FAIRBANKS -- The new assistant secretary for Indian Affairs told tribal leaders that calls to revisit the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act have gotten his attention.
During a four-hour meeting in Fairbanks, Larry Echo Hawk listened to a host of concerns from Alaska Natives. Many speakers focused on weakened ties to ancestral lands and said it was time to revisit the 1971 law that settled aboriginal land claims by transferring 44 million acres of land to Native corporations.
"I've heard many important issues today. ... But that one has gotten my attention more than anything," said Echo Hawk, who is on a statewide tour that includes stops in Barrow, Ketchikan, Metlakatla and Stevens Village.
A repeated theme at Monday's gathering was that ANCSA disenfranchised a generation of Natives by excluding them as shareholders in Native corporations. Children born after Dec. 18, 1971, weren't directly granted shares under the provisions of the act, although federal law has since been modified to allow more flexibility for Native corporations to grant them to younger members.
Even so, the majority of Alaska Natives are not shareholders. Lincoln Bean Sr. of Kake described them Monday as the "forgotten children," lacking tribal land or financial clout.
Barrow resident Charles Etok Edwardsen called the act a "rotten real estate transaction" and said Natives should contest it in an international court.
In other testimony, speakers complained about the growing difficulty in living a subsistence lifestyle, including requirements that Natives buy duck stamps or stand in line for moose permits.
Echo Hawk said testimony from the tour will be taken into consideration as the Obama administration crafts its policy on Native issues.
Echo Hawk told the audience of about 150 people that he hesitated before accepting the federal appointment overseeing Indian affairs, a position that reports to the Interior secretary.
"I knew if I said yes, I'd become the face of the federal government in Indian country, and there have been some dark chapters in American history," he said.
He ultimately accepted, he said, because the position represents an opportunity to address past injustices.
"I see it as my duty to do all I can to empower tribal nations," he said.