ANCORAGE, Alaska - Alaska's regional Native corporations loom over the Alaska Native economy and ecosystem like General Motors over Detroit, employing thousands, distributing dividends to Native shareholders, clear-cutting forests, engaging in political lobbying, performing energy exploration and making investments in outside industries.
The corporations were created in 1971 under the auspices of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), a piece of landmark federal legislation hailed by some as a "grand experiment."
ANCSA presumed to extinguish aboriginal land rights in exchange for 44 million acres of land, a large cash settlement and the formation of private for-profit Native corporations that attempt to compete in the modern American economy. Subsequent court decisions have challenged the act's authority to extinguish Native land rights.
Native Alaskans with one-quarter or more Native blood quantum who were born before 1971 were made corporate shareholders when the act passed.
ANCSA corporate land is owned wholly by the for-profit corporations themselves; individual Alaska Native shareholders have no land usage rights.
Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell's S. 522, the Native American Energy Development and Self-Determination Act, affords tribal status to ANCSA regional corporations. The bill defines ANCSA corporations as Indian "tribes" and corporate land as "reservations" and gives corporations increased clout in land-leasing and energy self-regulation.
The bill was introduced to the Senate on March 5 and was combined with Sen. Jeff Bingaman's S. 424, the Tribal Energy Self-Sufficiency Act, in April. The combined bill recently passed the Senate and will ultimately become Title III of S. 14, a broader and more comprehensive energy package.
Proponents of the bill say it will boost energy production and employment in Native communities.
"Increased energy development in Indian and Alaska Native communities means increased jobs in these communities," said Counselor to the Secretary for Indian Affairs Theresa Rosier during a recent address to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. "In many Indian and Alaska Native communities, joblessness and underemployment are painfully acute."
The bill will lead to new opportunities for corporations and their Native shareholders, said Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC) Chief Operating Officer Conrad Bagney.
"We look forward to participating in some of the programs and purposes occurring in energy expansion that support development on our land," Bagney said.
According to the corporation's Web site ASRC "employs 6,000 people, has a growing shareholder population of 9,000 and has title to approximately five million acres of land."
"I think it's positive that there are more avenues to consider, more vehicles to use and some special protections so the corporations aren't taken advantage of and end up with deals that are less than desirable," Bagney said.
But many traditional Alaska Natives are opposed to the bill, the ANCSA corporations and any legislation that might give the corporations increased power, said Gary Harrison, a hereditary chief of the Ahtna and Tanaina Athabascan peoples and elected chief of the Chickaloon Athabascan village.
"ANCSA is an experiment gone awry," Harrison said. "There are a whole lot of attorneys, accountants, administrators and consulting carpetbaggers who have retired as multimillionaires and the people have still not received what they were promised."
"The corporations were designed to strip the rights and resources from the people and the land," he said.
The language within the bill that defines corporations as "tribes" is especially erroneous, Harrison said.
"There are a lot of differences between a tribal system and a corporation," he said. "Corporations are responsible to outside entities, whereas tribes are responsible to the people."
Tribes are matrilineal communities with clan systems and traditional Native values, Harrison said.
"The people run the tribes," he said. "Corporations are run by people who control media and have enough money to mail out proxies."
But the corporations provide many of the same programs and social services as tribes through their non-profit corporate affiliates, and the legal jargon of the bill shouldn't become a controversial issue, Bagney said.
"Corporations versus reservations shouldn't make any difference," he said.
"It was a congressional decision to establish corporations rather than reservations, but Congress is still committed to its obligation to Alaska's Native people," Bagney said.
ANCSA regional corporations and their supporters are confident the energy bill will create jobs and increase corporate profits. It will be good for all Alaska's Native people, they say.
Others shake their heads and say the bill is simply another insult and a government-sponsored corporate debacle.
Dave Stephenson, Tlingit, is Indian Country Today's Alaska correspondent. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.