My turn: Native land grab an injustice

Posted: Friday, August 21, 2009

Thirty-eight years after the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, the head of the Alaska Native Brotherhood, B.J. Fluetsch, claims ANCSA wasn't fair.

By that logic, maybe the Clean Water Act passed around the same time as ANCSA also should be re-negotiated.

The fact is that Southeast Alaska's Native leaders did agree to ANCSA at the time, primarily because the deal they negotiated was far and away better than prior attempts at settling land claims. A court had found aboriginal rights extinguished in all but 2.6 million acres of the Tongass, deciding that there should be compensation. Those esteemed leaders knew full well that what they were getting was far better than the $8 million suggested.

Around 1967, Alaska Natives had laid claim to nearly the entire state of Alaska and the Federal government had imposed a freeze on transferring any land to private interests. Even with this card to play, Alaska Natives agreed to the amount of land they got, accepted $1 billion and would receive free medical and dental care from birth to the grave. Southeast Alaska Natives got a much better deal than most because the timbered acreage they received was worth in excess of a $1 billion, even in 1971 timber valuations, far more than the $8 million suggested only a few years earlier.

To repeatedly come back time and time again to re-negotiate many of the terms they now believe are unfavorable is offensive. It is a land grab disguised as an injustice.

Sealaska and other Native corporations have, to put it mildly, ravaged most of the land in the Tongass they received in the 1971 trade. Anyone who flies over Admiralty Island, Long Island, Chomley Sound or parts of Prince of Wales Island knows that whole watersheds have been stripped from mountain top to the sea, with buffers on salmon streams smaller than those required on federal land because of the aggressive lobbying they did in 1989-90 to make the state Forest Practices Act as weak as possible.

Gretchen Goldstein was right to say ANCSA was fair. What was unfair was Mr. Fleutsch's comparison of how Jews feel about the Holocaust to how Southeast Alaska Natives feel about ANCSA. Never in all my years in Alaska did I ever hear any Alaska Native make this comparison. Long before 1971, the attorney Israel "Lefty" Weissbrodt fought tirelessly for Alaska Native rights, gathered the interviews which established their claims, and litigated on behalf of Southeast Natives. Avrum Gross fought for Natives' rights before becoming Attorney General under Jay Hammond. I fought for subsistence rights for Wrangell Natives to Salmon Bay, the sons of the natives who filed Tee Hit Ton, the landmark lands claims lawsuit. Just because Gretchen Goldstein and I are Jews is no reason to inject the Holocaust into this debate.

• Alan Stein is a resident of Mendocino, Calif.

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