Indigenous Rights and Northern Lands

Who Should Own the Land?

Acknowledging the importance of safeguarding the land, most AFN leaders nevertheless were strongly opposed to the idea that the IRA be the means to achieve it. To protect the land was one thing. To have it permanently held "in trust" by an a bureaucratic Bureau of Indian Affairs was another.

The lure of corporate power and wealth also held considerable appeal to Native leaders who had been frustrated by years of poverty. If the claims settlement meant opening the door to the economic mainstream and enjoying its increased standard of living, then it was time to learn how to use the tools of that structure. While the corporate model had its problems, its appeal to the large majority of AFN leaders remained substantial.

Thus, most urban-based Native leaders saw the land as "the key to a brighter future." As expressed by Emil Notti, AFN's first president, in corporate hands the land could enable the Native Alaskans to 'actively participate in the new economic development of the state.' In similar manner, cash compensation flowing to the regional corporations could provide scholarships and in other ways assist shareholders be more effective in adapting to modern economic conditions.

For these reasons, the AFN leadership eventually accepted the corporate model as the best means for managing the land and money expected from the settlement. Turning then to the highly charged question of how such settlement monies and lands were to be distributed, a decision was made that the initial dispersal of funds should be allocated according to the population size of the 12 regions.

However, the Arctic Slope Native Association was so opposed to this latter proposal that it withdrew from the AFN - the executive director Charlie Edwardsen Jr, specifically accusing the organization of promoting "welfare legislation" rather than a land settlement. Only if the regions with the most land area were to receive the largest amount of land and money, would the ASNA rejoin the Federation. As Joe Upicksoun, Association president, explained to the leaders of the other regions: "We realize each of you has pride in his own land. By accident of nature, right now the eyes of the nation and the world are centered on the North Slope...Without intending to belittle your land, the real reason for the entire settlement is the oil, which by accident is on our land, not yours."

After further discussion, the AFN offered to revise its plan and the Arctic Slope association rejoined the negotiation process. Under the new proposal, money received from Congress was to be divided by size of land lost through the extinguishment of title, while funds from future mineral developments would be shared among the regions. Given this arrangement, the Arctic Slope would retain half of the revenues it received from mineral development and distribute the remainder to other regions based on size of population.

Finally, by 1971, it appeared that most parties in the debate were ready to seek a resolution. The one additional factor required to shape the final settlement was the support of the petroleum industry. Given the large financial committment made in oil exploration and bidding, the companies were anxious to see a return on their investment. When their efforts to build a transAlaska pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez on Alaska's southwestern coast were blocked by new Native claims, the industry realized that its future profits were dependent on the land question being resolved. Working closely with the White House and in conjunction with the AFN, they allied themselves with the Native movement. Shortly thereafter, a congressional resolution was at hand.

In April of 1971, President Richard Nixon proposed to Congress a settlement in which Alaska Natives were to receive 44 million acres of land, $500 million in compensation from the federal treasury, and an additional $500 million in mineral revenues from lands to which title was to be extinguished. Major recipients would be 12 regional corporations. After a summer of writing, both the Senate and House passed separate bills in support of the president's proposal. Following a final conference committee review to resolve differences between the two bills, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was passed.

Nixon, knowing that several provisions, such as the issue of taxation, had been opposed by the AFN, wanted a symbolic statement of Native support. The AFN then called a meeting of 600 delegates. At the conclusion of a lively debate, they voted overwhelmingly in support of the bill. The one Native association delegate voting no was from the Arctic Slope. The "no" vote was in opposition to Congress' decision to use size of population as the key criteria for the allocation of land and money rather than size and value of the land. In a letter sent to President Nixon just prior to the signing of the act, the Association's president and executive director stated: The only method that "...even begins to approach to type of allocation a court would make, [is one] which would take into consideration not only the size of the area claimed, but its value." Rejecting the appeal by the Arctic Slope Native Association, President Nixon signed the bill into law on December 18, 1971.


The Land Claims Settlement Act of 1971

ArcticCircle Home Page