Opinions

OPINION: A new tool to help understand Alaska’s historic Native land claims act

Native Land Claims, ANCSA

Less than a year ago, Alaskans marked one of the most significant events in our history – the 50th anniversary of passage of the landmark Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). After decades of fighting for their rights, the 1971 federal law set a new course for Alaska Natives, self-determination and positive economic development.

Today ANCSA fuels the state’s economy through Native regional and village corporations established under the act that enable Alaska Natives to both maintain traditional cultural ties to their land and participate in statewide economic development.

To provide future generations insights into this groundbreaking law, the Alaska Historical Society (AHS) has just completed the first-ever comprehensive guide to historical sources about ANCSA.

The three-volume, nearly 1,200-page Guide to Sources for the Study of the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act identifies the vast majority of documents, located in archives, libraries, personal collections and online. It serves as the premier information gateway for historians and other researchers interested in this fascinating history of how the largest land claims settlement in U.S. history became law.

The multi-decade run-up to ANCSA, the David-and-Goliath-like victory in Congress, and the long-lasting impacts the Act reflects the history of Alaska: from the subsistence economy that supported Alaska Native people for millennia and that still continues to sustain them today, to the modern corporate institutions that now reflect the economic and political might of Alaska Natives. ANCSA has prompted follow-up legislation on Native sovereignty, subsistence rights and the role of tribes.

As Alaska’s only statewide organization dedicated to creative inquiry into our past and sharing information, ideas and resources about our history, the AHS was honored to undertake this multi-year initiative. We are grateful to partners and financial support from the Rasmuson and Atwood Foundations and the Doyon, Sealaska, Bering Straits, Calista and Koniag Native corporations.

As the guide documents, the story of Alaska Native land claims begins well before passage of ANCSA. With America’s 1867 purchase of Alaska, the federal government for the first time acknowledged responsibility to Alaska Natives. The U.S. began a “trust” responsibility based on the notion that the best course was to encourage Natives to change their lives to live like non-Natives.

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Alaska Natives resisted that ill-conceived policy, organizing, researching and fighting in the courts and Congress for legal recognition of claims to the land they had long occupied. The guide unearthed hundreds of sources about these historic developments.

For example, on the question of the “corporate solution” to land claims, the guide points to original documents such as a 1971 memo from Don Wright, president of the Alaska Federation of Natives. The Governor’s Task Force on Alaska Native Land Claims called for a corporate solution, and oral history interviews with attorneys Barry Jackson and Mary Nordale also address the question of the origin of ANCSA’s use of the corporate structure.

The guide also includes a 20-page report about the first statewide meeting of Alaska Native leaders in 1966 that laid the groundwork for establishment of the Alaska Federation of Natives.

The guide includes a link to the groundbreaking essay by young Native leader Willie Hensley, who argued for Native rights within a legal and historical framework that could be defended by both Natives and non-Natives.

The guide also includes a historic 1970 speech by then-President Richard Nixon proposing a new approach in the federal treatment of America’s First Peoples, a change from termination to self-determination.

Volume 1 of the guide includes a brief overview essay on the history of ANCSA, a timeline of events leading up to its passage, a list of key participants in the land claims movement, and a detailed inventory of archival collections around Alaska and in the Lower 48. Volume 2 is an extensive annotated bibliography of published and readily accessible sources. Volume 3 is a resource guide for those who teach Alaska history and features curriculum approaches, key discussion questions and resources for the classroom.

The guide is a fully searchable and navigable electronic document available online. Users can easily navigate within each volume, as well as between volumes. When available, active links to other resources are provided. Contact information for the archives referenced is also included, so researchers can follow-up with more specific questions or make arrangements for a site visit.

The guide is available online at the Alaska Historical society website. It is also available on Scholarworks, a digital repository for University of Alaska research.

William Schneider is a professor emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and was director of the ANCSA Guide Project.

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