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Meghan Sullivan
Indian Country Today

"There are as many ways to be Indigenous as there are Native people in the state, and because our communities are in such a state of flux and have changed so quickly over just a few short generations, we are all still figuring it out,” writes Cordelia Qiġñaaq Kellie, Inupiaq. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was one of those recent changes. As with any other topic, there are countless different ways that individual Indigenous Alaskans and the 200 + communities they belong to view ANCSA and navigate the dynamics it created.

Leading up to the 50th anniversary of ANCSA on Dec. 17, Indian Country Today will be highlighting a wide range of these experiences, including insights from the elders who fought for the land, perspectives from current leaders today, and future goals from younger generations.

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One of the foundational leaders of the Alaska Native land claims movement was Sam Kito, Tlingit. He was born in Petersburg, Alaska, and went to high school in Juneau. His post graduate life took him to many places, including the Marines, technical school in New York City, and a job at the Kennedy Space Center. 

By the late 60s, he moved to Fairbanks, where his advocacy began. Kito was president of the Fairbanks Native Association during ANCSA’s passage, executive vice president of Tanana Chiefs Conference, and chairman of the Alaska Federation of Natives. He was also the executive vice president of Doyon, the regional corporation for interior Alaska, during the company’s formative years.

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)

To kick off our ANCSA at 50 profile series, we start with an Alaska Native elder who was there from the very beginning. Kito’s main takeaway? Alaska Native unity made the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act possible, and it’s a value that is still needed today.

What motivated you to get involved with the land claims movement?

I started to be involved with Alaska Native issues when I was younger in high school, but I didn't follow it when I graduated, because I ended up joining the Marine Corps for four years. But when I moved to Fairbanks, I was approached by Ralph Perdue on behalf of the Fairbanks Native Association to go work for them, even though I was born and raised in Southeast Alaska. It started with just helping at a potlatch, but they ended up giving me a way to work for Alaska Native issues. That was my beginning, which was around 1968.

My awakening to the Alaska Native people was my representation of the Athabascan Nation and the Interior of Alaska. It’s interesting because I was Tlingit Indian. And I didn't really get involved in Native issues until I moved to Fairbanks. Here I was, Tlingit Indian in the middle of Athabascan country. Once I got involved, the Athabascan region was very supportive of me as an outsider representing them. And I think that really motivated me.

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What was ANCSA’s biggest success?

I think ANCSA’s biggest success was bringing together 12 different regions that had very little communication with each other. The land claims movement led us to form the Alaska Federation of Natives, an organization that represented all Alaska Native communities. We had to work together in order to formulate a settlement that was agreeable to all the villages and regions. I think that was a very significant move, and it was the result of us getting together to fight for the land.

What is one word that comes to mind when you think of your work on ANCSA?

Unity. We were all from different regions, but we were unified with a purpose.

What is a piece of advice you have for future generations?

Listen and take the input of your elders. That’s something we always made sure we did when we were younger. And I have to say, I think I see that kind of fading.

In the past 50 years, ANCSA has given us the ability to create an economic and social base, so that education is always a priority. But with education, with all the intelligence that you have at your fingertips, there's a tendency in the modern age that we're living in now to not have a rear view mirror that allows you to look back and remember where you came from. And I think that's starting to be an issue across the state.

Howard Rock, Sam Kito, and Willie Hensley at the Tundra Times Banquet. (Photo courtesy of the Tundra Times, 1973)

What is a piece of advice that elders gave you when you were younger?

Remember the younger generation. I think of Chief Andrew Isaac, who was from the Tanacross area. He spoke for himself, but he also spoke for the region. Whenever he made a speech, the one issue that he talked about was the younger generation. And that stuck with me all my life. His phrase was, “You remember the younger generation, because one day the younger generation is going to be you”. And I think sometimes leaders can forget that. We get people that think they're going to live forever. But we don't want a dictatorship. And they forget about how they got to the top, and how they need to build up new leadership from the bottom.

