Tables have turned on Alaska's natives. Villagers watch money from settlement dwindle; land could be next
Once considered the most progressive and generous settlement of American aboriginal land claims, the 1971 Alaska Native Land Claim Settlement Act has not fulfilled its purpose. According to a report released this week, the ``social experiment'' failed because Alaska natives are not interested in assimilating into dominant white society, and are determined to fashion a future of their own.
Further, the act is likely to cause the state's natives to permanently lose their ancestral lands and distinct culture, says Thomas Berger, the report's author.
``The native peoples of Alaska want their own lands and their own forms of government, and they also want access to the social, economic, and political'' institutions of the state, he writes.
Mr. Berger, a former Canadian judge who has studied the attitudes of Canada's natives, was hired to research the Alaska natives by the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, an international Eskimo organization. In ``Village Journey,'' Berger records his findings of the last two years, when he traveled to 62 Alaska villages listening to 1,450 people tell how the land claims act has affected them.
Berger's report should have ``tremendous impact'' in Alaska and with Congress because it gives a voice to rural natives, said Bob Lohr, director of the Rural Alaska Community Action Program, a statewide agency providing services in rural areas.
But it is also expected to cause controversy. ``Village Journey'' argues strongly on the side of native sovereignty. While there is general agreement among natives and whites here that the land claims act must be amended, there is disagreement -- among natives, especially -- over just how to do it and how much to change. The issue of sovereignty is key in this debate.
``Some folks think a few minor adjustments will do the trick,'' Berger said at a news conference here on Monday. ``I think a major overhaul is in order.''
An aide to US Senator Ted Stevens (R) Alaska said the state's three-member congressional delegation has advised Alaska natives to reach a consensus before campaigning for claims act amendments.
``The natives have to decide what they want and tell us in Washington how we should approach it,'' said Stevens aide Malin Jennings.
One group, the Alaska Federation of Natives, has proposed eight amendments to the land claims act, which Congress could consider later this year.
The settlement act was considered generous because it awarded Alaska's 70,000 Indians, Eskimos, and Aleuts nearly $1 billion and 44 million acres (12 percent) of
Alaska's land. Economic benefits were to pass to natives through the 13 regional and more than 200 village corporations created by the settlement. The act envisioned villagers using their money and land to help build their economies and contribute to the state's growth.
But there is little in rural Alaska on which to base a cash economy, argues Berger, concluding that natives would rather provide for most of their needs by hunting and fishing.
Berger writes: ``Undercapitalized, without corporate experience, with virtually no business prospects, the [village] corporations were at the mercy of the lawyers, advisers, and consultants who flocked to the villages like scavengers. Now the money is largely gone and the land is at risk.''
He recommends major changes, the most important being the transfer of native-owned corporate lands to tribal governments. ``The matter is one of urgency and should be done at once.'' If the land stays under corporate jurisdiction, it could be lost after 1991 through corporate takeovers, corporate failures, and taxation. Starting in that year, assets given natives under the act can be taxed and corporate shares sold to nonnatives.
To correct the act's flaws, Berger recommends that:
Shareholders concerned about the loss of corporate lands should transfer those lands to tribal governments, which should assert their native sovereignty.
Tribal governments should have exclusive jurisdiction over fish and wildlife on native lands.
Tribal governments should receive subsurface land rights from regional native corporations. Village corporations with a thriving business or investment should continue to make profit, paying dividends to shareholders. Berger expects that, without their land, most village corporations would be dissolved.
Regional corporations should consider transferring their lands to villages or regional tribal governments.
Berger's report is expected to give momentum to the United Tribes of Alaska (UTA), a leader in the growing movement promoting native self-determination. The UTA believes the settlement should be invalidated because village residents never voted to approve it, says Sheldon Katchatag, a 37-year-old Eskimo fisherman who is chairman of the fledgling organization.
Bob Lohr's rural community action program supports Berger's recommendation to give natives more control of fish and wildlife resources. This is one of the most controversial proposals. It has drawn heat from urban sports hunters and fishermen and the Anchorage Times, Alaska's second-largest newspaper.
While Berger looks beyond the act for solutions to village problems, the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) ``continues trying to make the settlement act work,'' says director Janie Leask.
The AFN lobbies for the interests of the regional for-profit corporation created by the land claims act.
Berger acknowledges his recommendations are aimed directly at village natives. AFN, on the other hand, has tried to balance the life styles and needs of rural natives with the interests of city-dwelling natives, many of whom want regional corporations to provide business opportunities and profits, Ms. Leask says. Though the native federation has a different approach to revising the act, its amendments in Congress embody most of Berger's proposals as options which it hopes Congress will make available to