Indigenous Rights and Northern Lands


"What, if anything does the General Government owe the natives of Alaska, and i n what form shall the payment be made? It is a problem great in its moral as well as in its practical aspects. Having largely destroyed their food supplies, altered their environment, and changed their standards and methods of life, what does a nation that has drawn products valued at $300,000,000 owe to the natives of Alaska? Will this nation pay its debt on this account?"

Remarks made in 1909 by Major General A. W. Greely, former senior military officer in the Territory, in his volume Handbook of Alaska.


Threats to Native Lands

The question of how to resolve the issue of Native rights to land was first presented to the U.S. Department of Interior's Bureau of Land Management [BLM] in 1961 by Athabascan Indians living in the Minto Lakes region of Interior Alaska, south of the Arctic Circle. Seeing the site as potentially profitable for future oil production and immediately valuable as a recreation area, the state requested a large parcel of land near Minto Village. Further arrangements were made to build a new access road to the area for Fairbanks city residents and visiting sportsmen.

The Minto Athasbascans immediately filed a protest with the U.S. Department of Interior asking them to protect their rights by turning down the state's application. Shortly thereafter, sportsmen, conservationists, biologists, and other interested parties joined in the debate. Finally, in 1963, all the groups involved sat down with state representatives to seek a solution. At this gathering, the Minto Village chief, Richard Frank, argued that the proposed recreational development would destroy the Native w ay of life and suggested that the project be undertaken elsewhere where increased hunting pressure would not threaten local subsistence. "A village is at stake," he said. "Ask yourself this question: Is a recreation area worth the future of a village?"

No answer was forthcoming, everyone eventually acknowledging that the issue of who was to control the land could only be decided at the federal level. As the state continued selecting lands in other sections of Alaska, similar protests were filed by Nati ve villages and associations. In 1963 alone, one thousand Natives from 24 villages petitioned Interior Secretary Stewart Udall urging that he install a "land freeze" on all land transfers from the federal government to the state until Native rights had been clarified.

As pressure mounted on the federal government to resolve the issue of Native lands, Alaska's congressional delegation in Washington put forward a number of proposals. Senator Ernest Gruening recommended that the problem be taken up by the U.S. Court of Claims. Senator Bartlett thought state land transfers should proceed without waiting for the land claims issue to be resolved - a proposition strongly endorsed by state officials. Leaders of the Association on American Indian Affairs, various religious groups, and similar supporters of Native American interests, urged that no land transfers be awarded until the claims were settled. But what was still missing in this increasingly national level debate was a forceful, articulate presentation from Alaska's Native people themselves.

By 1965, several regional Native organizations, including the Tanana Chiefs and southwest Alaska Council of Village Presidents, the Fairbanks Native Association, and the Cook Inlet [Anchorage] Native Association had been formed to address common interests including land, village housing, education, welfare, and the need for improved health facilities.

A year later, at a meeting organized by a young Barrow Inupiat, Charles "Etok" Edwardsen Jr, the Arctic Slope Native Association came into being, the members of which immediately voted to place their claim on 58 million acres - virtually all the land north of the Brooks Range - based on aboriginal use and occupancy. Board members of the new Association were elected from Kaktovik, Point Hope, Anaktuvik, and other North Slope villages.

Then, in the fall of 1966, over 250 leaders from seventeen regional and local associations came together in the first state-wide meeting of Alaska Natives. Overcoming a long history of distrust, the Eskimo, Indian and Aleut representatives at this meeting unanimously recommended that a freeze be imposed on all federal lands until Native claims were resolved; that Congress enact legislation settling the claims; and that there be consultation with Natives at all levels prior to any congressional action.

In addition to gaining experience in how to overcome their differences, Native leaders at this conference also learned another important fact - that unity brings political recognition and strength. Astonished at the attention given the conference by well- known state politicans, one Native leader observed, "If any delegate was seen paying for his own meal, it was probably because he chose to dine alone!" Next year, following a series of additional meetings, the Alaska Federation of Natives [AFN] w as formally brought into being, with offices located in Anchorage. While problems of cultural differences, distinct languages, regional vested interests, and limited funding would continue to plague the new organization, it was nevertheless able to provid e a convincing united voice in the effort of Alaska's Natives to achieve a land claims settlement from the U.S. Congress.

