Indigenous Rights and Northern Lands

Alaska Natives and the Land Claims Settlement Act of 1971


Norman Chance

"Standing here and looking far off into the Northwest, I see the Russian as he busily occupies himself in establishing seaports and towns and fortifications on the verge of this continent...and I can say, Go on, and build up your outposts all along the coast, even up to the Arctic Ocean -- they will yet become the outposts of my own country."

Remarks made by William H. Seward at the 1860 Republican Convention, St. Paul, Minnesota, on the future of Alaska.


In certain fundamental respects, the history of western development is a history of the accumulation of capital. With the rise of capitalism in England, the demand for raw materials, land, and labor increased dramatically. Quickly outstripping England's ability to obtain such resources within its own borders, the country's new entrepreneurial leaders had to look elsewhere. In an effort to compete with Britain for world resources and markets, other European countries followed suit.

In the Alaskan Arctic, the search for capital accumulation largely followed this classic historic pattern. Russian penetration of Alaska effectively began in 1741 when Vitus Bering, a Dane on a mission for the Russian government to determine where Asia ended and America began, sailed across the Bering Strait from Siberia. Significantly, the survivors of this expedition returned with valuable fur seal and sea otter skins along with information regarding the habits of animal life among Alaska's newly discovered Aleutian islands and offshore waters. With these pelts bringing very high prices on the world market, the Czarist regime recognized that it could expand its revenue considerably. In a few short years, large numbers of Russian traders began cruising these waters, conscripting Native Aleut labor and demanding from them annual tributes of fur.

While the Russians were pushing east into Alaska, the British were expanding west. Almost a century earlier, England, not unlike the government of Russia, had turned over vast territories of Central Canada to the Governor and Company of Adventurers - better known as the Hudson's Bay Company. Protected and supported by the constabulary, this early corporation was able to extract conditions of exchange that generally resulted in a significant transfer of wealth from northern Canada back to England.

For the Russian leaders of this era, maintaining direct sovereignty over the land was secondary to expanding commercial operations. However, by the 1860s, even these ventures had become more difficult. Faced with a decline in fur bearing mammals, the Russsian-American Company was in financial trouble. A recent war with the British in the Crimea had also drained the national treasury and defense of their newly obtained eastern possessions appeared less and less viable. To increase their liquidity and reduce their colonial responsibility, Russia offered to sell Alaska to the United States government for $7,200,000.

In the spring of 1867, without consulting the original occupants of the region or obtaining title through purchase or treaty, the sale was completed. The one brief reference made in the treaty to Alaska's Native people addressed neither the issue of status, rights, or land ownership. It simply stated that "The uncivilized tribes will be subject to such laws and regulations as the United States may, from time to time, adopt in regard to aboriginal tribes in that country." From that moment on, the threat to Alaska Native rights shifted from Russia to the United States. But it was not until the passing of the Alaska Statehood Act of 1958 that the issue was directly addressed by the U.S. Congress. This legislation, while acknowledging the right of Natives to lands they used and occupied, authorized the new state government to select for its own use 103 million acres from the Territory's public domain. With each selection by the state, more Native lands were placed in jeopardy.

Threats to Native Lands
The Emerging Role of the Alaska Federation of Natives
Competing Discourses on Development
Who Should Own the Land?
The Land Claims Settlement Act of 1971
Additional References

ArcticCircle Home Page