Already home to about 40 percent of the federally recognized Indian tribes in the United States, Alaska might soon be able to claim more.
The U.S. Department of the Interior wants to amend federal law to allow for official recognition of tribes or bands of Alaska Natives that might have been missed in 1994 when the agency unilaterally granted tribal status to most of the state’s rural villages.
A draft of the proposed regulations notes that tribes in the Alaska Territory and later the state of Alaska have always been viewed differently from those in the lower 48.
Eighty three years ago, Interior provided Alaska Natives instructions on how to organize under the IRA, but those instructions did not fully address which entities would be eligible under the “‘common bond’ standard,” according to the draft.
Interior said it last year asked the advice of the state’s existing tribal leaders on this subject – eight of whom responded – and came away with the opinion a formal standard for recognizing new tribes is warranted.
“The proposed rule would require that an Alaska Native entity seeking Federal acknowledgment under the Alaska IRA submit a ‘documented petition’ as currently required,” the draft says. “As part of such ‘documented petition,’ an Alaska Native entity would additionally need to submit evidence establishing a connection to an entity or group that satisfied the Alaska IRA’s ‘common bond’ standard as of the statute’s enactment on May 1, 1936.”
A brief history
Native affairs in Alaska are complicated by the fact the U.S. government never negotiated treaties with the Tlingits of the state’s Southeast, the Athabascans of the Interior, the Aleuts of the Aleutian Islands, or the Eskimos of the Arctic and much of Bering and Gulf coasts.
Mainly this was due to the frigid reality of the north. The waves of white settlers that swept across North America from east to west to forever alter the continent’s demographics never reached Alaska. There were repeated rushes of gold seekers from the late 1800s into the early 1900s, but most of them just came and went.
Throughout most of history and prehistory, the north has remained largely unpopulated. Many would consider it so to this day with most of Alaska’s 734,000 residents clustered in or near the Anchorage-Fairbanks rail belt and the rest of state still wild.
But today’s population is more than three times larger than at Statehood.
In 1960, the state numbered 226,000 people, about half the population of the Virginia colony in 1770. With so few people scattered across so much land then and before, Natives and whites lived in general harmony under American rule after the Alaska Purchase from Russia, although there was plenty of discrimination as there was in much of the country before the Civil Rights Movement.
Still, the Alaska Territory was a leader in putting an end to such inexplicable unfairness. Pushed by Native legislators Frank Peratrovich and Andrew Hope, the Territorial Legislature in 1945 passed an anti-discrimination law ending discrimination against Native people.
Alaska was then a remote and depopulating territory on the American frontier. After a brief boom fueled by a World War II build-up that saw the Japanese invade the Aleutian Islands, the 1950 population of the state fell to 128,643 people with more than 70 percent of them living in rural areas.
Anchorage, the state’s largest city, was home to just over 11,000 people, although the number swelled to 32,000 in the “Anchorage District” which then included the Kenai, Kasilof and Tyonek villages. Juneau, the state’s second-largest city at the time, was home to less than 6,000.
The state’s Third Judicial District, which basically covered all of Arctic and Northwest Alaska from Anatuvuk Pass west to Barrow and then south past Kotzebue and Nome to include the villages near the mouth of the Yukon River, supported only 16,309 people.
Bethel was home to 651; Wasilla (later to become famous as the hometown of polebrity Sarah Palin), 585; and Homer, 307; Eagle River, today a bustling Anchorage bedroom community of nearly 30,000, did not yet exist.
Just over a quarter of the state’s population was labeled “Aboriginal stock – Aleut, Eskimo, Indian” by the U.S. Census at the time. There were more than one and a half males to every female, and in rural areas the ratio was closer to two to one.
The discovery of huge new, Alaska oil fields – starting on the Kenai Peninsula in 1957 – would rapidly change all of that. The development of the Kenai’s Swanson River oil started the state growing in the 1960s.
