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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 was a hard-won success. Others who lobbied for the bill say it was a compromise that at least put an end to grueling negotiations. The law transferred nearly $1 billion and title to 44 million acres to Alaska Natives.

They had long been seeking justice over the unlawful taking of their lands and resources. In the 1960s events pushed major players to seek a settlement.

After the Statehood Act took effect in 1959, the state began selecting land for state ownership. To protect Native claims, then Secretary of Interior Morris Udall imposed a land freeze that halted land transfers. That brought the state to the table.

The 50th anniversary of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act logo for Indian Country Today's ANCSA 50 project. (Illustration by Holly Mititquq Nordlum, Indian Country Today)

Vast reserves of oil had been discovered on the North Slope. A 1967 oil embargo cutting off Arab oil imports heightened national urgency about developing domestic oil sources. However, developers needed to build a pipeline to get Alaska oil to market and couldn’t get an easement to do so until Native claims were settled. That drew congressional attention.

Nonetheless, Natives walked a razor-thin path to get the bill passed.

“The idea was to get that land so that our people can continue their existence as special people of the earth. ‘Cause they were all tied to that land after 10,000 years. But ... (with Congress) you don't control the process as a minority,” said Willie Hensley, Inupiaq, speaking last week at the Alaska Historical Society annual conference. “You’re basically on hands and knees working as hard as you could to get something, you know?”

“Everyone was against us,” said Hensley, a key player in the talks.

The Alaska Chamber of Commerce mocked the idea of Natives getting land or money.

Hensley said his neighbor’s comments were typical of many. Alaska Mining Association president George Walker, in a letter to Hensley, pointed to the Treaty of Cession of 1867 between the United States and Russia.

“If my understanding of this purchase agreement is correct, then these claims which we are discussing today, should rightfully be directed to the Russian government. I submit to you that neither the United States, the state of Alaska, nor any of us here as individuals owe the Natives one acre of ground or 1 cent of the taxpayer's money,” Hensley quoted from Walker’s letter.

When lobbying of Congress began, differences became apparent.

The first dispute was over whether Natives would get land and money and if so, how much. Then came the question of who would receive and manage the money and land.

Natives wanted more self determination than the reservation system would allow. Some argued for fee simple title for individuals. The Nixon administration proposed the creation of a presidentially appointed commission to manage the land and money and issue dividends to Natives as shareholders.

In what the late Sen. Mike Gravel called “an ideal model for social engineering,” money and title to lands was to go to Alaska Native for-profit corporations.

Deciding how to fairly divide the land among Inupiat, Yup’ik, Unangan and Alutiiq, Athabascan, Tlingit, Haida and Tsimpshian was difficult. Some areas were populous. Others had a small population spread over a vast terrain. Some were resource poor while others’ homelands were rich with oil or timber.

ANCSA: Alaska regional corporations map as designated by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. (Photo courtesy of the National Park Service)

Oliver Leavitt, Inupiaq, another key player in the negotiations, also spoke at the history conference. He said disputes arose over regional boundaries.

“They went up here; they went down over there. I mean, it's just like a see-saw. (But) we found ways (to resolve differences),” Leavitt said.

Some differences went back to pre-contact times.

“We sat and talked around a couple of beers in the evening, and teased each other about our Eskimo-Indian wars and some of the stories that we'd heard,” Leavitt said.

He said when differences cropped up, it was rough. “But somehow you say, ‘old buddy, we got to sit down and talk.’ And we managed.”

Hensley said Natives pulled together on behalf of their descendents.

“We had to work hard…we were hungry, we were cold. We had to run, walk, lift, push. We had to chop, we had to get out there in the cold weather to make a livelihood. And I think people knew all that and they wanted their children and grandchildren to have something better, right? So their life was a little easier,” Hensley said.

In the end, the act mandated the creation of 13 regional corporations, including one for Alaska Natives living in the lower 48 states, and 200 village corporations. It extinguished aboriginal title and terminated aboriginal hunting and fishing rights. The new law required Native corporations to share profits from resource development, which some of the resource-rich areas opposed.

The people of the Arctic slope wanted a third more land than was transferred. Another lobbyist, Sam Kito, Tlingit, said, “as a matter of fact if you go back and you look at the settlement vote and when Nixon signed it and sent it back to us (the statewide Alaska Federation of Natives) to vote on it, Arctic Slope voted no and at the time left AFN.”

Still, Hensley said,“Thank God the stars lined up so that we did get something. Not what we should have gotten; we should've, we could've gotten more.” Opposition from non-Natives in Alaska, Hensley said, kept Alaska Natives from getting what they deserved.

After signing the bill into law on December 18, 1971, President Nixon sent a recorded message of congratulations to Natives gathered at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention. Footage of the announcement shows a somber response.

“You’d think there’d be a celebration,” Hensley said. “There wasn’t. We knew what we had given up.”

Still, Roy Ewan, an Athabascan leader who also had lobbied for the settlement act, in an interview with filmmaker Craig Bauman, praised Native unity.

“I am very proud of the people that were involved in those days. I have a lot of respect for those people who made a lot of sacrifices, who are not here today. A lot of them have passed on and I really want to acknowledge their contribution,” Ewan said. “I think it's great that these people all got together and trusted their leadership to pursue the land claims.” 

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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.