In 1969, a young Koyukon Athabascan woman stood before the U.S. House of Representatives, and described the life her community had been living on the banks of the Yukon River since time immemorial.
“For centuries [my mother, grandmother] and their forebears had lived in this country happily gaining their livelihood from the land,” Georgiana Lincoln testified. Her community had lived and worked within the region’s dense forests and rolling mountains for thousands of years. She was there to let lawmakers know how devastating it would be if this were to change.
When Alaska joined the union in 1959, many Alaska Natives still lived, worked, owned, and subsisted off their ancestral lands. This dynamic was becoming increasingly rare in North America. In the Lower 48 states, tribal law and treaty designations had evolved over two centuries — but this wasn’t the case in Alaska, where federal policy did not designate who owned what.
“We had owned and controlled the land for ten thousand years, but we had no piece of paper the rest of the world would recognize,” said Willie Hensley, an Inupiaq leader and key activist during the Alaskan land rights movement.
As a newly minted state, Alaska would soon have to determine how the vast land would be used. Of course, the idea of a state wasn’t “new” to the thousands of Alaska Natives who lived there. This marked the beginning of conflict between Indigenous Alaskans and the new state authority: how would their land claims be addressed?
The 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) was passed to answer that question. It was a modern treaty tied to corporate structure and private land ownership rather than taking lands into trust, and it would go on to become the largest land claims settlement of its kind.
“We know the history of our country in dealing with the American Indian, and want to see a final chapter not written in blood or deception or in injustice,” Hensley wrote at the time. The final chapter was just beginning.
When a college-aged Hensley was assigned to write a paper on constitutional land rights in 1966, he discovered that Indigenous Alaskans still owned the land under the nation’s “aboriginal title.” Using a $10 loan, Hensley bought some stamps and began sending out the information to Alaska Native communities.
“We had absolutely no idea where we were going to end up. All we knew was that we were fighting 200 years of American history of taking Native lands,” Hensley said. “If we did nothing, we were going to lose our land, just as all the Indians to the south had a century before.”
Alaska became a state in 1959 — almost 100 years after it was purchased as a territory from Russia in 1867. Up until that point, the federal government had not addressed Alaska Native claims to their land and the resources they depended upon. In fact, Native claims were brought up only to say they’ll be addressed later in the three critical documents that outlined Alaska’s legal setup: the 1867 Treaty of Cession, the 1884 Organic Act, and the 1959 Alaska Statehood Act.
But that didn’t mean the issue was non-existent. Non-Natives going to Alaska for gold and hunting in the 1800s and early 1900s had began encroaching upon Alaska Native land.
As more and more non-Natives came to Alaska after World War II, tension and awareness over land ownership steadily grew. In the 1950s and 1960s, there were several legal battles that hinted at the struggles to come. This included the Tee-Hit-Ton vs. the United States lawsuit by the Tlingit and Haida people in the U.S. Court of Claim, led by William Paul, Sr., Tlingit, the first Alaska Native attorney. Through his legal work and leadership in the Alaska Native Brotherhood, William Paul and his brother, Louis Paul, raised alarm about claims issues to other southeastern Alaska Native communities.
The decision established that tribes were the legal owners of their lands in Southeast Alaska, and that any lands taken were done without their consent, a concept that laid the groundwork for ANCSA.
Still, the ruling wasn’t a complete success. The case, which had launched in 1935, had taken decades to be resolved. Compensation was a paltry $7.5 million. And getting title to their lands was not an option.
“Land is essential for the survival of Native people as distinct tribal people. This is an absolute,” Rosita Worl, a Tlingit leader, wrote in an essay on land claims. “Our ancestors and their ancestors before them lived on the land. It is our heritage and it is the heritage we must leave for our grandchildren.”
After statehood, the newly formed, and cash-poor state began selecting lands for state ownership. It was around this time tribes throughout Alaska realized they faced similar threats to their land rights, and began to coordinate their efforts.
In 1962, Howard Rock founded The Tundra Times, Alaska’s first Indigenous newspaper, to create communication in a state where communities were separated by thousands of miles of rugged terrain, during an era before cell phones and the internet.
The newspaper “will be the medium to air the views of the Native organizations. It will reflect their policies and purposes as they work for the betterment of the Native peoples of Alaska … It will strive to aid them in their struggles for just determination and settlement of their enormous problems,” read The Tundra Times statement of purpose.
