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NPS in Alaska Before 1972

current topic ANCSA

Response to ANCSA, 1971-1973


NPS in Alaska, 1973-1980





The National Park Service and the
Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980: Administrative History

Chapter Two:
The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act
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B. Native Land Claims

As Alaska state officials undertook the selection of land granted under the Statehood Act they faced a number of problems. In the first place, knowledge of what a large portion of Alaska's lands contained was still relatively superficial, something that made selecting lands that would provide a sound economic base obviously difficult. State officials admitted, moreover, that they did not have the financial wherewithal to provide adequate management for the lands. The statehood act allowed state officials, finally, twenty—five years to make selections. [10] As a result, state officials moved slowly in selecting land during the 1960s. By the end of that decade they had selected less than a quarter of their entitlement--some 28,000,000 acres, chosen in hopes of bolstering the state's economy, most notably in the oil, gas, and mineral industries. [11]

Nevertheless, almost as soon as state officials began to divide rural Alaska, it became apparent that the failure to have addressed the question of the land claims of Alaska Natives in the statehood act virtually assured almost continual conflict. The state's efforts to select the most productive lands clashed, in many instances, with the Natives' need to use the land to maintain their traditional lifestyles. In 1961, for example, the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs filed protests over state selections on behalf of four Native villages that claimed about 5,800,000 acres of land near Fairbanks. State officials had already selected and filed for 1,700,000 acres of land near the Athabascan village of Minto, which they intended to develop as a recreation area for Fairbanks residents. State officials believed, as well, that the area possessed the potential for future oil and gas development. [12]

The villagers of Minto, who were not consulted in the proposal, depended upon that land for their livelihood. They protested, recognizing that state plans to develop the area threatened their way of life. Other Native villagers across Alaska soon found themselves confronted by similar challenges. In 1965, for example, villagers in Tanacross, a small village near Fairbanks, were outraged when they discovered that the state intended to sell lots around their traditional fishing ground at George Lake to visitors at the Alaska booth at the New York World Fair. [13]

Threats to the Native lifestyles from state land selections predominated in the early 1960s. They were not, however, the only problem Alaska Natives faced. In 1961, for example, the Inupiat Eskimo artist Howard Rock discovered that the United States Atomic Energy Commission planned to detonate a nuclear device at Cape Thompson on the northwest coast. The purpose was to create a harbor that would be used for shipment of minerals. Villagers at Point Hope, Kivalina, and Noatak, however, had long used the Cape Thompson area for hunting and egging. [14]

In 1963 Natives along the Yukon River were outraged when Senator Ernest Gruening urged Congress to fund the huge Rampart Dam hydroelectric project of the Yukon Flats Region in northcentral Alaska. Especially galling to Natives in the area was Gruening's claim that the 10,000-square-mile lake that would be created by the dam would flood only a "vast swamp uninhabited except for seven small Indian villages." [15]

When Congress debated Alaska statehood, the Alaskan Natives had been an unorganized, seemingly helpless group who had little voice in the decisions that would shape their future. By the mid-1960s, however, a growing self-awareness fostered by the recognition that their very way of life was in danger had galvanized the Natives. Native associations sprang up all over Alaska. After Howard Rock published the first edition of Tundra Times in 1962, the Natives had a common voice. When the Alaska Federation of Natives brought the village and regional associations together in 1966, a organized Native community emerged as a potent political force in Alaska. The question of their land claims could be ignored no longer. [16]

In 1963 Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall appointed a three-person Alaska Task Force on Native Affairs to study the entire question of Alaska Native land claims. Secretary Udall's action followed a request by some 1000 Natives from twenty-four villages in the Alaska Peninsula, Yukon River Delta, Bristol Bay area, and Aleutian Islands to impose a freeze on all transfers of land ownership in their villages until land rights could be confirmed. [17] Secretary Udall, it is obvious, ignored the request for a freeze on land transfers. The recommendations presented him by the task force he appointed would be unacceptable to Native groups as well—prompt granting of up to 160 acres to individuals for homes or fish camps, and hunting sites; withdrawal of "small acreages" for village growth; and designation of areas for Native use, but not ownership for traditional food-gathering activities. Nevertheless, the Interior Department had signaled that it, too, believed the time had come for settlement of Alaska Native land claims. [18]

Three years later, the newly-formed Alaska Federation of Natives made a similar request for a freeze on land transfers. In what was in part a recognition of the growing political power of the Alaska Natives, Secretary Udall stopped the transfer of all lands claimed by Natives until Congress had time to act on the matter. [19] The extent of the moratorium depended, of course, on number and extent of claims. By May 1967 thirty-nine claims ranging in size from the 640 acres claimed by the village of Chilikoot to 50,000,000 acres claimed by the Arctic Slope Native Association had been filed. In all, because of overlapping claims, about 380,000,000 acres--an amount greater than the land area of Alaska--was affected by the freeze. [20]

Although some, Senator Gruening, for example, preferred that the question be resolved in the courts, most recognized that the problem of Native land claims demanded a legislative solution. As early as July 1966 the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Bureau of Land Management had prepared a draft of the bill "dealing with Alaska Natives land problems." [21]

The first bills, however, were not introduced until the summer of 1967. In that year, one sponsored by the Department of the Interior, the other by the Alaska Federation of Natives, would have authorized a court to determine compensation for lands lost. The AFN bill would have allowed the court to award title to lands with no acreage specified, while the Interior Department's bill would have authorized a maximum of 50,000 acres in trust for each village. [22] Not until four years later, under considerably different circumstances would a settlement be produced.

In his delightful book Coming into the Country, John McPhee wrote that the Alaska Natives Claims Settlement Act was

perhaps the great, final, and retributive payment for all of American history's Native claims--an attempt to extinguish something more than title. The settlement suggests not only principle but interest as well on twenty decades of national guilt.

Perhaps. Joe Upicksoun, president of the North Slope Native Association advanced another explanation, however, when he told Native leaders attending a late 1970 Alaska Federation of Natives Conference:

We realize each of you has a special pride in his own land. By accident of nature, right now the eyes of the nation and the world are centered on the north slope. . . .

Without intending to belittle your land, the real reason for the entire settlement is oil, which by accident is on our land, not yours. [23]

Upiksoun referred, of course, to the 1968 discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope by Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) and Humble Oil and Refining Company. He might have mentioned, as well, the plans announced by a consortium consisting of ARCO, Humble, and British Petroleum, Ltd. to construct an 800-mile-long hot oil pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, a small fishing village on Prince William Sound. The discovery of oil, and the companies' awareness that no pipeline could be laid across the Yukon River Valley until land claims of the Alaskan Natives were settled, soon gave the Natives an invaluable ally in their fight for justice. [24] It is not too much to say, in fact, that concern on the part of Congress and the administration over delays in construction of the Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) was as much responsible, or more, for passage and final shape of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 than was concern for justice for the Alaska Natives.

Chapter Two continues with...
Origins of the National Interest Lands Provision (17(d)(2))


Last Modified: Tues, Jan 9 2001 10:08 am PDT

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