After a lengthy history indicating that Alaska Native people had aboriginal claims to ancestral lands and resources, and some debate and litigation over whether or not they did, Congress answered the question in a very distinctive way. On December 18, 1971 Alaska Native aboriginal claims were ‘settled’ and extinguished by an Act of Congress and signed by President Nixon through the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), the largest land claims settlement in U.S. history. Some called it an ‘experiment,’ others declared it to be an act of ‘assimilation’ or even ‘termination,’ and all would agree that the implementation of ANCSA is very complex. ANCSA has been amended by almost every Congress since its passage, both to refine the terms of the settlement and also to reduce the likelihood of losing the land so important to the Alaska Native people. It has seen tremendous successes and some failure, and issues are still being worked out such as the rights of Alaska Native people born after ANCSA was passed, rights to fish and wildlife resources, and the jurisdiction of tribes that were essentially left landless by the Act.
Alaska Native people had a claim to ownership of all land in Alaska, surface and sub-surface, based on their aboriginal use and occupancy of it. The settlement of that claim was far from a land give-away. Rather than designating reservations held in trust by the United States government, as the majority of tribes in the Lower 48 have, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act created 12 regional profit-making Alaska Native corporations and over 200 village, group, and urban corporations to receive what would end up being around 45.5 million acres of land along with about a billion dollars cash payment. A 13th regional corporation headquartered in Seattle was later established for Alaska Natives who lived outside of Alaska, which participated in the cash settlement but did not receive land. The corporations have specific procedures to follow as provided by ANCSA, but they are also incorporated under State of Alaska law and must follow state corporation law. The lands, assets and businesses are owned by the shareholders of the Native corporations, and subject to terms, protections, and restrictions placed on them by both federal Indian law (ANCSA) and by State of Alaska corporation law.
Generally, the village corporations own the surface estate to their lands, while the regional corporation owns the sub-surface of the village corporation lands. ANCSA also gave the village corporations some control over development “within the confines of the Native village” by the regional corporations. The split ownership of the land surface and sub-surface resources, and control over development, has generated controversy between regional and village corporations over the details of what it actually means in practice, and court decisions and amendments to ANCSA have been necessary to clarify this relationship. The land selections authorized under ANCSA are complex, and amendments to ANCSA were made to correct some of the inequities made during the selection process. The land settlement made through ANCSA is further complicated by land exchanges, easements, land protection issues, and requirements for village corporation re-conveyance of land to individuals, businesses, and for community development under Section 14(C)(3) of ANCSA.
ANCSA extinguished all the Indian reservations in Alaska, with the exception of Metlakatla. Tribes that had their reservations extinguished had the option of keeping their former reservation land, both surface and subsurface ownership. If they chose that option they did not receive a cash settlement and do not participate as shareholders in the regional corporations.
Around 80,000 people of at least ¼ Alaska Native blood, living at the time of the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, became the shareholders in the ANCSA corporations. People could enroll under ANCSA based upon residency in 1971 or past residency, place of birth, or based on family heritage. Native people could also choose to enroll in a region only, and not in a village. These shareholders, known as “at-large” shareholders received additional stock in the regional corporation that village shareholders did not receive (village shareholders received stock in the village corporation). Alaska Native people born after December 18, 1971 could not receive ANCSA stock except by inheritance or court order in a divorce or child custody dispute. Later amendments to ANCSA allowed the shareholders of the corporations to decide if they want to admit children born after 1971 as new shareholders. Some village and regional corporations have done so, but this continues to be an issue of controversy within many of the Alaska Native corporations.
Originally the land and ownership of the corporations through stocks was protected from loss only for the first twenty years after ANCSA was passed because Native corporation stocks could not be sold until December 18, 1991. Selling stock on the open market would most likely have lead to the loss of Native control and ownership over the corporations and lands to non-Native individuals and corporations which is why many called ANSCA an act of termination. Congress did take action and adopted the so-called ‘1991 amendments’ to extend the restrictions on selling stocks in the Native corporations until a majority of all shareholders in a particular corporation vote to eliminate the restriction. None have done so.
The Alaska Native corporations employ thousands of people in Alaska and worldwide through a tremendous variety of businesses ranging from natural resource development to telecommunications, engineering, government contracts, construction, drilling, environmental remediation, alternative energy, real estate, investments and tourism. A provision of ANCSA referred to as ‘7(i),’ requires each land owning regional corporation to pay the other eleven regional corporations a percentage of the revenue received from the subsurface resources and from timber sales. This provision was meant to make up for an uneven distribution of Alaska’s natural resources such as timber, gravel, and oil. The individual corporations distribute dividends to their stockholders as profits from businesses and investments permit.
While ANCSA extinguished aboriginal claims to land and “any aboriginal hunting and fishing rights that may exist,” ANCSA did not provide protection for hunting and fishing needs of the Alaska Native people. That would not come until the passage of ANILCA in 1980, which amended ANCSA to extend the original 20 year protection of undeveloped Native corporation lands, until developed. Undeveloped ANCSA land is non-taxable, cannot be taken by adverse possession, bankruptcy or taken through court judgement.
The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act did not grant land to the tribes in Alaska, nor did it terminate their status as tribes as some thought that it did. There were years of confusion and debate after ANCSA’s passage before the Department of Interior clarified the matter by issuing the list of federally recognized tribes in 1993, with Congress confirming it through the Federally Recognized Tribal List Act of 1994.
Thirteen regional corporations created under ANCSA:
- Ahtna, Incorporated
- The Aleut Corporation
- Arctic Slope Regional Corporation
- Bering Straits Native Corporation
- Bristol Bay Native Corporation
- Calista Corporation
- Chugach Alaska Corporation
- Cook Inlet Region, Inc.
- Doyon, Limited
- Koniag, Incorporated
- NANA Regional Corporation
- Sealaska Corporation
- The 13th Regional Corporation
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