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Land Claims

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


            Congress, in 1887, in one of its periodic bursts of activity in the Indian field, passed an act designed to allow Indians in the mainland to become private, agricultural landowners. They sought to break up the traditional tribal ownership of lands, to civilize them by imbuing them with the respect for private ownership, and thereby to assimilate and integrate them into the American melting pot. This act was known as the General Allotment Act.

            In 1906, Senator Nelson introduced a bill in Congress which was passed without debate extending the provisions f the General Allotment Act to Alaskan Natives.20 Up to this time, there was no way in which title to land could be obtained unless a Native had been somehow recognized as being “civilized” and therefore a citizen capable of holding property.

            The Native Allotment Act provides authority for the Secretary of the Interior: “***to allot not to exceed 160 acres of vacant, unappropriated, and unreserved nonmineral land in Alaska…to any Indian, Aleut, or Eskimo of full or mixed blood who resides in and is the head of a family, or is twenty-one years of age.”21

            This land was to belong to the allottee and his heirs in perpetuity, inalienable, and nontaxable, “except as otherwise provided by the Congress.” Furthermore, the cultivation aspect and other requirements of the homestead laws applied to whites did not apply to Natives.

            The act has been amended several times, but the most significant recent change occurred in 1965 when there was an attempt to allow Natives to obtain title to their wide-ranging use of land – instead of the usual 160 section, the amendment provided that:

            “A Native may be granted a single allotment of not to exceed 160 acres of land. All the lands in an allotment need not be contiguous but each separate tract of the allotment should be in reasonably compact form.”22

            This change still did not eliminate the inevitable – the Government still was dealing with the Native on an individual basis and was not allowing for the tribal nature of various groups, their common conceptions of land use, and had made a significant retreat from earlier proposals designed to allow the Natives sufficient large areas for the continuance of their hunting, trapping, and fishing economies.

            The use of the word “tribe” in the Treaty of Cession, the Organic Act of 1884, and other laws recognized the tribal nature of Alaskan Natives although it was, in some cases, indistinct and not as easily recognizable as most tribal structures the Federal Government has to deal with.

            The following excerpts from various court opinions at different levels reflect judicial usage of the term “tribe”, indicating that the protection given by the government was not limited to individuals but to whole groups of Natives.       

            “The uncivilized native tribes of Alaska are wards of the government; but United States has the right, and it is its duty, to protect the property right of its Indian wards.”23

            “Indians of aboriginal tribes in Alaska will not be disturbed in possession of land held since May 17, 1884 and June 6, 1900.”24

            “…the general laws passed by Congress in relation to the Indian tribes of the United States extended to Alaska, and the uncivilized tribes there are entitled to the same rights, privileges and immunities under such laws as are the aboriginal tribes within the United States.” 25

            The benevolence of Congress and the Interior Department in their attempts to secure satisfaction for individual claimants of aboriginal lands merely postponed decisions which had to be made on claims put forth by tribal, village, or regional groups of Natives.

            The Native Allotment Act of 1906 and the subsequent amendments, though designed to bestow ownership of land to Natives, failed miserably. Failure to appropriate funds after the passage of the original act for the necessary surveys, investigating the claims, and recording the allotments 26 practically etherialized what hopes there might have been for the 26,000 Natives existent at the time to obtain land after the passage of the legislation.

            It was left completely up to the Natives to take the initiative in securing an allotment. Without knowledge of the English language nor a government representative to explain the law, it is no surprise that there are only 360-400 allotments27 recorded at the Bureau of Land Management out of a Native population today of nearly 50,000. There is still grossly inadequate advice, indeed in any, for the large majority of Eskimos, Indians, and Aleuts on the procedures and regulations of the Allotment Act.

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