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Alaska Native Land Claims
Unit 5 - The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act: An Introduction
Chapter 23 - Alaska Native Corporations

Chapter 23
Alaska Native Corporations

Corporations established under the claims settlement act are governed not only by the control systems imposed by the State of Alaska upon all corporations, but also by the act itself.

The articles of incorporation and bylaws of a regional corporation require the approval of the Secretary of the Interior, not just the State. Furthermore, any proposed changes in the articles of incorporation require the Secretary's approval for a period of five years after incorporation. Financial reports of regional corporations are to be furnished to the Secretary and to the Congress.

Unlike typical business corporations formed by the voluntary purchase of stock by individuals, corporations established under the act obtain initial capital and operating monies from Congressional appropriations and mineral revenues. They obtain land under the act. They then make eligible Natives stockholders by issuing stock. Unlike stockholders in typical corporations, these stockholders cannot sell their stock or transfer any rights in it for 20 years. Over this period, with one exception, only Natives have voting rights. Depending upon the provisions of a corporation's bylaws, a non-Native custodian of a stockholder who is a minor may be allowed to vote.

Other controls imposed by the act upon corporations created under it are taken up in chapters which follow.

Regional business corporations. With the exception of members of certain revoked reserves, all enrolled Natives were to become stockholders in business corporations formed along the boundaries of 12 regional Native associations listed in the settlement act, or a special 13th corporation.

The 12 associations in Alaska whose boundaries would be the basis of the regional business corporations were the Arctic Slope Native Association, Bering Straits Native Association, Northwest Alaska Native Association, Association of Village Council Presidents, Tanana Chiefs Conference, Cook Inlet Native Association, Bristol Bay Native Association, Aleut League, Chugach Native Association, Tlingit-Haida Central Council, Kodiak Area Native Association, and the Copper River Native Association. All eligible Natives enrolling to these regions would become stockholders in the corporations formed in them, except for members of reserves revoked by the act which voted to accept full ownership of their former reserves.

The 12 regional corporations would have important roles in implementing the settlement within their geographic boundaries. Among other things, they would:

Natives residing outside of Alaska who were adults would be required to vote when they enrolled on whether they wished to establish a 13th region of their own. If a majority of those voting favored such a region, it would be established for those favoring it. Benefits for its members would be limited to sharing only in the authorized money settlement. Those opposing the 13th region would be enrolled to one of the other 12 corporations. If a majority voting opposed the formation, all nonresident Natives would become stockholders in one or another of the 12 regional corporations in Alaska.

Some eligible Natives would become stockholders only in regional corporations, because their permanent homes were away from villages certified to benefit from the act. They would be "at-large" stockholders. Other eligible Natives would be members of both regional and village corporations.

Village Corporations. All eligible Native villages would be required to form corporations. Eligible villages were defined as communities half or more of whose population were Natives, having at least 25 Natives who were residents, and not being modern or urban in character. While more than 200 villages were listed in the act, some of them would not be eligible and others not in the list could be found eligible.

Eligible villages were given the choice of incorporating either as business corporations or as nonprofit corporations. The nonprofit corporation would neither make money nor pay dividends, but would provide a service of some kind to the village.

Village corporations would not replace village councils or the governing bodies of municipal governments, but some of the same persons might serve on both.

One of the responsibilities of a village corporation would be to plan for the use of claims money received. But its plan would require the approval of its regional corporation before it could obtain its share of the claims money. The village corporation was also to select land and to plan for its transfer or management. In selecting land, the village would have the assistance of its regional corporation. Any proposed transactions in land by the village would have to be submitted to the regional corporation for its review and advice.

These illustrations of the subordinate role of the village corporation to the regional corporation, together with the regional responsibilities over its basic control systems show clearly that the village corporation was meant to be not entirely independent. How much freedom in decision-making it would have would be discovered in practice over the next few years.

A new vocabulary. All eligible Natives were to become stockholders in one or two corporations, and these corporations would receive, hold, and manage nearly all of the land and money from the claims settlement. But most Natives had but little familiarity with the corporation as a form of organization, the laws governing it, and how it functions.

To understand the corporation and other terms of the settlement act meant acquiring a whole new vocabulary of perhaps thousands of words. Furthermore, the deadlines imposed by the law (such as establishing regional corporations within 18 months) meant that new vocabulary had to be acquired promptly.

There was yet another difficulty for thousands of beneficiaries of the act. Many villagers, particularly older persons of northern and western Alaska, could neither read nor write English, and some of them did not speak nor understand it.

Poet and musician John Angaiak of Tununak, who speaks both English and Yupik, says some explanations are reasonably manageable. A bilingual Native with a formal education certainly can understand "profit-making" and he might explain, as he translates, that "profit-making is a parent dollar that gives birth to many more little dollars." Similarly, Angaiak says he might begin moving toward a definition of corporation in Yupik with relative ease — corporation-aaq naucimalartuq pikestai akingevkararkauluki — "a corporation is made up of owners who receive money through it."

But Angaiak says that some translators might have difficulty with a lawyer's definition because the terms employed are not known to him. "The corporation is a group of people, put together by statute as a legal person, given powers to contract, to own property, to acquire and dispose of it in the name of the corporation, and otherwise act upon business within the limits of the powers granted by the articles of incorporation." To translate such a definition demands that substantial knowledge be possessed by the translator, in addition to his being bilingual.

Even though specific legal terms might be difficult to translate, the function of a corporation would be understandable, at least to whaling communities. This is the view of Charles Edwardsen, Jr., of Barrow, whose role in the claims struggle was portrayed by Hugh Gallagher in Etok: A Story of Eskimo Power. Edwardsen wrote that the Inupiat are accustomed as members of a whaling crew to working together to achieve a shared goal, just as a corporation does. "Now," he said, "the Eskimo has a new harpoon."


In 1975 the possibility remained that Alaska Natives might obtain money payments in addition to the $962.5 million authorized by the claims settlement act. Such compensation, if any, would be based upon damages caused by trespassers on Native-claimed lands before the act's adoption.

The door was opened to the possibility of compensation by a decision handed down in late 1973 by a federal court in Edwardsen v. Morton. In that case (filed in late 1971) Charles Edwardsen, Jr., and others contended that North Slope Eskimos had suffered damages to their hunting grounds, graveyards, and other places because of oil exploration activities. Their suit was against the Department of the Interior, which had allowed the activities, and its then-Secretary Rogers C.B. Morton. The court held that the settlement act extinguished any title held by Natives, but that its passage did not prevent trespass suits for damages occurring before its adoption, December 18, 1971.

The court also ordered the U.S. Departments of Justice and the Interior to file suits on behalf of North Slope Eskimos. In September 1975, federal attorneys sued Alyeska Pipeline Company, the State of Alaska, and 124 other organizations or persons for an unspecified amount of money.

In response, a spokesman for the State declared that if the suit were successful, it would allow Natives to bring additional suits for all instances of trespass by all non-Natives. The spokesman, Attorney General Avrum Gross, announced that the State would contend the claims cited by Edwardsen and others were extinguished by the settlement act.


Alaska Native Land Claims Copyright 1976, 1978 by the Alaska Native Foundation
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