The government-to-government relationship that Alaska tribes have with the United States began in the early 1900s through educational services, and early land cases and acts. While Congress applied federal Indian legislation to Alaska tribes such as the Indian Reorganization Act and Public Law 280, it had not yet settled the aboriginal claims to land and resources. In the 1950s and 1960s there were several events that lead up to the settlement of the claims. The main concepts students are expected to learn from this Unit are:

  • The federal trust responsibility and special relationship with the Alaska Native people were demonstrated at the turn of the century through the establishment of schools operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, creation of reservations, and provisions for medical care and economic development to benefit Alaska Native people.
  • Early Alaska court cases indicated that Alaska Native people had an aboriginal claim to land and resources that only the United States government could settle. Some land was given to individual Alaska Native people through the Alaska Native Allotment and Alaska Native Townsite Acts, however, these early land acts were not the settlement of aboriginal land claims. 
  • The Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) was passed by Congress in 1934 to protect Indian land and to give Indian tribes a ‘new deal’ in their relationships with the United States. About a third of the tribes in Alaska have constitutions adopted under the IRA, which must go through a special federal election process to adopt or amend. Most of the rest of the federally recognized tribes in Alaska have tribal constitutions that are voted on by the tribal members without going through a federal election. The rights and powers of both IRA and non-IRA tribes are essentially the same. 
  • The 1950s are called the ‘termination era’ for tribes because of efforts to terminate tribal status of some tribes, to assimilate American Indian and Alaska Native people through relocation programs, and to give certain states authority over crimes in Indian country through Public Law 280. Public Law 280 was applied to Alaska, and what it actually does or doesn’t do has been the subject of litigation ever since. At this time, Public Law 280 does not have much effect since it applies only in ‘Indian country’ of which there is not much in Alaska. 
  • Alaska became a state in 1959 which had significant impacts on the role village councils had on local governance. Statehood also raised concerns over Alaska Native land claims which had not yet been settled because the State began selecting land throughout Alaska. Although State land selections and large proposed projects such as the Rampart Dam and Project Chariot increased pressure to settle Alaska Native claims, it was the discovery of oil on the North Slope that finally stimulated the settlement.
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