Indigenous Rights and Northern Lands

The Land Claims Settlement Act of 1971

In the final version of the Settlement Act, Native claims to almost all of Alaska were extinguished in exchange for approximately one-ninth of the state's land plus $962.5 million in compensation. Of the latter, $462.5 million was to come from the federal treasury and the rest from oil revenue-sharing. Settlement benefits would accrue to those with at least one-fourth Native ancestory. Of the approximately 80,000 Natives enrolled under ANCSA, those living in villages [approximately 2/3rds of the total] would receive 100 shares in both a village and a regional corporation. The remaining 1/3rd would be "at large" shareholders with 100 shares in a regional corporation plus additional rights to revenue from regional mineral and timber resources. The Alaska Native Allotment Act was revoked and as yet unborn Native children were excluded. The twelve regional corporations within the state would administer the settlement. A thirteenth corporation composed of Natives who had left the state would receive monies but not land.

Along with cash compensation, these corporations could also earn income from their investments. However, the drafting of the bill did not clarify whether the corporations were expected to redistribute the proceeds from their investment income to their sha reholders or whether they could keep them for further investment. A "shared wealth" provision of the Act [Section 7(i)], stipulated that 70 percent of income received by regional corporations from their resources were to be shared annually with the other corporations. To protect the land from estrangement, no Native corporate shares could be sold to non-Natives for 20 years - until 1991 - at which time all special restrictions would be removed. Then, non-Natives would be elgible to become shareholders, la nds would be liable for taxation by the state, and the regionals would be open to the possibility of hostile takeovers.

Under the supervision of the regionals, village level corporations would also select lands and administer local monies received under the settlement act. Although village corporations could choose to be non-profit entities if they so wished, all selected the profit-making category.

With the President's signature on the settlement act, the relationship between the Native peoples of Alaska and the land was completely transformed. No longer was ownership directly linked to Native government. Instead, by conveying land title to the 12 r egional corporations and 200 local village ones chartered under the laws of the state of Alaska, all ties to traditional or IRA "tribal" governments were bypassed. With the President's signature, Native Alaskans whose earlier use and occupancy had made th em co-owners of shared land, now became shareholders in corporate-owned land.

To what extent did this legislation reflect the hopes and aspirations of Alaska's Native population? At the time of passage, most Native people were unaware of the complexities of the bill, but looked forward to having their own land and additional monies that could be used to improve their low standard of living. Alaska Federation of Native leaders were enthusiastic at the large settlement, feeling they had achieved a considerable accomplishment under highly adverse conditions. The limitations in the bil l stemmed primarily from pressures placed on them by the government and petroleum industry forcing them to make compromises not of their choosing. They also saw the corporate solution both as a way to remove themselves from the bureaucratic yoke of the Bu reau of Indian Affairs and as a new tool in the struggle to maintain their culture.

Not all, however, took an optimistic view. Critics feared that eventually the regionals could become conduits for larger multi-national corporations, enabling the latter to take over valuable lands and resources currently held in Native hands. Loss of this land would then be followed by destruction of Native culture and the rise of new class divisions mirroring those of the larger society. By this means, the government's long term goal of assimilating Alaska's Native populati on into the larger mainstream would finally be achieved. As summed up by Fred Bigjim, an Inupiat educator from Nome who had once been a close aide of Eben Hopson, "What is happening to Native people in Alaska is not a new story; it is a new chapter in an old story."

Still, whether one supported the bill or opposed it, all agreed that the implications of the land claims settlement for Alaska's Natives were profound. Given the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay, even more pronounced changes were to occur on the North Slop e.Due to this circumstance, the Inupiat and other Alaska Natives were able to bring into being a unique development strategy - one which combined elements of both adaptation and resistance to the steadily mounting pressures impinging on them from what th ey formerly referred to as the world "outside."

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