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Leaders of five "landless" Alaskan Native communities formed a nonprofit corporation last month with the hope Congress will hear their united call for federal recognition.
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The five groups represent nearly 4,000 Natives who are from the communities of Haines, Tenakee Springs, Petersburg, Wrangell and Ketchikan and are not part of an urban or village corporation, hence they are landless. While qualifying as shareholders of the regional Sealaska Corp., they, for various reasons, fell outside the realm of any village or urban corporation that other Southeast Alaskan Natives qualified for after the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971.
The nonprofit group they formed, the Southeast Alaska Landless Corp., merges what was previously five separate nonprofits into one. The umbrella group is meant to be the mouthpiece for all to communicate with decision-makers in Washington, D.C., said Charles "Snuffy" Paddock, chairman of the Haines Native nonprofit and a long-time Haines resident.
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"In order for them to understand who they are dealing with, like here in Haines, we formed a nonprofit group," Paddock said. "We know who speaks for the people, but if you are not in the area, you don't know who you are supposed to listen to."
Their hope is to get Congress to approve two pieces of legislation now moving through the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. The bills were introduced by Rep. Don Young, R-AK, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-AK, in the late spring and early summer of 2005.
They are also the most recent measures by the landless to get recognized in an effort that has lasted more than 30 years, said Richard Jackson, elected chairman of the Ketchikan Native nonprofit.
With the lawmakers' backing, the nonprofit's elected leaders have high hopes that this time the proposed legislation will pass.
"We are hopeful," Jackson said, while also admitting "there are a lot of different influences that could come into it."
Both bills are nearly identical and are called the "Unrecognized Southeast Alaska Native Communities Recognition and Compensation Act." They call for recognition of the five communities as urban corporations, each entitled to 23,040 acres of land and $650,000.
The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council opposes the bills as they are proposed, worried that the newly formed corporations could select valuable public lands, such as those on Admiralty Island or in other Tongass National Forest wilderness areas, said Buck Lindekugel, the conservation director and staff attorney for the environmental organization.
"Our first concern is over the future of the Tongass," he said. "Based on the current track record of heavy-handed clear-cutting (on Alaska Native corporation lands), it looks like a disaster in the making."
Lindekugel said SEACC would be more likely to support the legislation if there was a guarantee that the lands wouldn't be logged, roaded or otherwise developed.
"We remain sensitive to their concerns and we have committed ourselves to good faith collaboration," he said.
Paddock said the issue is not about logging or the money, but about having land to pass on to grandchildren.
"We are Natives. We are Tlingits. If we don't have any lands, we don't have any heritage," he said. "It was ours to begin with. How come you took it away?"
Paddock said that the Southeast Landless Corp. board has discussed how it would use the natural resources of the lands if the legislation passes, but nothing has been decided upon yet. Some would be used for logging, he said, while other areas might be used to set up fishing lodges for tourists or to support the subsistence way of life.
Sealaska, Southeast Alaska's umbrella native corporation, strongly supports the formation of the new urban corporations and has taken on the task of media relations, said Todd Antioquia, a Sealaska spokesman.
"Sealaska has always advocated for a fair recognition of these communities. We provide technical assistance where appropriate and of course advocate on their behalf in discussion with policymakers," he said Thursday.
Sealaska is working to determine who falls outside the realm of a village or urban corporation and would therefore be considered landless. Doing so is somewhat tricky because of confidentiality agreements that Sealaska has with its shareholders.
The corporation has distributed a permission form to those who qualify.
Of the original shareholders, Antioquia said that 3,700 are in one of the five landless communities.