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

NATIVE TOWNSITES

            Besides the Native allotment, another method by which Alaska Natives may obtain title to land upon which they live is the particular provision relating to townsites on public lands. The President, through the Secretary of the Interior has the authority to reserve public lands for townsite purposes, either on his own motion or by petitions requesting the reservations.28

            An act passed in 1926 provided for Alaskan Indian and Eskimo occupants of land in townsites to obtain a restricted deed to the land they occupy.29 There was to be no payment for purchase or fees for the publication and proof as is commonly required with ordinary trustee townsites. The lots were to be nontaxable, inalienable (if held by restricted deed), and

            The Bureau of Indian Affairs through the Area director must first determine the “competency” of the applicant for an unrestricted deed before the property can be sold to a third party. This restriction is applied both to the Native allotments and to townsites for the protection of those who are unable to protect themselves from unscrupulous buyers who might take advantage of the Native’s property and ignorance of the law to obtain the property. There have been very few applications for unrestricted deeds 30 – which is either a reflection of the lack of knowledge about the status of their lots or a desire to maintain inalienable tax-free property.

            One author feels the Bureau of Indian Affairs is responsible for the perpetuation of restricted deeds,31 but it appears that the knowledge of deeds, townsites, surveying, and business in general is limited among most Alaskan Natives and private property per se is not a commanding aspect of their cultures – which suggests that restricted deeds may be held due to disinterest or illiteracy.

            The procedures for determining competency are apparently informal – a few leading Natives are asked by a B.I.A. official if a particular person is “capable of running his own affairs” – if so, he is ruled “competent”, thus able to sell his land.

            The restricted deeds held by Alaskan Natives have been ruled constitutional by an Alaskan court.32 Furthermore, the power of the State over land held by such deeds is practically nil, as presently, “the restricted property of Indians is subject to the plenary control of the Federal Government.”33

            The provisions of the Native Allotment Act and the Native Townsite Act allow Natives to secure property upon which they live as individuals. Of course, a whole community of Native people could secure a Native townsite, as in the case of Stevens Village and Grayling but the lands are still held by individuals. The following section will discuss the power of the Interior Department to set up areas for the use and occupancy of Indians and Eskimos as groups.

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