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  6.  | Five Left Out: A Generational Fight for Southeast Land Claims

Five Left Out: A Generational Fight for Southeast Land Claims

by Sep 11, 2023Alaska Native, Magazine

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In 1971, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) divided 44 million acres of land among more than 200 regional, village, and urban corporations to resolve land claims throughout Alaska. While many of these Alaska Native corporations (ANCs) have since made extraordinary strides thanks to these allotments, five communities were left out.

Haines, Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, and Tenakee are treated differently under Section 16 of ANCSA. The law notes that the Tlingit and Haida Settlement of 1959 had already awarded $7.5 million to tribes in Southeast, and land ownership patterns were considerably different there than in the rest of the state.

Other Southeast cities were included in ANCSA: Goldbelt, Inc. is the urban corporation for Juneau, and Ketchikan’s neighboring village, Saxman, is represented by the Cape Fox Corporation. A 1993 report by the UAA Institute of Social and Economic Research, which was mandated by Congress, found no blatant reason or explanation for the exclusion of the five landless communities.

Land for the Landless

The fight to amend the ANCSA exclusion has ranged from the hills and valleys of Southeast to Capitol Hill itself.

In 1997, Representative Don Young introduced the Unrecognized Southeast Alaska Native Communities Recognition and Compensation Act (H.R. 3231), which was the first-ever federal legislation introduced on behalf of the landless communities to include maps showing specific lands proposed for conveyance.

Young has passed on, but the issue still lives. In June of this year, Alaska’s congressional delegation introduced yet another bill, using the same title as the 1997 act. It would amend ANCSA to allow the five communities to form urban corporations, and each corporation would receive 23,040 acres, or one township, of federal land.

According to Representative Mary Sattler Peltola’s press secretary Sam Erickson, decades of inaction by Congress has resulted in unfulfilled promises to the landless communities of Southeast.

“There is actually more financing available for keeping trees where they are and selling carbon credits… The areas that we’ve chosen would also make wonderful ecotourism stops.”

—Harriet Brouillette, Board Member, Southeast Alaska Landless Corporation

Haines was named for the chairwoman of the committee that raised funds for the first Christian mission built in 1881 at the site of a trading post, but the Chilkat Valley had been inhabited long before by the Chilkoot people. More than 10 percent of the town’s population of around 1,700 is Native American, according to the latest US census.

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“ANCSA was intended to address Alaska Native land claims by conveying land that could be used to provide for the economic, social, and cultural well-being of Alaska Native peoples, but because they were left out, these five landless communities never got the opportunities for economic development or cultural preservation that other communities did,” Erickson says. “Representative Peltola believes that the federal government must keep the promises it makes to Alaskans, and providing these lands is a crucial step to empowering these communities.”

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Jaeleen Kookesh, vice president of public policy for Sealaska regional corporation, has spent the past twenty-six years of her professional career working on a legislative solution for landless claims. “With the support of the Alaska delegation, we have made it a top priority and made a concerted effort to advocate for this bill’s introduction in the most recent congresses,” she says. “This was a longstanding priority of Representative Don Young, and when Representative Peltola was elected, she continued to advocate for this legacy issue.”

Of Alaska’s newest member of Congress, Erickson says, “She is glad to carry on the legacy of Don Young and others who have striven to fix this injustice.”

The Path to Recognition

After the bill’s introduction in June, it was moved to the US House Committee on Natural Resources and the US Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee for review. If hearings take place in September after the legislative recess, the bill could undergo potential markup before winter break, before going to the floors of the House and Senate for a vote.

“We are hopeful that it will be heard at the beginning of next year or become part of the land bills at the end of this current congress,” says Kookesh.

“Alaska Native leaders in these communities are asking for no more than the opportunity granted to other Native communities fifty years ago,” Senator Lisa Murkowski said at the bill’s introduction. “I urge colleagues on both sides of the aisle to look at the facts and help us get this done, so we can finally put an end to more than half a century of injustice in Southeast Alaska.”

During the decades-long struggle, the bill has gained the support of Native corporations, including Goldbelt.

“We are helping to advocate for every Southeast Native community to be a part of what we have; there has been an effort to promote unity and collaboration around this effort with Sealaska leading the way,” says Goldbelt President and CEO McHugh Pierre. “While I can’t speak for the other ANCs, I believe that most people support the concept of allowing these Alaska Natives to have representation.”

“My personal involvement began in my early 20s when my mother told me that she just couldn’t do it anymore, and it was up to me… Now I’m in my late 50s, and I have five grandchildren, and I hope that they are not fighting the same battle I spent my entire life fighting.”

—Harriet Brouillette, Board Member, Southeast Alaska Landless Corporation

Pierre notes that the Cedar Group, a Juneau marketing firm run by Goldbelt board member Todd Antioquia, provides communications services for the Southeast Alaska Landless Corporation (SALC), a nonprofit coalition formed in 2006 as an umbrella organization for the five communities.

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“I hope with Senator Murkowski’s seniority and influence that this is a good time to get it done,” Pierre adds. “She’s been a big champion of this effort, and we’re hoping that the promises that were offered by ANCSA more than fifty years ago can be delivered today.”

Pieces of Forest

Murkowski is more senior now—ranked sixth among Senate Republicans—than her father was when the 1997 bill was first drafted. Generations are turning over while the landless communities wait for redress.

“The original battle started over 100 years ago, with the arrival of missionaries in the late 1800s,” says Harriet Brouillette, tribal administrator for Chilkoot Indian Association and a SALC board member representing Haines. “My personal involvement began in my early 20s when my mother told me that she just couldn’t do it anymore, and it was up to me.”

