When the U.S. Army took Pete Duncan's Excursion Inlet homesite for a prisoner of war camp in World War II, it built his family a house, a boat and outbuildings a few miles away.
"What was missing was a thing called a deed," said Al Duncan, one of Pete Duncan's sons.
Now, nearly 60 years later and four years after about half of the land claimed by the Duncans was sold by the Haines Borough, the United States has granted the heirs of Pete Duncan unrestricted title to about 20 acres.
"I've never seen a deed from the United States of America like this," said Vance Sanders, a Juneau attorney who was co-counsel for the Duncans and the Sitka Tribe of Alaska.
"A long time ago our people lived by the bears and deer and all the animals," said Al Duncan. "People can't go up and ask a bear if he has a deed for the land he occupies. Now it's called homesteading. Back then, it was just a way of life."
Pete and Emma Duncan, now deceased, raised a family into the early 1960s at the campsite. They hunted, fished and ran trap lines. Emma Duncan had a raspberry garden.
"Subsistence was our store," Al Duncan said.
When the Army came to bulldoze Pete Duncan's original homesite in 1943 it found two American flags on the property, representing Duncan's two sons who were serving in the military, and a determined Pete Duncan, Al Duncan said. The military agreed to a land trade for a new site several miles away.
The family has been seeking title to the later site since the early 1970s. The federal government, considering the Duncans' land vacant, had given the land to Alaska after statehood as part of its land entitlement.
The newly formed Haines Borough selected the land, about 40 miles west of Juneau, in March 1997 as part of its municipal entitlement, and soon auctioned it off in several parcels.
"It was kind of like you lost your mom and your dad at the same time," said Johnny Duncan, one of Pete Duncan's sons, of the auctions.
The family filed a lien on the land, and the borough went forward with the sales. But several successful bidders withdrew after hearing of the family's concerns, and the borough didn't try to resell those parcels while the Duncans pursued their claim.
The Sitka Tribe used its attorneys at the time, Jude Pate and David Voluck, and the family and tribe paid a stipend to Sanders, and the lawyers approached the U.S. Department of Defense. The agency sent representatives to Sitka in 1998 to hear about the Duncan case as well as other Native land concerns stemming from World War II.
"It was a situation where there was a grievous wrong through no fault of their own," Sanders said. "I think people were very willing to help and they did."
The Department of Defense was willing to accept anecdotal evidence from the Duncans and others who knew that the family had lived at Excursion Inlet, Sanders said.
"The land issues in World War II cannot be handled by today's rules and regulations pertaining to land. They just don't fit," Al Duncan said.
U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, arranged in 1999 for the Haines Borough to receive nearly $340,000 in federal funds to compensate it for the unsold parcels.
But it was only in September that Pete Duncan's heirs, who live in Sitka, received a formal deed. They announced it last week, not wanting to celebrate their news shortly after the national tragedy of Sept. 11, Al Duncan said.
Al Duncan said the heirs are reaching retirement age and would like to make a camp at the site, at least for the summers. His father used to say, and now he finds himself saying, "That land is for my children and their children."
Eric Fry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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