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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Eligible Vietnam-era Alaska Native veterans are waiting to find out about new lands becoming available for Native allotment selections.

ANCSA settled Indigenous land claims in Alaska, and centered around Indigenous homelands, like the Yukon River region pictured above. Around 50 Alaska Native communities are located along the Yukon River. Most aren't connected to roads, creating a need for strong local governing capabilities. (Photo courtesy of Keri Oberly, 2021)

Veteran Jim LaBelle, Inupiaq, said lands had been offered in bits twice before in a process that was far from easy. “One of the first times it got approved, the bureaucracy got in the way and there was a lot of us who could not select lands because of the way the rules were set up.”

The Bureau of Land Management initially made about 8 million acres available, but whole sections of the state, including his homelands in northwest Alaska, were off limits.

LaBelle ended up choosing land 600 miles from where he grew up and 260 miles from where he lives now in Anchorage. Instead of choosing lands he’s familiar with, he had to choose “foreign” lands.

Jim LaBelle, Anchorage, Alaska, April 30, 2022 (Photo by Joaqlin Estus, ICT National Correspondent)

“I picked land near Tok (in eastern Interior Alaska). I really didn't feel very good about selecting lands there because it's not my traditional homelands. But I thought that that was the only choice we had,” he said.

Chuck Katasse, Tlingit, has been helping his brothers and others through the process. He said the land that was available was virtually inaccessible.

“When you look at the land selection, it is not near any community. It is in what you would categorize as a remote location, not accessible by boat… the only way you get in is by plane. It's a program that was designed for the wealthy, for a wealthy veteran. And we don't have wealthy veterans here,” Katasse said.

Katasse said for one brother who lives in southeast Alaska but the closest land he could pick was 525 miles away in Cordova. To get there, he’d have to travel by plane and boat.

Katasse said another problem he’d like to see fixed is how long it takes to get an application through the process.

Chuck Katasse, Tlingit, at his home in Anchorage, Alaska, May 5, 2022 (Photo by ICT Correspondent Joaqlin Estus)

Katasse asked, “Why does it take BLM, the bureau of land management, 20 years to process their application when the bureau of land management has been in existence for over 100 years, and when one of the primary functions they do is land transfers?”

He said many Vietnam-era veterans have died waiting for land transfers, transfers he said would take a title company a matter of days.

“It is just frustrating, no matter which way you turn. So frustrating that of the 15-20 individuals that I work with two or three of them want to continue working on the application. And every, every single one of the other ones said, ‘forget it.’ It's just too much of a pain to have to do all this work,” Katasse said.

Joe Senungetuk, Inupiaq, ended up picking land about 50 miles from where he grew up. To get to his allotment, he’d have to fly from his home in Anchorage to Kotzebue in northwest Alaska, then by small plane to the village of Wales. There he’d have to switch to a boat and go 50 miles up the coast of the Bering Sea and about 15 miles up a waterway. Senungetuk is 85 years old. He said he’s not expecting to be able to use the land himself.

Joe Senungetuk in the Alaska Pacific University art studio, Anchorage, Alaska, May, 2, 2022 (Photo by ICT National Correspondent Joaqlin Estus)

“I will use it as an opportunity to select my grandkids’ names and put 'em on there when it comes time for them to be my inheritors that'll give them, in our minds, something to expect,” he said.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, announced on April 21 the department will open another 27 million acres for Native Allotment selections. Allotments can be from 2.5 to 160 acres. The Bureau of Land Management is working through legal steps to make the land available. Veterans will have until Dec. 29, 2025 to make their selections.

Because the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 revoked the Native Allotment Act, thousands of Vietnam-era veterans were not able to file for allotments while serving in the military.

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