Alaska Subsistence
A National Park Service Management History
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Chapter 1:

F. Toward a Land Claims Settlement

Not long after Alaska became a state, officials in the new government began to organize, evaluate, and select appropriate lands as part of their Congressional allotment. And predictably, several of those selections brought protests from rural residents (primarily Alaska Natives) whose traditional use areas were being jeopardized. By 1961, state officials had already selected and filed for more than 1.7 million acres near the Tanana village of Minto. In response, the Bureau of Indian Affairs that year filed protests on behalf of the villages of Northway, Tanacross, Minto, and Lake Alegnagik for a 5.8 million-acre claim that included the recent state selections. More conflicts, it appeared, were sure to follow. [38]

Other threats to the Natives' traditional lands and lifestyle surfaced during the same period. Back in 1957, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission had conceived of "Project Chariot," a plan to explode a nuclear device at Cape Thompson, near the Inupiat village of Point Hope. [39] The AEC initially announced that the blast was needed to create a harbor that would be used for mineral shipments. Nearby villagers, however, denounced the project beginning in 1959 for two reasons: worries over atomic radiation and because the project was "too close to our hunting and fishing areas." In 1961, Inupiat artist Howard Rock was so moved by the AEC's high-handedness that he decided to publish a weekly newspaper, the Tundra Times, that would address Natives' concerns. Rock spearheaded a campaign against the proposed project, which the government was eventually forced to abandon. [40]

Another huge project was the Rampart Dam proposal, which would have inundated more than 10,000 square miles of the Yukon River valley from the Tanana-Rampart area to the Woodchopper-Coal Creek area, within today's Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. Planning for the project began shortly after statehood, and in 1963 it received a major impetus when U.S. Senator Ernest Gruening urged its construction. Natives were chagrined at the proposal and at Gruening, too, who proclaimed that the proposed dam would flood "only a vast swamp" that was "uninhabited except for seven small Indian villages." The battle over the dam raged for another four years. Finally, in June 1967, Interior Secretary Stewart L. Udall canceled the project, citing economic and biological factors as well as the drastic impact on the area's Native population. [41]

All of these impacts—the land claims process, Project Chariot, the Rampart Dam proposal, and other incidents (such as the protests that followed Rep. John Nusunginya's 1961 arrest for hunting ducks out of season) [42]—awakened Native leaders to the fact that only by organizing would they be able to have their collective voices heard. The first opportunity to organize came in November 1961, when the Association on American Indian Affairs, a New York-based charitable organization, convened a Native rights conference in Barrow that was attended by representatives from various coastal villages, some from as far away as the lower Kuskokwim River. A report prepared at the conference stated, "We the Inupiat have come together for the first time ever in all the years of our history. We had to come together.... We always thought our Inupiat Paitot [our homeland] was safe to be passed down to our future generations as our fathers passed down to us." Later that year, meeting representatives formed Inupiat Paitot, a new regional Native organization. [43]

Other Native organizations followed in short order. In 1962, the Tanana Chiefs Conference was reorganized to deal primarily with "land rights and other problems." During the next few years, Alaska Natives formed several new regional organizations, such as the Bristol Bay Native Association, primarily to press for a land claims settlement. In October 1966, representatives of the newly-formed groups met in Anchorage to form an Alaska-wide Native organization; this group was formally organized the following spring as the Alaska Federation of Natives. [44]

In the meantime, Natives on both an individual and collective level were attempting to provide form and substance regarding how the Federal government should resolve the land claims situation. In response to a land freeze request by a thousand Natives from villages throughout western and southwestern Alaska, Interior Secretary Udall in 1963 appointed a three-person Alaska Task Force on Native Affairs. The task force's report, issued later that year, urged the conveyance of 160-acre tracts to individuals for homes, fish camps, or hunting sites, the withdrawal of "small acreages" in and around villages; and the designation of areas for Native use (but not ownership) for traditional food-gathering activities. Natives, with the assistance of the Association on American Indian Affairs, flatly opposed the task force's recommendations and successfully fought their implementation. In the meantime, they lobbied the Congressional delegation for a more favorable land claims settlement. [45]

