My turn: Who are the Native landless?

Posted: Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Sen. Lisa Murkowski recently introduced legislation in the U.S. Senate to compensate five Southeast Alaska communities that were omitted from a major portion of the Alaska Natives Claims Settlement Act. Rep. Don Young introduced the same bill in the House of Representatives.

Past efforts to amend this oversight met with stiff resistance, and a misrepresentation of who the landless really are. The landless situation is comparable to that of any group of people settling a lawsuit, with 20 percent of them not receiving their share of that settlement. The landless are that 20 percent.

After the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay in 1968, Congress was pressed to settle land disputes between the federal government, the state of Alaska and aboriginal claims by Alaska Native groups. All parties involved wanted to avoid litigation and opted for legislation. Costly court battles would have created delays in oil development and the process of settling land ownership.

In 1971, Congress enacted the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). The village and urban corporations in Southeast Alaska received cash and surface rights to approximately 23,040 acres of land apiece. The regional corporation, Sealaska, received cash and land, which includes the sub-surface rights to the land of the corporations within its area.

The communities of Ketchikan, Petersburg, Wrangell, Haines and Tenakee Springs were not listed as communities eligible though they met the criteria and helped with the settlement. Some were included on earlier rolls as being recognized.

ANCSA was an expedited piece of legislation. The government and the oil industry pressured Native groups into limitations and compromises that would have otherwise been studied. The concessions are still in the process of being amended, especially for the communities left out. Few had the knowledge to make informed decisions based on the land's business potential, or if they even qualified for corporations.

As part of ANCSA, Southeast villages were limited to 23,040 acres apiece, significantly less than other village allotments. The land selections were limited to areas of traditional use, reservation style. Now villages have to struggle for land exchanges due to public-interest restrictions on sections of their land allotment.

ANCSA cleared way for oil development leading to the creation of the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend program. It also made sure Alaska Natives couldn't make claim to the fields of Prudoe Bay. In addition, a settlement with the Tlingit and Haida Tribes established the Tongass National Forest and the Glacier Bay National Monument.

It is true, the landless are enrolled with Sealaska; so are several thousand others with a plan to include thousands more. For most shareholders, the relationship with Sealaska isn't based on economics. The average Alaska resident benefits more from ANCSA than many of the landless.

The impact of this omission has been felt through generations of each community. Older folks continue to pass away without acquiring an inheritance their neighbors have privileged. However, the real problem is assimilation; these communities lack opportunities from Native corporations and subsidiaries, designed for shareholder inclusion. Native students have little incentive for returning home after completing their education. Many were forced to relocate to find career opportunities, and the next generation will face the same.

The main objective of this legislation is to derail this assimilation of the Native community youth. We want to see the evolution of our tribal people, by providing economic opportunities within their homeland.

In past efforts, the landless people were asked to be silent about their legislation, to try to sneak an elephant through the kitchen. Invariably, the only ones kept in the dark were the landless themselves. So there was resistance from those who don't understand what has already been forfeited. Land claims are a tribal issue, and a sincere approach would begin by letting the public know who the landless really are.

• Juneau resident John Perkins is coordinator for SEALS, Southeast Alaska Landless Society.

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