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"What Rights to Land Have the Alaska Natives?: The Primary Question" - May, 1966

A controversy of immense proportions is rapidly coming to a head in Alaska. It is a situation which has lain dormant (except for sporadic outbursts) since Alaska was purchased from Russia in 1867. This problem has been skirted by Congress, alternately grappled with by the Department of Interior then dropped to allow the furor to settle, kept Alaskan political leaders frustrated, and the courts have ruled time and again - but never with finality nor clarity. The problem is simply this: What are the rights of the Alaskan Natives to the property and resources upon which they have lived since time immemorial?

            Two extreme positions may be taken on this issue by those unacquainted with the legal complexities of the problem. The two positions are held by both Natives and non-Natives. One hold that the Alaska aborigine is simply a citizen of the United States and of Alaska with no more rights than any other citizens – therefore has no more right to land than Alaskan settlers arriving later. The opposing view holds that the Alaskan Indians, Eskimos, and Aleuts – due to their habitation of and use of natural resources have an “aboriginal title” to land and its products which cannot be deprived them without their consent.

            The problem is, of course, much more complex than is indicated above. It is politically volatile, an administrative tangle, and a judicial granny-knot which has been clouded by various opinions in courts at different levels.

            This paper will trace the general development of the controversy since the acquisition of the Territory in 1867, attempt to clarify the issues through the presentation of court rulings, Interior Department decisions, and Congressional acts, and indicate more recent developments which appear to be leading up to a final solution of the problem.

            The following statement reflects most cogently the mood in which the Alaskan Native seeks to resolve the land question - after a century of governmental indecision:

            “They are beginning to speak, after the long silence. And they are beginning to grow angry and impatient. It is a situation the United States government must heed closely, not only for basic human reasons but for the international implications as well.

            “***Their future is perhaps the most critical problem the State of Alaska faces today.”1

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