What part of your ANCSA work are you most proud of?

Calling all the regions together to solve 7i. We ended up meeting in Oregon on a tribal reservation. I can't remember the name of their tribe now. But all 12 regions’ representatives met and negotiated the 7i agreement, and that same 7i agreement is what is still standing today. The 7i was a mechanism added into ANCSA later. With 7i, regional corporations were instructed to keep 30 percent of their revenue that came from subsurface estate resource development, and distribute the remaining 70 percent to the rest of the corporations.

In the original 7i settlement, part of the thinking was to make sure that all the corporations were going to survive. And quite frankly, without naming names, there were a couple of regional corporations that were in trouble financially. But through the 7i agreement, they were able to obtain enough funds for those corporations to survive. So there was some good that came out of the 7i agreement.

The work wasn’t done after ANCSA passed, there were a number of other subsequent issues we had to work on. We spent a lot of time in DC, negotiating with the federal government on the implementation of the act, on what lands were going to be available for the regions and the villages to select. We ended up traveling to the 35 villages in order to assist in the land selection. That process went on for a number of years.

Sam Kito, Mike Grovel, Irene Rowan ,Ted Stevens, John Borbridge. (Photo courtesy of Tundra Times, 1975)

Is there anything related to ANCSA that you didn’t expect to occur?

I was surprised that the basic form of 7i was able to hold together. But I do think that they're starting to develop problems. And I think they're going to have to get together again and try to figure out how it's going to be settled. One problem is the exchange of surface estate for subsurface estate, and how that impacts the distribution. It’ll also change as the corporations’ resource development strategies change.

Now that we're at the 50th anniversary of ANCSA, is there anything that seems different from the 40th or 30th anniversary?

I think that region by region, village by village, we've been growing apart. And as you grow apart, you start doing things like you want them done, and you have less concern for what other other regions are doing. Independence of each other is something that is starting to happen over time. And I think they have to look in the rearview mirror and figure out how they got to where they are today. Because unity is a strength, not a weakness.

I think the Alaska Federation of Natives was the key to solving all of our differences back then, and that we need internal mechanisms like that to keep solving differences. Over time, there's been a lack of institutional memory about how and why AFN was created. I believe because of the strength of unity, AFN has created the ability for Alaska Natives to forcefully position ourselves in the education world, in the business world, and the social and economic world. Everything is a consequence of unity. I look across the state, and I see different regions pulling out of AFN, because they had a local reason to pull out. And I think they're not looking beyond the border. They should be looking a little higher, so that they see what's going on throughout the state and be able to work together with other regions.

Sam Kito working on an appeal

Is there anything else you think people should know about ANCSA?

There's one issue that we haven't had a solution to: subsistence. We were going to put subsistence into the Constitution of the State of Alaska and we missed it by one vote. But that was 30 years ago. And that was the closest we got. We haven't been able to unify strong enough and long enough in order to put together a plan to protect subsistence for Alaska Natives throughout the state.

The idea would be to give subsistence priority to Alaska Natives. And that is still the goal, but it gets further away as you get more people that are not involved and don't understand subsistence. There's more people now from the Lower 48 that have moved into the state that don't have any idea what subsistence is. They've never had to live off the land.

There are also a lot of Alaska Native people that are moving to the urban communities, where they have to go back to the village where their parents or their grandparents were from to practice subsistence. If you live somewhere in the Lower 48, or you live in Anchorage or Fairbanks or Juneau, you can still reach out to do subsistence, but you have to make an effort for it. It’s not living subsistence the way they do in the local communities. And that's something that you have to have to be concerned about.

Modern generations of people are just generally more migratory. They move where the employment is. There's nothing wrong with that, but they just have to remember to look back and build that base where they came from, because that's the important part.

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This story is part of Indian Country Today’s series 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. Stay updated on ICT’s ANCSA project using #ANCSA50 and at https://indiancountrytoday.com/tag/ancsa-50.

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