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Teacher's Guide

Regional History
Modern Alaska
Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act

As Alaska territorial leaders looked forward to Alaska statehood, they wondered about the rights of Alaska Natives to their land. Leaders in both Native and non-Natives communities knew the sad history of Indian land rights in the Lower 48. Congress had included a "disclaimer clause" (Alaskans disclaim any right or title to land that may be subject to Native title) in the Alaska statehood act in order to prevent a repeat of what had happened to Indian lands. At the state constitutional convention territorial leaders had discussed setting aside some land in the proposed state as Native land, but in the end, referred that question back to the federal government.

BLM ANCSA Hearings
Alaska Native Brotherhood hall, Sitka, April 11, 1975
Meanwhile, in 1947, acting on a previous Congressional authorization the Tlingit and Haida Indians had sued in federal court for title to all of the land in their region - all of Southeast Alaska. The basis for this claim was that they had a tradition of ownership in their culture and they had used and occupied all of the land in the past. In the court's 1959 finding the judges agreed with the Tlingit and Haida tribes. The U.S. Congress had ended the Indian title, the court noted, when it created the Tongass National Forest in 1905, covering almost all of Southeast Alaska. The court said the U.S. government should pay the Indians for the taking of their land title. Eventually, in 1968, the U.S. did pay for the 1905 taking of Alaska Native (Tlingit and Haida) title, but not in the amount that the Indians and others thought they should have.

All of Alaska faced a similar situation in 1959 as the new state leaders began selecting the 104 million acres that had been granted in granted in the statehood act. Native groups protested many of the selections, based on the disclaimer in the statehood act (Alaska could not claim title to lands that may already be subject to Native title). What lands in Alaska might be subject to Native title? Congress had never made any treaties with Alaska Natives. Congress and the executive branch had taken about 54 million acres (of Alaska's 375 million acres) in specific withdrawals, creating the Tongass and Chugach National Forests, Katmai National Monument, Mt. McKinley National Park, Glacier Bay National Monument, Petroleum Reserve No. 4 (renamed National Petroleum Reserve - Alaska in 1980), and a number of small fish and wildlife refuges. These withdrawals had ended any Native title on those lands. But nearly all of the rest of Alaska could be subject to Native title.

In the years just before and after statehood the federal government made several proposals for projects in Alaska that threatened Natives and Native lands. The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) proposed detonating five low-yield nuclear devices at a site in the Arctic Ocean near Point Hope, to test whether such devices could be used in heavy construction In this case it was to build a ship harbor. The fallout from the explosions would have contaminated vegetation eaten by migrating caribou , which the Inupiaq of the region depended on for food. Criticism forced the AEC to eventually abandon the plan, but the disregard of Native interests and well-being alarmed Native leaders and sympathetic non Natives. At the same time the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed construction of a high dam on the Yukon River, in the Ramparts area below Yukon Flats. It is where the river had cut into a hard rock formation that was capable of holding a large dam. Seven Native villages would have been flooded, causing the relocation of people and homes. In addition, the resulting reservoir would have flooded the breeding habitat of tens of thousands of migratory waterfowl. The Corps eventually abandoned the project, but concern over the plan to force village relocations generated more Native resentment.

In 1962, following a conference of Inuit people in Barrow discussing the AEC project, Eskimo artist Howard Rock urged the founding of a Native newspaper, to keep people informed on issues important to Native people and their communities. With funding from philanthropist Henry S. Forbes, Rock began the Tundra Times which was published weekly until 1997. Equal rights for minorities was a driving issue during the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, and Alaska Natives quickly learned to describe their common concerns. They developed sophisticated political strategies to encourage people to address concerns. . Many Alaska Natives had previously been sent by the BIA to schools outside Alaska. Though their adjustment was very difficult, it was these schools that brought together many young Natives who would go on to become important leaders. . They often used the perspectives they had learned from other Native Alaskans at the Indian schools. Awareness, energy, and new leadership helped Alaska Natives stay informed about the state's land selections, and to take action to protect Native rights. I In 1966 Native leaders from across the state formed the first statewide Native organization, the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN), to advocate for Alaska Native interests.

By 1966, title to Alaska land was in complete confusion. Between 1959 and 1966 the state had indicated the lands it would like, and Natives continued to protest. By 1966 more land was under protest than the total number of acres in the state because many Native claims overlapped. No planning for economic development could take place if potential investors did not have clear title to the land they were interested in.