A new, younger generation of Alaska Native leaders envisioned the future, looked at the past, and decided that though the U.S. had purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, the government had never compensated their ancestors a cent for taking the land.
With the State of Alaska just beginning selection of the 104 million acres promised it by the Statehood Act, the Fairbanks-based Tanana Chiefs Conference petitioned Interior to freeze the land selections until Native claims could be resolved, and in 1966, Interior Secretary Stewart Udall did so.
The state sued Udall the next year, arguing his actions illegal, but at the same time began negotiating with Native leaders on some sort of land settlement. The U.S. Supreme Court would eventually rule against the state in 1970 on the Udall suit, but by then attention has already shifted to what was to become a de facto treaty with Alaska’s Native peoples: The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
A state task force in 1967 brought together Native leaders and local, state and federal officials to work on a settlement. A year later the group chaired by Native leader Willie Hensley suggested Natives set up statewide, regional and village business corporations to accept title to 40 million acres of land and 10 percent of the income from the sale or lease of oil rights, with a minimum payment of at least $65 million, according to the official history of the Tanana Chiefs.
The eventual settlement differed from that outline, but was in many ways similar. The Claims Act approved by Congress in 1971 and signed by President Richard Nixon created 12 regional corporations plus more than 100 village corporations. The corporations were granted the right to select 44 million acres of land for their use and paid $962.5 million dollars.
“There were great celebrations in Alaska with the passage of ANCSA,” the Alaska Humanities Forum now records. “Native leaders took pride in the fact that Alaska Natives would have official title to land they had always thought of as theirs. State leaders cleared a hurdle to economic development and the state land selection process. Alaskans and non-Alaskans alike applauded the measure of justice given to Alaska’s Native people who had long been ignored, discriminated against and taken for granted.”
Reality sets in
Within a decade, the party was over as most of the corporations discovered that business development in Alaska can be extremely difficult. And by the early 1980s many were struggling financially.
In a 20-year review of ANCSA published in the Canadian journal Études/Inuit/Studies in 1992, the late Steven McNabb wrote that “in his 1979 overview of Native claims in Alaska that appeared in this journal, (Ernest) Burch (Jr.) opened his analysis by noting that the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 had not settled much. In several important respects, this observation is still valid in 1992. The historical background of ANCSA has not changed, but a new and recent history is now unfolding in ways that were not anticipated 20 years ago.”
By then, with the state’s Native population rapidly growing and the opportunities for Alaska business development outside of the oil patch limited, it was becoming obvious that no matter what the corporations did they were not going to become business entities capable of supporting all Alaska Natives.
The future looked rather grim as the corporations rolled into the middle of the 1980s with global oil prices slumping and Alaska sliding into recession.
“Estimates of losses for 1983 alone reach $150 million,” McNabb wrote. “Since Alaskan economic conditions have worsened since the time of these surveys, it is unlikely that the prospects of ANCSA corporations have improved. Revenues from Prudhoe Bay operations which fund about 85 percent of the cost of state programs and capital improvements declined after 1985, and since all ANCSA corporations have invested in Alaskan businesses some of their investments are probably riskier now than in the past.”
The late Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, deserves much of the credit for helping bail the corporations out, first by convincing Congress to amend ANCSA to allow Native selection of mineral-rich lands originally closed and then to create a law allowing the corporations to sell corporate losses for profit to other companies looking for tax write-offs.
As McNabb noted, most of the money the corporations made prior to 1992 “came from resource revenues ($363 million) from lands that were not originally open to ANCSA selection but which were made available subsequent to 1971” and through “sales of net operating losses (NOLs) to other corporations between 1986 and 1988. Sales of NOLs probably saved at least two corporations (Bering Straits and Chugach Alaska) from liquidation….NOL sales provided immense benefits in some cases; Cook Inlet Region, Inc. (CIRI) sales of NOLs netted over $13,000 per shareholder.”
The corporations would eventually grow to become the state’s now most successful business, but while that was happening,, a tribal movement that saw things differently from ANCSA corporate leaders was growing in the state as well.
