Landless Natives Bill Gets First Hearing Before Congress

Native Lands Bill
U.S. Rep. Don Young poses in his office with Sealaska board member Richard Rinehart, left, and landless spokesman Leo Barlow, right. Barlow and Rinehart were lobbying this week for Young’s landless Natives legislation. (Photo Courtesy Rep. Don Young’s office.)

A bill creating corporations for Native residents of five “landless” Southeast Alaska communities had its first hearing in Congress today.

Haines, Petersburg, Wrangell, Ketchikan and Tenakee were left out of 1971’s Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. That bill gave land, money and corporate status to those in many other Alaska communities.

Wrangell’s Leo Barlow represented landless residents at the hearing, before the House Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs.

“Those of us who enrolled to these five communities during the ANCSA process did so because they are our traditional homelands and places of origin. Our families and clans originated in these communities and have lived here for hundreds if not thousands of years,” Barlow said.

He said about 3,500 Tlingits and Haidas were affected. They still became shareholders of the Sealaska regional Native corporation.

Congressman Don Young, who authored the legislation, chaired the committee hearing. Sen. Lisa Murkowski introduced asimilar bill earlier this year. Sealaska is also lobbying for its passage.

A report by the University of Alaska’s Institute of Social and Economic Research found no clear reason why the five communities were excluded, other than Congressional intent.

Federal officials continue to oppose inclusion, saying it would break precedent and allow others to follow suit.

At the hearing, Young said the timber industry lobbied Congress before ANCSA passed because it wanted to keep more of the Tongass National Forest available for logging.

“The communities involved here had large lumbering, timbering operations. And there was effort put into this Congress at that time not to recognize them because it might have affected the long-term leases for that timber,” Young said.

Similar legislation has been introduced more than a half-dozen times.

Supporters have suggested it would only get serious consideration after a bill turning Tongass timberlands over to Sealaska passed.

That happened last year.

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Ed Schoenfeld is Regional News Director for CoastAlaska, a consortium of public radio stations in Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, Petersburg and Wrangell. He primarily covers Southeast Alaska regional topics, including the state ferry system, transboundary mining, the Tongass National Forest and Native corporations and issues. He has also worked as a manager, editor and reporter for the Juneau Empire newspaper and Juneau public radio station KTOO. He’s also reported for commercial station KINY in Juneau and public stations KPFA in Berkley, WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and WUHY in Philadelphia. He’s lived in Alaska since 1979 and is a contributor to Alaska Public Radio Network newscasts, the Northwest (Public Radio) News Network and National Native News. He is a board member of the Alaska Press Club. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, he lives in Douglas.