When things seemed to be out of control, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall, stopped the state land selection process. At that time the federal government had given provisional title to about 12 million acres the state had selected. Remarkably, this included the lands at Prudhoe Bay, between the Arctic National Wildlife Range, established in 1960, and Petroleum Reserve No. 4.

In 1968 the federal government produced a big report on Alaska Native conditions and on historic Native land use patterns called Alaska Natives and the Land.
(U.S. Federal Field Committee for Development Planning in Alaska, Alaska Natives and the Land [U.S. Government Printing Office, 1968]).

Based on this report and other information, federal, state and Native negotiators finally agreed on the general outlines of a settlement. Natives would gain clear title to lands they had historically used; and the U.S. government would pay them for surrendering potential claims to other lands. The challenge to all Alaskans was how to make the money work for Natives forever. This challenge was the hardest part of the settlement. The AFN brought forth a solution to this question with a revolutionary proposal. The money would be used to fund regional and village economic development corporations. All Alaska Natives who chose to would become shareholders in one or another of these corporations. The role of the corporations would be to invest the money for profit. Dividends would be paid to Native shareholders from the earnings of the corporation of which they were members.

Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act
An act to provide for the settlement of certain land claims of Alaska Natives, and for other purposes.
This was the structure of the historic Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) that Congress passed in 1971 and President Nixon signed on December 17t.. Alaska Natives gained title to 44 million acres of historically used land in Alaska. The U.S. government paid $962.5 million in compensation so that Natives would not claim any title to the remaining land in the state. The 75,000 Natives in Alaska were encouraged to enroll in the corporation of their choice of the twelve regional corporations. Villagers could choose to form as many corporations as they wanted. Later, a 13th corporation was formed for Natives living outside Alaska. This settlement was unlike anything that had ever been established for any Native Americans y; it legitimized Alaska Natives as no other action had.

There were great celebrations in Alaska with the passage of ANCSA. Native leaders took pride in the fact that Alaska Natives would have official title to land they had always thought of as theirs. State leaders cleared a hurdle to economic development and the state land selection process. Alaskans and non-Alaskans alike applauded the measure of justice given to Alaska's Native people who had long been ignored, discriminated against and taken for granted.

Native leaders noted that the ANCSA settlement raised Alaska Natives in the eyes of many Alaskans, achieving for all Alaska Natives a dignity and legitimacy they did not have before the act. But there were - and are - critics of the act also. Many Natives have argued that not enough land was granted Native title, and that Natives received too little money for giving up potential title to so much more land. Some noted that while the leaders in regions and villages prospered under the act, many ordinary villagers have not. Others suggested that because the corporations have a responsibility to make a profit, and that most opportunities to do that are outside Alaska, corporate leaders are focused on circumstances far from village Alaska. Soon after the act was passed leaders worried that Natives born after 1971 had no way to participate directly, since they could not become shareholders except by inheritance. And there was concern that corporations might lose the land if their investments were unsuccessful and the corporation faced bankruptcy.

In 1989 Congress passed amendments to address some of these concerns. The amendments allowed corporations to create new stock by dividing the existing shares, if a majority of the shareholders agreed. For corporations that this option, the value of all shareholders' class A stock is devalued, so few corporations have taken advantage of this option. The amendments also allowed corporation land to be put into "land bank" status, so as not to be taxed until developed. In recent years shareholders have debated the role of the corporations. Some leaders called for greater attention to the social aspects of Native life; others pointed out that the legislation establishing the corporations did not mention any social obligations. . This question is likely to be heavily debated in the future.

Alaska Federation of Natives
Alaska Federation of Natives
ANCSA amendments

While some of the corporations have been successful and have produced cash dividends for their shareholders, not all have. ANCSA provides that successful corporations must share some of their profits with all the other corporations. The corporations have also had a substantial impact on Alaska's economy. Native corporations are the largest single private landholders in Alaska. They are some of the most successful businesses. In 2004 Native corporation assets totaled $2.9 billion. Their combined total payroll was $408 million from the employment of 12,123 people. In 2002 the corporations distributed $45.6 million in dividends to shareholders. Corporations profits for that year were $124 million.


  • Alaska Native Knowledge Network: AK Native Claims Settlement Act
  • Articles on AK Native Land Claims Settlement Act of 1971

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