ANCSA helped shape Alaska's future

Steve Haycox

The Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Anchorage this week provides an opportunity for reflection on the relationship of AFN to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, and on the remarkable contribution of that act, and the people responsible for it, to Alaskan life.

The origins of the claims settlement are often misunderstood, conflated in many people's minds with the discovery of the massive oil field at Prudhoe Bay in 1968 and the ensuing sense of urgency for settling Native land claims so the trans-Alaska oil pipeline could be built and money could begin flowing. But the need to construct the pipeline did not "cause" the settlement of Alaska Native claims. That cause was in fact the Alaska statehood act of 1958 and actions taken by the State of Alaska and Native leaders pursuant to it.

The statehood act contained two clauses regarding land which were contradictory, though very few people recognized the contradiction at the time. Section 6 of the act entitled the State of Alaska to select 104 million acres of Alaska's land for state title, about 28 percent. But in Section 4 of the statehood act, the people of Alaska "disclaim" any right or title to land that may be subject to Native title. The failure of recognition concerned just what land might be subject to Native title. Most Alaskans then had little problem with giving Natives title to the land their villages were on, and some adjacent land for a village buffer and for hunting and the like. They considered that fair.

But in 1941, in a case brought by an Indian rights advocate in the U.S. Interior Department, the U.S. Supreme Court found for the legitimacy of what is called aboriginal title; that is Native title to any land Natives have ever utilized and occupied, whether they continue to utilize and occupy it or not, unless Congress has formally extinguished the Native title. The predicament for Alaska was that, although Congress had extinguished Native title in most of the Lower 48 states, it had only extinguished it for 54 million of Alaska's 375 million acres at the time of statehood. At that time, few people knew of the Supreme Court's action, and those who did never expected Congress to honor much more Native title in Alaska than that necessary to protect the villages. That's because most people in America in 1958 didn't take Native Americans very seriously, except as sentimental symbols of an era gone by.

As soon as statehood was official, the state began selecting its land under Section 6. But just about as soon, Natives began protesting those selections, on the grounds of Section 4, the disclaimer. By the mid-1960s, as these two processes continued side by side, a vast amount of land in Alaska was under protest. That threatened any potential economic development on the protested land, for no one would invest in land the title to which was unclear. Concerned with Native justice, in 1966 Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall signaled his sympathy for the Native protests, leading to an informal "land freeze," halting any conveyance of title to the State of Alaska until the Native claims issue should be settled. Prudhoe Bay was still nearly two years in the future, and when it came, it simply speeded up the existing process.

On October 18, 1969, John Borbridge, as vice-president of AFN, testified in Fairbanks before a U.S. House subcommittee, making clear Alaska Natives' intention to be taken fully seriously, and AFN's expectation that Alaska Native claims be honored on the basis of aboriginal title, and that Natives be compensated for any extinguishment of that title. In January 1970, at hearings in Washington, D.C., for Gov. Walter Hickel's confirmation as Interior Secretary, Borbridge, Eben Hobson, Emil Notti and Willie Hensley made it clear to the Senate Judiciary Committee that the AFN expected the land freeze to remain in place until a fair settlement of Native claims should be achieved. The settlement came in ANCSA in 1971.

Many people contributed to ANCSA, but these events were critical. And the role of and respect for Natives in Alaska today has as much to do with ANCSA as with anything.

Steve Haycox is a professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Steve Haycox