Alaska Native Land Claims
Unit 4 - The Land Claims Struggle
Chapter 15 - Alternative Solutions
Land rights recognized. Natives had won recognition from the Interior Department by 1963 that resolution of the issue of Native land rights was long overdue. This was shown in the report of the Alaska Task Force on Native Affairs, a three-man group appointed by Interior Secretary Stewart Udall. The report cited the failure in the Organic Act to provide a means by which Natives might obtain title. It noted that, in the ensuing 78 years, Congress had "largely sidestepped the issue of aboriginal claims," and if Congress was ever to define Native entitlement, it should do so promptly.
Recognition of Native land rights was also demonstrated in the increasing attention given the subject by Alaska's congressmen, by State officials, and by persons or groups outside of the state. These spokesmen offered a variety of solutions to the land claims issue.
Differing approaches were offered by members of Alaska's delegation in Washington, D.C. Senator Ernest Gruening suggested that the claims of Native groups should be settled in the U.S. Court of Claims. But that approach was seen by Representative Ralph Rivers as one that would take too long. Rivers said he believed Congress should extinguish Native land rights and award cash compensation. He opposed grants of land to Native claimants. "What would they do with it?" he asked. "They wouldn't use it. It would just lie there."
Senator E. L. "Bob" Bartlett urged that State land selections be allowed to proceed before a land settlement was reached. He said he thought that villages would not require more than one million acres in land and suggested that cash payment could be made for other lands to which Natives claimed ownership.
State officials also urged that the Natives allow the State to proceed with its selections and then enter into cooperative planning with the State for use of the lands. The director of the Alaska Division of Lands told Minto claimants, for example, that federal action might not be helpful to either the State or the Natives. He said:
My own personal observation is that it is difficult to get anything done through the federal government. The State is more flexible to right wrongs . . . I don't think you people want a reservation. That way it would be under BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] control wouldn't it? You wouldn't be able to decide anything.
Opinions on how the Native land settlement should be approached also came from sources which were prominent in the field of national Indian affairs. William Brandon, author and historian, wrote President John F. Kennedy in 1962 requesting that he propose legislation for a claims settlement and that he halt land transfers in Alaska until the claims were settled. Early in 1963, the National Council on Indian Affairs, comprised of 16 member organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Association on American Indian Affairs, and national religious groups made similar recommendations.
The report of the Alaska Task Force included specific recommendations for solution. In addition to urging Congressional action, the Task Force called for: 1) the prompt grant of up to 160 acres to individuals for their homes, fish camps, and hunting sites; 2) withdrawal of "small acreages" for village growth; and 3) designation of areas for Native use but not ownership in traditional food-gathering activities.
Aided by the Association on American Indian Affairs and its executive director, William Byler, Natives were successful in their efforts to prevent the Alaska Task Force recommendations from being carried out. They opposed them, in part, because there was no provision for cash payment for lands they would lose, and because no mineral rights were guaranteed for the lands on which they would have received title. They opposed the recommendations, too, because the land proposed for Native ownership included only small tracts. As the Tundra Times editorialized, "Natives have steadfastly maintained that they need large areas for hunting, fishing, and trapping now and for development of resources later as their economy changes . . . Small areas will not be sufficient."
Four alternatives. To this point, unacceptable solutions were better defined than those that would be acceptable. Alaska Natives were uncertain what course of action might lead to a just solution.
Four basic courses of action appeared to Natives to be open to them. They might seek: 1) to establish reserves under existing law; 2) to resolve their claims in the federal Court of Claims; 3) to obtain legislation at the State level to protect their land rights; or 4) to win a Congressional settlement.
Reserves. One possible course establishment of reserves was given but little consideration as a means of preserving land for their use. While this would result in designation of exclusive use areas for Natives, these areas would be held in trust by the federal government. Natives would be unable to lease, develop, or sell such land without government permission.
Twenty-three Native reserves had been established in Alaska by 1943. None was established after that time. They ranged in size from about 17 acres (for Chilkat Fisheries) to 1,408,000 acres (for Venetie and Arctic Village).
Court action. The experience of the Tlingit and Haida Indians with the courts made Native leaders reluctant to look to judicial settlement of land rights questions. In 1935, the Congress had enacted legislation which permitted the two southeastern groups to sue the federal government in the Court of Claims for land taken by the United States, most of it for the Tongass National Forest, which they historically used and occupied. In 1959, the Court of Claims had supported the claim and decreed that the Tlingits and Haidas were entitled to compensation. The compensation was later set at $7.5 million on the basis of the estimated worth of the land at the time the National Forest was established in 1907.
The Tlingit-Haida settlement took far too long to achieve, and the cash compensation seemed very small, but court action was seen as unsatisfactory for another reason: the Court of Claims had not ever been free to grant legal title to land; its only authority had been to award money for lands lost.
State legislation. Seeking action by the State government to protect land rights was also only briefly considered by Natives. One proposal introduced into the legislature would have created Native reservations of 20 square miles each surrounding the villages. Natives did not push for its passage because the land area that would be preserved for their use was too small and they were not enthusiastic about reservations. The major reason that the proposal was not adopted was that most state legislators agreed that the Native land rights issue could only be resolved by the Congress.
These legislators were right in pointing out that Congress had reserved to itself in the Organic Act the right to define the terms under which Natives might obtain title. It could be argued in reply, however, that the Congress had done so by providing for reserves, allotments, and homesites.
Federal legislation. But Native groups knew these acts of Congress were clearly inadequate to the protection of their land rights. New action by the Congress was needed to provide a settlement of aboriginal claims to land.
The problem, however, of seeking congressional settlement of land claims was the enormous uncertainty of what the results might be. The Congress might grant Natives title to only a small part of their land and some cash compensation for lands given up. Or it might award only compensation. Congressional settlement could be the most rewarding or the most damaging of the four alternatives. Even though court action would take time, the legal case based upon use and occupancy might result in a fairer settlement than that which the political process would produce in the Congress.
While these alternatives were being explored in discussions among Native leaders, none was being actively pursued. A decision to do so would have to await the confederation of small, relatively weak Native associations into an organization which would have the power and resources to see it through.
|Alaska Native Land Claims Copyright 1976, 1978 by the Alaska Native Foundation|