That was in the ‘90s. “Being a young, impressionable 20-something, it was something that I’d heard about my entire life, so I started by meeting with Frank Murkowski when he was a senator for Alaska to discuss the Tongass National Forest and issues in our community regarding federal lands,” she says. “Now I’m in my late 50s, and I have five grandchildren, and I hope that they are not fighting the same battle I spent my entire life fighting.”

As part of the bill, the five landless groups have made their land selections on US Forest Service maps, though these lands may not always match where they live now.

“For Alaska Natives in general, it’s much harder to select lands immediately within their communities because of the passage of time,” says Kookesh. “For example, Haines has mostly private property and state lands, and no federal or Forest Service land, so they had to select land farther from the community. The longer time passes, the more difficult it is to select immediately within their communities or in close proximity.”

One of the sticking points with earlier bills was the fact that land in the Tongass National Forest would be deeded to the landless groups.

Norwegian settler Peter Buschmann built a cannery and sawmill near a Tlingit fish camp on Mitkof Island. Descendants of the indigenous inhabitants are represented by the Petersburg Indian Association, but they have no corporation to manage tribal lands.

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An ANCSA village corporation exists within the Ketchikan Gateway Borough: Cape Fox Corporation in Saxman. Tribal members of Ketchikan proper, just 2.8 miles away, were excluded because of the city’s more urbanized land use.

Nancy Hulbert| iStock

“All of our homeland is within the Tongass… It is up to Native shareholders to decide what to do with the land as a matter of Native self-determination.”

—Jaeleen Kookesh, Vice President of Public Policy, Sealaska

The Wrangell Cooperative Association is a federally recognized sovereign nation with more than 600 enrolled members. Their heritage centers on the mouth of the Stikine River, where Russian America administrator Ferdinand Wrangel established a trading post to obtain furs from the Native people. Today’s tribal members are considering different ways to monetize their local resources.

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“I think that people realize that this is likely not a land grab for the timber economy, which is pretty much nonexistent in Southeast Alaska at this point… The land provides other opportunities that are not extractive; it is a different economic, political, and environmental climate.”

—Jaeleen Kookesh, Vice President of Public Policy, Sealaska

“All of our homeland is within the Tongass, and there are interests who want to preserve public land and public ownership instead of returning it to the Native people,” says Kookesh. “Others assume that putting the land into the hands of Native corporations would mean that it would be developed or extracted in some way. That’s a pretty huge assumption, though at the same time, it is up to Native shareholders to decide what to do with the land as a matter of Native self-determination.”

Kookesh has seen a shift in sentiment favoring the landless communities, so she feels more confident that the legislation will pass this time.

“I think that people realize that this is likely not a land grab for the timber economy, which is pretty much nonexistent in Southeast Alaska at this point,” Kookesh says. “The land provides other opportunities that are not extractive; it is a different economic, political, and environmental climate.”

Human to Human

Meeting and working alongside some of the opposition groups has helped sway public opinion, according to Brouillette. “Quite frankly, in years past, we were concerned about sharing our information and our maps with the opposition because we thought the public might react negatively,” she explains. “Over time, we began looking at this not so much as a war with people in the opposition, who are mostly in the conservation community, but as a way to educate them as to why this is such an important settlement.”

During COVID-19, the landless groups began meeting via Zoom with the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, one of the legislation’s biggest opponents, to talk about how they could support and help one another.

Sitka has an urban Native corporation, Shee Atiká, while being Alaska’s fifth-largest city by population (and, notably, the largest by area in the United States). On neighboring Chichagof Island, and with barely more than 100 residents, Tenakee Springs was excluded when ANCSA corporations were established.

Monica Sterchi-Lowman | Alaska Business

“We got to know them as people; we spoke human to human about our hopes, dreams, who we were, how we were raised, and more,” says Brouillette. “When you talk on a personal level and don’t approach it as a political issue, it makes a big difference. We shared how important this land is for our culture and our indigenous identity, which let them get to know us in a broader yet more personal way.”

Brouillette says the talks reassured the conservation group that the land settlement has nothing to do with logging. “The reality is that when Europeans originally arrived in our area, the land was so pristine that they didn’t know it was inhabited,” she adds. “Thousands of people lived in the Chilkat Valley, and they couldn’t tell because it was managed so well.”

While logging was once a way to make a living in Southeast Alaska, landowners are now looking at other ways to both preserve and profit off the land.

“There is actually more financing available for keeping trees where they are and selling carbon credits,” says Brouillette. “The areas that we’ve chosen would also make wonderful ecotourism stops.”

Justice Issue

Another point of agreement, she notes, is the importance of local control of resources at a time when outside investors have been buying up Alaska. “If someone has no vested interest in what the land looks like in 20 or 100 years, they don’t care about planning or managing for the future. I want my grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and future generations to enjoy these forests,” Brouillette says.

She adds that the Alaska Native culture is so entwined with the environment that it is hard to exist culturally without access to their own lands.

“Having our lands back would allow us the opportunity to hunt, fish freely, hike, and spend time in the forest looking for trees that are large enough to carve a totem or build a canoe,” she says. “We don’t have access now to large stands of timber for those purposes.”

Ultimately, Brouillette says a settlement would return land to its rightful owners. “I consider this to be a human justice issue; these lands were taken from us without our permission—we never released ownership of the lands—yet we are kept off the land,” she says.

“We hope that people will reach out to us and let us address their concerns as opposed to simply jumping to objections or opposition,” says Kookesh. “We’ve happy to answer questions so that everyone understands the issue.”

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Welcome to the 2024 Best of Alaska Business special section! For the ninth time we invited our readers to tell us which Alaska businesses they love the most, this year in forty-four categories. Throughout the month of March, you told us who should be featured in these pages, and we're thrilled to be able to publish the results.
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