The lands that make up the NANA region in the Northwest Arctic are vast. From rolling hills and wide-open tundra, expansive coastline and winding rivers, the land encompasses plentiful subsistence hunting and fishing grounds and 11 communities. So when, this month, NANA Regional Corp. received patents totaling 178,814 acres from the Bureau of Land Management, it represented more than a formality. The people of the region have used the land for centuries, but now it is officially theirs.
On Sept. 15, the entitlements were signed over for Kiana, Noorvik and Selawik, and just two more -- Kivalina and Noatak -- await the official inking of the deal. The rest of the village corporations have already received their entitlements after years of surveying and negotiations with the BLM.
"I think this is huge," said NANA's Vice President of Lands Rosie Barr last week. "It really helps us set a path forward for our shareholders so they can say, 'OK, this is the land we own, these are the rights that come with that land, and these are the responsibilities.'
"These are our lands, so the portions that we receive are just a small fraction of the total acreage within the NANA region that we feel are ours."
The entitlements established in 1971 under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act total around 2.2 million acres for the region, with the remaining patents slated to be officially signed off on next year. For the Northwest Arctic region, the act originally included one regional corporation and 11 village corporations, each with requirements under ANCSA. For various reasons, mostly the financial undertaking, all but one of the village corporations merged with NANA in 1976. Two representatives from each of the merged villages sit on the NANA board and play an active role, especially in land dealings.
While the recent signing won't provoke any big changes in the communities, it does provide clarity and ownership, Barr said.
"It does allow, whether we're looking at leases or projects, that we have finality, that we do own the land."
With the recent patents, land transfers from villages to municipal governments for city expansion projects like roads and infrastructure are able to happen with a clear title for the city administrations.
The process of establishing the boundaries has taken years of negotiation, input from the communities and surveying. Hundreds of community meetings happened to get to this point, Barr said.
And the biggest factor for the people of the region when choosing acreage, she added, was subsistence.
"We're really looking forward to having them all complete but it really took time because you couldn't rush the discussions," Barr said. "We have to protect subsistence use."
NANA was contracted by the federal government to help with the surveying, and in the most recent patents for Selawik, Noorvik and Kiana, WH Pacific, a NANA subsidiary, did the survey work.
For BLM, the latest patents bring it closer to fulfilling its obligations under ANCSA, said Thom Jennings, a spokesperson for the federal agency.
"The three villages that we just patented the land on, they have reached their entitlement now ... so now all the land that they were officially entitled to is their land, period," Jennings said. "It's been surveyed and monumented and the documents have all been signed. It's kind of like paying off your mortgage, except in this case there was no money transferred."
The biggest challenge for BLM, and thus the reason these entitlements took four decades to complete, was adjudicating all the existing rights, said Jennings.
"We have to sort through and see who, according to the law, is entitled to the land first and who's entitled to it second."
The Native corporations would often pick more land then they were entitled to and then through community meetings decide which areas were the priorities.
"Another big challenge was the surveying, because when this all started, very little of Alaska was surveyed," Jennings said. "Getting people out on the ground to do the surveying ... has taken the longest amount of time."
Once the surveyors are done, maps are drawn and formal documents are drawn up before a final decision is made.
"We're winding down and getting closer and closer," Jennings said. "It's very fulfilling."
This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.