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Meghan Sullivan
Indian Country Today

The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was enacted by Congress 50 years ago, and continues to be shaped by congressional officials today. In some ways, ANCSA involves all American politicians – from the Alaskan delegation who can craft amendments to change ANCSA, to representatives from other states who must vote on these amendments in order for them to become law. For this reason, representatives’ views and approaches to the Act remain significant today.

For ICT’s ANCSA at 50 profile series, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski shares her thoughts on the legislation.

1) Fifty years later, is there anything related to ANCSA that has surprised you or that you didn’t expect to occur? Has ANCSA and the system it established significantly changed during your lifetime? 

What began as an experiment back in 1971 is now a leading source of empowerment for Alaska Natives and Alaska as a whole. The regional, village, and urban corporations that ANCSA chartered have grown into economic powerhouses that deliver very real and very significant benefits for their shareholders, communities, and, frankly, every Alaskan.

ANCSA has been amended by almost every Congress since its passage, both to refine the terms of the settlement and also to reduce the likelihood of losing the land. While ANCSA is incredibly significant legislation, it has seen a number of amendments in an effort to ensure it is best serving Alaska Natives, including amendments I’m working to enact. Just a few weeks ago, my legislation advanced out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee amending ANCSA to make clear that dividends from Settlement Trust cannot be considered for eligibility of certain programs. Most recently I introduced updated legislation to allow the Alaska Native communities of Haines, Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, and Tenakee to form urban corporations and receive land entitlements under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. The five Southeast communities were not included in ANCSA, which divided 44 million acres of land among more than 200 regional, village, and urban corporations to resolve land claims throughout Alaska, when it became law in 1971. The legislation, the Unrecognized Southeast Alaska Native Communities Recognition and Compensation Act, aims to rectify that injustice by amending ANCSA to provide each community with the opportunities it granted to other Native communities 50 years ago: the right to form an Alaska Native Urban Corporation and receive 23,040 acres, or one township, of federal land.

I was born in Southeast, raised there and in the Interior, and raised my family in South-central, and I’ve seen what ANCSA has done for Alaska Native people across the state. While these many refinements, additions, and amendments over the years have changed parts of the legislation, its core goal to bring power back to Alaska Native people has remained true in its entirety.

2) How is ANCSA viewed by representatives from other states? How often are ANCSA’s legal policies relevant to your work? How does ANCSA impact Alaskan politics in general?

ANCSA, and the way the tribal structure differs significantly from the Lower 48 model, has created a set of challenges and lack of understanding by representatives from other states. An ANCSA corporation is not like other corporations, a fact that is often lost on those who don’t understand this law.

In my time in the Senate, I’ve personally been involved in a number of efforts to improve ANCSA, from ensuring we’re providing the necessary funds to fulfil requirements to transfer lands to introducing a more comprehensive ANCSA Improvement Act to help ensure ANCSA continues to serve and benefit Alaska Natives as Congress intended.

Even as we continue to improve ANCSA, it stands as one of the foundational laws for Alaska and Native people. The corporations it created have been pivotal for Alaska Natives’ self-determination and have become anchors for our state’s economy.

3) What do you think will be the largest challenge related to ANCSA in the next 50 years? What are some potential solutions to these challenges?

ANCSA continues to evolve and the promise of ANCSA has not yet been completely fulfilled. Education will continue to be key in helping people understand the legacy of ANCSA and its real-world impacts on Alaska Native people. ANCs are socially driven enterprises and have a mission to promote the social well-being of Alaska Natives. The work educating both Alaskans and interests in the Lower 48 will be critical to protecting ANC eligibility for federal programs and opportunities.

One of the most significant amendments to ANCSA was the expansion of shareholder eligibility so Alaska Natives born after December 18, 1971 could be added to the rolls. Not all of the regional ANCs have voted to do so, but these discussions continue. Ensuring we continue to listen to Alaskan stakeholders will ensure that ANCSA will remain strong well into the future.

4) Is there anything you think people should know about ANCSA that they might not be aware of, or anything else that you’d like to add about this topic?

I just want to reinforce the significance of this law and my commitment to building upon previous efforts to strengthen the impacts of ANCSA on Alaska Native communities.

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This story is part of a joint project between Indian Country Today, Alaska Public Media, and Anchorage Daily News on the 50th anniversary of the landmark Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Funding for ICT’s ANCSA project is provided in part by the Alaska Center for Excellence in Journalism and the Solutions Journalism Network. Stay updated on ICT’s ANCSA project using #ANCSA50 and at https://indiancountrytoday.com/tag/ancsa-50.

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