Land Freeze

The first positive breakthrough for the Native population occurred later in 1966, when Interior secretary Udall imposed a "land freeze" on all federal land transfers to the state until Congress acted on the claims issue. Aghast, the governor of Alaska filed a lawsuit requiring secretary Udall to transfer lands to the state. Concurrently, further claims were made by other Native villages and associations. By 1967, 20 percent more Alaska land had been claimed than actually existed! Given the seriousness of the impass, federal action had to be taken. In the summer of 1967, two bills were introduced to Congress to resolve the issue. One was sponsored by the Department of Interior. The other had the support of the Alaska Federation of Natives. Both requested money and land, but the former authorized a maximum of 50,000 acres per village while the latter made no mention of a maximum, the actual amount to be determined by the subsistence needs of the particular people in question.

The state, too, faced a potentially severe crisis. State revenues were declining, partly because the freeze prevented the issuance of oil leases on federal lands from which it was to receive 90 percent of federal revenue. It also recognized the growing political importance of the AFN and that Native claims would precede the obtaining of their remaining public domain lands. Thus, Governor Hickel proposed that the two work together to achieve a satisfactory settlement for both. The resulting state/AFN Land Claims Task Force report recommended that 40 million acres of land be conveyed to Native villages in fee simple [full legal ownership]; that all lands used for hunting and fishing continue to be available for that purpose for one hundred years; that the Native Allottment Act remain in force; that 10 percent of income from oil sales/leases of certain lands be paid to Natives the total of which would be at least $65 million; and that the settlement be carried out by business corporations organized by villages and regions.

Senator Gruening introduced the new Task Force bill into Congress in 1968 and arranged for public hearings by the senate Interior Committee to be held in Anchorage. Encouraged to attend by the AFN and the Native-run Tundra Times, villagers from Barrow in the north to Ketchikan in the southeast selected spokespeople to attend the hearings. The resulting speeches by Natives from across the state were consistent in demanding rights to their land.

Major opposition came from the Alaska Sportsmen's Council and the Alaska Miner's Association. The former objected to the granting of land but approved a cash settlement. The spokesman for the latter association was opposed to both, stating that "...neither the United States, the State of Alaska, nor any of us here gathered as individuals owes the Natives one acre of ground or one cent of the taxpayer's money." Underlying the sportsmen's opposition was the threat of reduced access to hunting and fishing lands, whether for individual or commercial interest. Miners and others averse to a land settlement feared that the loss of 40 million acres would dramatically reduce opportunities for the state's future economic development. No one, however, was fully prepared for the momentous oil discovery that was soon to occur hundreds of miles to the northeast, or how that event would reshape the whole debate over Alaska's land and the future of its people.

Discovery of Oil

Following World War II, the U.S. oil industry instituted an extensive search for Alaskan petroleum. In 1957, at Swanson River on the Kenai Peninsula not far from Anchorage, it succeeded. Richfield Oil corporation drilled an important commercial well that was soon producing 900 barrels per day. This discovery - along with other encouraging petroleum and gas explorations - was crucial in helping convince Congress that the territory did indeed have the economic potential to become the 49th state.

In the next decade, geologists explored most of Alaska's federal and state lands including those on the North Slope. Then, in the winter of 1965-66, after obtaining approval from the state, Exxon and Atlantic Richfield Oil companies flew in oil drilling equipment to an isolated inland site 330 miles north of Fairbanks. There in January of 1967, they drilled 13,517 feet without success. Pushing 60 miles further northward, a second well was drilled at Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic coast. On December 26th, 1967, in 30 degree below zero weather, an Exxon geologist recalled what happened next: "We could hear the roar of natural gas like four jumbo jets flying right overhead...as flare from a two- inch pipe shot at least 30 feet straight into that wind. It was a mighty encouraging sign that something big was down below." That something big was oil-rich sadlerochit sand that had been deposited 200 million years before when the North Slope was a tropical wilderness. It represented the largest petroleum deposit ever encountered in North America, with an estimate of 9.6 billion barrels of recoverable oil.


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

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