ANCSA: What Political Process?
On December 18, 1971 the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was formally enacted by the Congress of the United States to settle the land claims of Alaska Native people. The timing of this settlement was driven by the largest oil discovery in North American history. The goal was to get that oil to market as quickly as possible. Native claims to traditional lands stood between the oil companies and millions of barrels of 'black gold.'
The United States as a government, had never met with the Native peoples of Alaska to resolve their land and water claims. Alaska Native lands had simply been taken, by various agencies and organizations recognized by the U.S. government. For example, the lands that were used for forts and public properties were conveyed by the 1867 purchase of Alaska from the Russians. Mining districts in Alaska were created via the authority of the Mining Act of 1874. The U.S. government took land in Alaska to build the railroad during World War I. Some of the lands claimed under these various governmental authorities were disputed by Alaska Natives - they were lands that had been traditionally used and occupied. The only way to resolve the arguments over claims has to be negotiated between Alaska Natives and the U.S. Congress
Since the early 1900s, Alaska Natives had formed various organizations to try to protect Alaska Native communities, peoples and rights. The Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB) was one of the earliest. It is still one of the most important in Alaska history. The ANB had originally been founded by Sheldon Jackson and Presbyterian missionaries to civilize and assimilate Alaska Natives. However, over time, as Natives became more active in the organization, the agenda changed. By World War I the ANB was working for citizenship and tribal rights for Native peoples.
Some organizations were formed during territorial times and some followed statehood. These Alaska Native organizations shared many common features - they were all formed voluntarily with the idea of promoting the well being of Alaska Native peoples. They wanted to protect the continuing rights of Alaska Natives so they could determine for themselves the shape of the future. Membership in these voluntary organizations was informal. Representation varied widely from group to group.
In 1966 some of these actve Alaska Natives came together to form a statewide, voluntary, non profit association. Their goal was to promote the common interests of Alaska Natives in a coordinated effort to get a fair settlement of Alaska Native land rights. This group was called the Alaska Federation of Natives Association. With the discovery of oil the U.S. government became intensely interested in settling the land claims. In 1971, in a special convention of the Alaska Federation of Natives Association five hundred and eleven (511) delegates approved the final draft of a Congressional legislative settlement. Fifty-six (56) delegates voted against the settlement. (Delegates from the North Slope made up a disproportionate number of those opposed.) It is also worth noting that President Nixon, even before the vote of the Alaska Federation of Natives, had already signed the legislation into law.
The legitimacy of the vote, with five hundred and sixty seven delegates representing all Native peoples, was questioned at the time and is still. There were no village meetings; the vote was never ratified or debated by Alaska Native communities or individuals. The discovery of oil had moved the resolution of land claims to 'fast forward'. Many would say that the political process was hijacked. Most would at least agree that the process was not perfect.
Many argue that the past is past; the decision was made; everyone needs to move on. Others disagree and argue that the ramifications of this imperfect process have grown over time and that it is even more imperative than ever to revisit "the vote."
The establishment of a village and regional corporate structure under ANCSA shifted the basis for political power in Alaska Native politics. The regional corporations were the 'winners'. They became the ones responsible for holding all the remaining Alaska Native lands, as well as the monies that had been received in payment for the land. The tribal governments received neither land nor money.
Unfortunately, some believe these big decisions occurred 'behind the scenes.' The public records were never made public. Within a year's time (1972) the Alaska Federation of Natives Association had become the Alaska Federation of Natives Incorporated, and the interests of the regional corporations became part of that organization. With the phenomenal economic success of some of the regional corporations the influence of their delegates expanded within AFN and in Washington, DC. While AFN is set up to represent both the interests of the tribal governments and the corporations, it seems to many that AFN has become lopsided in its support for corporate interests. Some believe that a powerful alliance among Alaska's Congressional delegation, regional corporation leaders and AFN leaders has developed and that their agenda is stacked to make sure they will continue to hold the power.
In the meantime the voices of tribal governments have been weakened. Tribal governments are the traditional means by which Alaska Native individuals participated in the political process. After ANCSA Alaska Natives continued to hold tribal affiliation, but also became shareholders in regional and village corporations. Some competition and tension has happened over time. For example, tribes and corporations sometime compete for certain federal grant money.
Some tribes have requested that certain lands be permanently protected for their cultural value by being "retribalized", or returned to the tribes. Efforts to return lands to tribal governments have not been supported as amendments to ANCSA. The main argument against retribalization of Native land from Alaska's Congressional delegation is, "You voted for ANCSA in 1971." This argument implies that there was a system in Alaska at that time for Alaska Natives to accept or reject ANCSA. The facts are that most Alaska Natives did not vote in 1971, there was no system to select delegates, and there were some Natives who were not aware that there was a vote.
Some of the regional corporations seems to want it both ways. They say that they represent the interests of the larger Alaska Native communities. In many ways they do. But when a community challenges the corporation about a certain issue of interest to them that may be in conflict with the corporate mission, the corporation will probably respond that their responsibility to shareholders is to make as much profit as they can.
It is important that tribal governments continue to serve as a balance to the corporations. We cannot rewrite history, nor deny Alaska Natives the right to be full participants in the political process. It may now be necessary to review the events of 1971 as a reminder that there was no referendum and as a consequence many Alaska Natives continue to feel alienated and without adequate representation.
1971 was a rush. Land, money, power - the political and economic structures of Alaska Native society were dramatically reshaped and redirected. Those five hundred and sixty-six delegates were under enormous pressure. They made tremendous personal sacrifices to do difficult work and do the best job possible. They accomplished a tremendous amount. At the same time, some of the provisions and the consequences of ANCSA that are now clear should be open for debate. Power is an integral part of politics. So is the balance of power.