
Echo Hawk said the testimony from the Alaska tour will be taken into consideration as the Obama administration crafts its policy on Native issues.
Echo Hawk, a law professor and former Idaho attorney general, said he hesitated before accepting the federal appointment overseeing Indian affairs, a position that reports to the Interior secretary.
"I knew if I said yes, I'd become the face of the federal government in Indian country, and there have been some dark chapters in American history," he said.
He ultimately accepted, he said, because he thought a position in Obama's administration represented a good opportunity to address some of those injustices from the past.
He said it's a high priority for Obama, and noted the Indian Affairs budget grew by more than 8 percent during his first year, while other parts of the Interior Department faced cuts.
His appearance was warmly received by the crowd in Fairbanks - he was presented with a woven basket as a gift, and received a standing ovation at the end of his remarks.
"My heart has hope to see you in Alaska," said Virginia Commack, a tribal advocate for the village of Ambler.