In October 1966, hundreds of Alaska Natives from across the state gathered and formed the Alaska Federation of Natives, which brought Alaska’s various tribes and regions together for the first time, in a coordinated movement to advocate for their claims. To this day, the Alaska Federation of Natives carries significant political weight and remains the largest Native organization in Alaska.
“When I wrote that first letter to call people to the statewide meeting, I envisioned 14 people showing up. But every week, from July until October, we had 300 people,” said Emil Notti, an Athabascan leader and the organization’s first president.
“The voice of all the Native people had one thing in common: We had the same viewpoint about our values and the land. We are the stewards of the land, its plants, animals, birds and fish. This is our responsibility, thus land claims became very important,” said Inupiaq political leader, Brenda Itta Lee, during a 2011 panel on women’s involvement with ANCSA.
First on the agenda, Alaska Natives wanted to keep as much of their 330 million acres of land as possible. Second, they hoped to have direct control over it.
Many Alaska Natives had witnessed the tribes’ struggle in the Lower 48 against the federal government and had heard of the power that the Bureau of Indian Affairs held through the reservation system. They feared greater regulations and federal control within their own state. At the same time, recent treaty-related lawsuits made Congress apprehensive of creating more reservations. In result, Alaska Natives sought out a new model for land ownership. Today, there is only one reservation in Alaska, Metlakatla.
Natives lobbied, unsuccessfully for the most part, to have their rights recognized. It might have continued this way had it not been for another historic event: In 1968, oil was discovered in Prudhoe Bay, the state’s northernmost region, surrounded by the Arctic Circle. The oil would have to be transported by pipeline from Alaska’s northern shore to a southcentral deep-water port, across lands Natives claimed as their own.
The discovery was a reality check for many people living in Alaska. They could no longer share the vast amount of lands in practice without legal outlines for who owned what.
The pipeline could not be laid without a clear title to the lands it crossed. Taking a lesson from the earlier Tlingit and Haida case, tribes determined the best solution would be an act of Congress rather than the courts.
Amidst the frenzy, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall put a freeze on state land selections, effectively stalling any major development in the state until Indigenous claims were resolved. Suddenly, Native land claims were on everyone’s mind.
“If it was an Indian problem, we’d still be working on it. When it became a problem for the state of Alaska, homesteaders, oil companies, cities, it became everybody’s problem,” Notti explained in a 2016 interview, featured in the book, “Aunt Phil’s Trunk: Bringing Alaska History to Life.” The involvement of the oil industry is often viewed as a catalyst for ANCSA. The degree to which the oil industry shaped the final legislation is still debated.
The land claims battle lasted a few years, during which time there was a storm of proposed solutions and rejections put forward by various groups, such as conservationists, environmentalists, oil companies, different Alaska Native factions, and outside parties interested in Alaska’s natural resources.
Despite low funds, Alaska Natives were determined to have a seat at the table in Washington, D.C. Elders tell of villages throwing fundraisers, bingo nights, and bake sales to raise enough money to send Alaska Native representatives to Washington.
“In Angoon, a little town of 500 people, they would walk around door to door and take donations from people — one dollar, five dollars, two dollars — whatever people could give. They were all contributing toward the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act,” said Albert Kookesh, Tlingit.
Alaska Native leaders of the time describe making the long flight to the nation’s capital, cramming into budget hotel rooms, and walking from office to office because they didn’t have funds for cab fares.
“We were used to all-nighters,” said Marlene Johnson, a Tinglit leader, in a 2011 panel. “So flying to Washington to testify and then getting back on a plane the same night was no big deal.”
The efforts paid off. In 1971, President Nixon called a room full of Alaska Natives anxiously gathered for the Alaska Federation of Natives convention to announce the news: On Dec. 18, 1971, he had signed ANCSA into law, which became the largest land claims settlement act in history. The room broke out in celebration. Amongst the group were Natives and non-Natives, Republicans and Democrats, elders and young advocates — all congratulating each other for achieving what appeared to be a mutually beneficial goal.
“In the 1960s, we had no influence over anything. Nothing! What we did was damn near a revolution,” remarked Hensley in a 1991 Los Angeles Times interview.
But Alaska Natives’ fight for self-determination and land ownership was far from over. The signing of ANCSA was only the first step in a long process of legal modifications and corporate adaptations, many of which are still being discussed today.
“Everybody says the act is like a constitution; it’s in constant need of interpretation and amendment and change. It’s hardly been engraved in stone. It’s a changing target,” said Guy Martin, a lawyer involved with the settlement act.
