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Corporations: Alaska Natives exert control

A camel is a horse designed by committee. That's how a modern-day proverb puts it. To listen to Rosita Worl, the Alaska Native corporation is a similar animal, drafted by Congressional committees to reinvent Native life in our largest state.

Worl is the president of Sealaska Heritage Institute, a non-profit established by the Native-owned Sealaska Corporation, based in Juneau. A Tlingit from the Thunderbird Clan of Klukwan, Alaska, she has been a moving force in northern Native affairs and in educating people about the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971.

ANCSA was an abrupt break with national Native policy, says Worl. Alaska Natives had been unhappy with trust oversight since the extension of the Indian Reorganization Act in 1936. Everything from buying fishing nets to fixing boats required BIA approval, and resentment of the federal bureaucracy deepened.

Native people "didn't want to be second-class citizens. They didn't want to be, as they said, 'restricted' to reservations," said Worl, even though she admits "their perception of the lower 48 wasn't entirely accurate." What mattered most, she stresses, was "they wanted absolute control over their land," a condition trust status wouldn't permit them.

Congress, for its part, faced a series of outstanding Native land claims in the state. It sought to avoid a reservation system in Alaska and thus assimilate Native people as quickly as possible.

Still a third party, the oil companies, were eyeing production of North Slope oil: "They wanted to move forward with development, and the land claims question was in the way," remembers Worl. "[The companies] wanted it resolved."

Oil companies, Native people, and Congress - strange bedfellows by Washington standards - agreed to a compromise. In 1971, President Richard Nixon signed ANCSA into law, and the Alaska Native corporation was born.

ANCSA gave 44 million acres to Alaska Natives - one-tenth of the state - while extinguishing remaining Native claims. Tpwelve regional and some 200 village corporations were founded to administer the land in fee simple, not in trust. Alaska Natives received a $1 billion dollar settlement for relinquishing remaining Aboriginal title.

The vote of the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) to support the bill was nearly unanimous, says Worl, even if it "was already a done deal" in Congress by the time they were consulted. "Up until that time, most Native people supported the passage of ANCSA. The opposition you're hearing now wasn't articulated at that time."

Still, Worl admits, ANCSA was seriously flawed. Natives born after 1971 ("New Natives") couldn't become shareholders unless they inherited stock. Stock inheritance was diluted through multiple heirs, sometimes including non-Natives. What's more, Aboriginal subsistence rights (hunting and fishing) were extinguished throughout the state, what came as a shock to many tribal people.

Perhaps worse, a 20-year grace period was the only restraint imposed on the state before it could tax undeveloped corporate land - then foreclose for tax delinquency and remove from Native ownership.

Many such problems were corrected by amendments formalized in 1991. There was even a discussion of retribalizing Native land and rejecting the corporate model altogether. But "Congress wasn't going to allow that except with a lot of language that would have undermined" tribal government, explains Worl, and retribalization was dropped.

ANCSA still isn't a perfect "horse." The law provides that each regional corporation vote to admit new Natives, requiring a supermajority of outstanding stock for approval. "That is an extraordinarily high standard," laments Worl, who would like to see the provision amended to a simple majority. "It almost guarantees that new Natives won't be enrolled."

A member of the Sealaska board of directors, Worl says ANCSA, as amended, has secured control of Native land by providing "a host of land protections." One is a "bank" where undeveloped land can be held while remaining exempt from taxation and foreclosure.

Native land losses have thus been minimal, Worl believes. Communities on Prince William Sound that suffered the effects of the Exxon-Valdez oil spill, for example, sold stands of timber. But "nothing has been lost because of bankruptcy or debt or taxes." Some village corporations, she adds, have transferred their lands to the tribes and in so doing been caught in the middle - protected by neither ANCSA nor trust status.

The legacy of ANCSA has left Native-owned corporations and tribes with different jurisdictions. The corporations have economic power, tied to a land base, while the tribes administer political authority.

"We do have this disjuncture where [the tribes] have governance, but we don't have a land base. And we have corporations with a land base," Worl admits. But "I have never heard of a Native corporation that wants to deal with governance issues. Governance belongs to the tribe. And tribes should be in the business of governance."

The gulf between the two has led to criticism that corporations are alien cultural forms imposed on Alaska Natives. Not so, says Worl. "It's Native people themselves who control both the governments and the corporations. So people are talking about corporations as if they were not the people."

Worl is unwavering: "you have great participation in the processes of the corporation in their elections." Required to have a quorum, some regions will have up to 80 percent participation. Others, she admits, have had difficulty establishing quorums at all. But Natives are always involved. "They are the ones who elect the people. If I thought it was controlled by non-Native people, that would be different."

What took thousands of years to evolve as a social and economic unit in the far north (the band or tribe) was reconfigured by Congress, in the economic realm, into a profit-making entity based on a non-Native model.

Do ANCSA corporations work? "In the '80s," Worl responds, "we went from a Fortune 1000 corporation to a point of near bankruptcy. And then again, we just recently went through that experience."

Today, Sealaska is on the way back. And they're navigating, adds Worl, by a blueprint unique in the corporate world.

(Continued in Part Two: A look at Sealaska and corporate socialism.)