A 1985 ANCSA Study by Interior helped fuel it. The study concluded that while the corporations had created some local jobs and in some cases helped Alaska Natives obtain educations, the “real improvements in the standard of living,” as McNabb put it, “and economic quality of life for Alaska Natives were limited. Those improvements that did occur were overshadowed by improvements that can be traced to impacts of government and, most importantly, oil development.
“Alaska Natives expected to see changes in their economic and social quality of life, rural economic development, jobs for shareholders, self-determination, preservation of lands and traditions, and protection of subsistence. The analysis has shown that some modest changes in quality of life occurred, some rural economic development was initiated, and some jobs for shareholders were generated. Self-determination, preservation of lands and traditions, and protection of subsistence may have been an indirect consequence of ANCSA in some instances, but by and large those are unfulfilled goals that are subject to as much (if not more) controversy today as they were 20 years ago.”
Interior’s solution to those problems was to in 1993 unilaterally create tribes in Alaska, but not in the form of large groups identified by shared cultures, societies or languages – such as the Eskimos, Athabascans, Aleuts and Tlingits – or even by the 12, broad regional collectivities of ANCSA.
Instead it granted tribal status to most of the state’s rural villages, thus qualifying them for federal aid and services.
The move started in the last days of the term of President H. W. Bush, a Republican, with a legal opinion declaring tribes existed as separate entities in Alaska despite the ANCSA settlement, and it was cemented in place under President Bill Clinton, a Democrat.
“On October 21, 1993, during the term of Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Ada Deer, the Department of the Interior issued a list of tribes in the United States eligible for services from the Department. Previous DOI lists included Alaska tribes as tribal entities, which left the status of tribes unclear. The 1993 list named the Alaska villages recognized under ANCSA as tribes, and specifically stated that they have ‘all the immunities and privileges available to other federally acknowledged Indian tribes by virtue of their government-to-government relationship with the United States as well as the responsibilities, powers, limitations and obligations of such tribes.’
“The lengthy preamble to the list explicitly stated that: ‘This list is published to clarify that the villages and regional tribes listed below are not simply eligible for services, or recognized as tribes for certain narrow purposes. Rather, they have the same governmental status as other federally acknowledged Indian tribes by virtue of their status as Indian tribes with a government-to-government relationship with the United States; are entitled to the same protection, immunities, and privileges as other acknowledged tribes; have the right, subject to general principles of Federal Indian law, to exercise the same inherent and delegated authorities available to other tribes; and are subject to the same limitations imposed by law on other tribes.’ (Bureau of Indian Affairs, List of Indian Entities Recognized and Eligible to Receive Services from the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs, Oct. 1993).”
Since then, various tribes have been trying to leverage that decision into increased federal funding for rural Alaska and more political power there. The state has generally supported funding efforts and regularly added to them, but the power struggle has ebbed and flowed.
A string of Republican governors – Frank Murkowski, Sarah Palin and Sean Parnell – were not receptive to tribal demands for more authority over the land and people in remote parts of the state.
Gov. Bill Walker – a former Republican who cut a deal with longtime Democrat and Native leader Byron Mallott (a man whose image later tainted by scandal) – was more receptive. Where exactly new Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy stands is still not clear.
So too the consequences of Alaska’s increasing tribalization. Some worry it could Balkanize the 49th state. All this on the eve of an important milestone.
Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the Claims Act. For some it will be a cause for celebration. Native corporations now dominate the list of the state’s most successful businesses, and with that success comes political power in a capitalist world.
It can be fairly argued the corporations have had more influence on Alaska’s development as a state than anything other than oil.
But one problem some of those corporations face going forward is opposition to Alaska development from environmentalists who would prefer Alaska remain the country’s last, undeveloped wilderness, and in some cases, those environmentalists have found allies in tribes who see little benefit from the Claims Act in rural Alaska.
These differing visions are already dividing the Alaska Federation of Natives. How all the parties will react to Interior’s lastest proposal only time will tell.