The debated additions include everything from shareholder enrollment policies and community funding allocations, to resource development decisions and land sales.
In a speech to the Alaska Federation of Natives after ANCSA’s passage, Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens acknowledged the difficult road ahead, stating, “You will carry the burden not only for your grandchildren to come but for those Indian groups in the Lower 48 that still seek settlement of their claims … the eyes of the nation will be on you as you acquire substantial assets and manage your own affairs.”
ANCSA is a complex piece of legislation. In its simplest terms, it provided Alaska Natives with $962.5 million and title to 44 million acres of land in exchange for the extinguishment of aboriginal land claims. The land and money would go to Native corporations, which would develop the land and issue dividends from the profits to Native shareholders.
“The promise of ANCSA was to return the Native lands to the Alaska Native people. When the legislation was finally passed, it did not return all the land, but it did return land around village areas and compensated for some of the lands taken,” said Irene Rowan, Tlingit, in 2001.
The land and money were distributed among 12 newly created Alaska Native corporations. Later, a 13th regional corporation headquartered in Seattle was added for Alaska Natives who lived in the Lower 48, although this corporation didn’t receive any land. The corporations were divided regionally, based on traditional Alaska Native groups which “[had] a common heritage and share[d] common interests.”
Alaska Native people of one-quarter blood quantum who were born on or before December 18, 1971, could enroll in the specific regional corporation that corresponded to their ethnic, regional, or cultural background. Their descendents, and in some cases, anyone specified in their wills, could inherit the shares. This has made it possible for non-Alaska Natives to become shareholders as well, although it’s rare.
Those who enrolled by the 1971 deadline received 100 shares of stock from their regional corporation, and 100 shares of stock from their village corporation if they resided in one of the specified villages. Annual shareholder dividends depend on each regional corporation’s yearly profit, and as such, it varies across the different regions.
This set up clearly only included a certain grouping of people — those alive during that time frame. In 1991, amendments were added to the legislation to account for this. The additions allowed for corporations to individually vote on whether they would expand shareholder enrollment to descendants of original Alaska Native shareholders. Today, six of the 12 Alaska Native regional corporations have voted to expand their enrollment to Alaska Natives of at least one-quarter blood quantum born after 1971. These shares can not be gifted or inherited.
The 44 million acres of entitled land included both surface and subsurface land ownership. Surface land ownership signifies title to the top, physical layer of land, allowing one to build settlements in the area. Subsurface land ownership includes title over the minerals and natural resources that lay below the top layer of land, an important distinction for the corporations’ business development.
In addition to the 13 regional corporations, ANCSA created 251 village corporations, which fall under the jurisdiction of their overarching regional corporation. Each corporation has different strategies and methods for turning a profit, to varying degrees of success. Generally, the corporations have made money through development of resources on their lands, their assorted subsidiary companies, and through financial investments. The subsidiaries range from IT services, to tourism businesses, to construction companies. Many of the subsidiaries contract with the government through the Small Business Administration’s 8(a) business development program for minority business owners. This program gives tribal nations and Alaska Native corporations advantages in bidding on federal contracts.
Some Native corporations own land with developable natural resources such as timber or oil. These geographically fortunate corporations are subsequently able to participate in natural resource development, leading to higher profits than the other Alaska Native corporations. A notable example is the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, whose designated land sits upon the Arctic’s large petroleum reserves, and whose revenue is in the billions as a result. Unlike most other public corporations, the Native corporations can not make money through the buying and selling of stocks.
In total, the act consisted of 38 sections, containing intricate and complicated bylaws throughout. For example, the 7(i) provision decreed that regional corporations were required to share “70% of revenues generated from the exploitation of subsurface natural resources.”
The most pressing matter ANCSA addressed was the land claims dispute, but the act did more than that. It also affected the economic standing of Alaska Native communities, the legality of Alaska Native subsistence, and the mechanisms for Alaska Native sovereignty.
“This Act was not just an act for Alaskan Natives, it was an economic boom for Alaska, and it continues to be,” Kookesh said in 2001.
Many of these issues are still debated in courts and in boardrooms, with potential for change in the form of legislative amendments. For instance, there is ongoing litigation in the U.S. Supreme Court on whether regional corporations qualify for coronavirus relief funding from the CARES Act. The matter is expected to be determined by October 2021.
Native claims to fish and game is another unresolved topic that continues to be reexamined. In initial ANCSA drafts, there was a provision that explicitly protected Alaska Natives gathering and sharing of food from the land and sea. It was taken out at the last minute.
The specific details of ANCSA hardly illustrate the monumental societal shift that it created in Alaska. Numbers and figures alone can’t speak to that. It is best described through firsthand accounts.
The heads of these new corporations understandably had no experience running multi-million dollar companies — many had no formal business experience at all. As one Sealaska shareholder remarked to The New York Times, ”They set us down and said, ‘You’re a corporation, now act like one.’ It would be like setting a bunch of Wall Street people down in the Arctic and saying, ‘Now go catch a whale.”
Similarly, Alaska Native leader Emil Notti described the unique situation caused when ”you jerk people through a couple of centuries of development, from being subsistence hunters to corporate officers, in a generation,’” during a 1985 The New York Times interview.
But while it was a new structure for the Alaska Native communities who were tasked with running it, it was a new system for seasoned business executives as well. The Alaska Native corporations were designed to do more than make a profit — the legislation had also specified that the companies should promote the social and cultural well-being of Alaska Native people.
“These would be corporations with a conscience, with a soul,” explained Tlingit leader John Borbridge Jr. to The New York Times in 1985.
On top of navigating a new system, Alaska Natives had to deal with double standards and intense scrutiny from the general public. “Alaska Natives are seen as thoughtless rubes if we fail in business and as sold out Brooks Brother capitalists if we succeed,” Paul Ongtooguk wrote.
Today, people often have different interpretations of the purpose and the ultimate role of Alaska Native corporations within the community. Some view it more literally: a large parcel of land and cash, and a set of corporations to utilize it.
“It was always about the land. It was never about money, it was never about scholarships, it was never about cultural activities, it was never about non-business issues,” Kookesh said. “It was always about the land.”
Mike Gravel, a former U.S. Senator for Alaska, who helped lobby for ANCSA, agreed. “The promise of ANCSA was the ability to place wealth and independence in the hands of the Native community, so that they could work their economic will to their own benefit,” he said.
But along with the goal of creating economic opportunity in Native communities, others hoped the corporations would promote cultural survival, community strength, and social well being. Today, many Native corporations fund scholarship programs, language revitalization efforts, cultural events, and personal aid, such as burials.
As Sheri Buretta, a board member of the Chugach Alaska Corporation, remarked, “We are building our businesses for one key reason: to improve the lives of our tribal members and Alaska Native corporation shareholders.”‘
“I think the strongest asset we have now are those people who are getting the $5.1 million in scholarships. We’re educating the next generation of Alaska Native leadership,” Kookesh said.
“The corporation does not have to run the risk of becoming a sinkhole. It can act as a fortress for guarding our spirit, identity, traditions, language, and values. It can both preserve our lands and nurture the uniqueness and continuity of our people,” wrote Hensley in his book.
Regardless of one’s opinion on the role of the corporations in the social arena, the Native corporations remain a critical aspect of the Alaskan landscape, with unforeseen impacts and potential uses still being explored.
“It’s one tool in a tool belt full of tools. It is not perfect. It’s not the total answer for what Alaska Natives need,” said Yup’ik leader Margie Brown in 2001. “It has provided a powerful tool for Alaska Natives that I hope will continue into the future. The ANCSA structure and the entities that have spun out after ANCSA have given Alaska Natives a powerful economic and political voice to speak and be heard.”
Half a century after ANCSA became law, Indian Country Today is producing a series that will be exploring many of these topics. What was ANCSA’s impact on the state’s economic development? How has it adapted in recent years? These are the issues the series aims to explore, while keeping in mind the tremendous efforts of those in the community who worked hard to hold on to Alaska Native lands, during a time when many forces were working against them.
“It’s kind of in vogue to question the wisdom of ANCSA right now, and I would just like to say it’s just as much a generalization to say ANCSA was all right, as it is to say it was all wrong,” remarked Brown when ANCSA turned 30. “It was a social experiment. It continues to be one. But I think those people who participated and nurtured these corporations along should be really proud.”
This story is part of Indian Country Today’s series on the 50th anniversary of the landmark Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Funding for ICT’s ANCSA project is provided in part by the Alaska Center for Excellence in Journalism. Stay updated on ICT’s ANCSA project using #ANCSA50 and at https://indiancountrytoday.com/tag/ancsa-50.