The land claims issue quickly crystallized on December 1, 1966 when Secretary Udall, by the first of a series of executive orders, imposed a freeze on land that had been claimed by various Native groups. Udall acted in response to a request from the newly-formed Alaska Federation of Natives; they, as Natives had been doing since 1963, had protested to the Secretary because the state, which had gained tentative approval to the ownership to hundreds of thousand of acres of North Slope land, had announced plans to sell potentially lucrative oil and gas leases for those properties. (What was "frozen" in the first executive order was potential oil-bearing acreage near Point Hope. [46] Commercially-viable quantities of North Slope oil and gas, at this time, had not yet been discovered, but drilling rigs had been moved to other North Slope properties and geologists were hopeful that new deposits would be located.) Because of Udall's action—which was soon applied to other North Slope tracts and extended to the remainder of the state's unreserved lands in August 1967—neither the state nor any private entities could secure title to any land that had been subject to Native claims until Congress resolved the issue. As noted above, Natives by this time had already claimed title to large tracts in western and southwestern Alaska, and within a few months of Udall's action they had filed claims for some 380,000,000 acres—an area approximating that of Alaska's entire land area. [47] The State of Alaska, whose land selections were halted by the freeze, vociferously protested the Secretary's action. The land freeze remained, however, until Congress was able to resolve the issue through appropriate legislation. [48]

One important area of the state, it should be noted, was relatively unaffected by the Udall's executive orders. In southeastern Alaska, the overwhelming preponderance of land, by the mid-1920s, had already been withdrawn by the federal government, either for Tongass National Forest or Glacier Bay National Monument. Because this state of affairs gave Natives few opportunities to acquire their own acreage, Congress had first addressed land claim issues in the Tlingit and Haida Jurisdictional Act, passed on June 15, 1935. That act authorized a "central committee" of Natives in that region to bring suit in the U.S. Court of Claims to compensate them for federal lands from which aboriginal title had been usurped. In response, William Paul and other lawyers representing the Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB) filed a $35 million suit "for the value of the land, hunting and fishing rights taken without compensation." But other factors intervened, the lawsuit was sidelined, and in 1941 the ANB formed a separate entity—soon to be called the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indians of Alaska—to take up the cause. The case itself was filed by James Curry in 1947. After many delays, the Court of Claims decided on October 7, 1959 that the Tlingits and Haidas had established aboriginal title to six designated areas. [49] But it took another nine years—until January 19, 1968—for the court to award the Tlingit and Haida Indians of Alaska $7.55 million in monetary damages. Although the court awarded the plaintiffs less than one-fourth of the amount they had originally requested—an amount that Central Council president John Borbridge judged to be "grossly inadequate"—it also concluded that Indian title to more than 2.6 million acres of land in southeastern Alaska had not been extinguished. Eighteen months later, Congress passed a law that authorized the Tlingit and Haida Central Council to manage the proceeds of the judgment fund for the benefit of the Tlingit and Haida Indians. [50]

The stakes involved in the land-claims controversy rose dramatically in late 1967 and early 1968 when oil, in gargantuan quantities, was discovered on the North Slope. Most if not all of the land above the underground oil reservoirs, as suggested above, was either owned or had been selected by the State of Alaska. Further testing showed that the Prudhoe Bay field, in one geologist's opinion, was "almost certainly of Middle-Eastern proportions." Optimism about the field's potential ran to such Olympian heights that a state oil-lease sale, held in Anchorage in September 1969, brought in more than $900 million in bonus bids. [51] The rush was on.

But the oil, valuable as it was, benefited no one unless it could reach outside markets, and to provide a transport mechanism an oil-company consortium called the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, in late 1969, applied to the Interior Department for a permit to construct a hot-oil pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to the port of Valdez on ice-free Prince William Sound. Interior Department approval was necessary because the proposed pipeline right-of-way, and the proposed North Slope haul road, crossed hundreds of miles of federal lands. Secretary Hickel, well aware of the land claims controversy, favored the pipeline, and in early March 1970 he was on the verge of issuing a permit for construction of the haul road. But on March 9, five Native villages, one of which was Stevens Village, sued in district court to prevent the permit from being issued, citing claims to the pipeline and road rights-of-way. In response to that suit, Judge George L. Hart issued a temporary injunction against the project until the lands issue could be resolved. [52]

By the time Judge Hart made his decision, Congress had been grappling with the land claims issue for more than three years. The issue had been the subject of at least one task force, a Federal Field Committee report, an Interior Department proposal, several Congressional bills and legislative hearings. But opposition from mining and sportsmen's groups, plus the widely divergent views of various key players, had slowed progress toward a mutually acceptable solution. Hart's decision, however, forced the powerful oil companies to lobby for a resolution to the lands impasse, and the path toward a final bill gained new momentum. [53]

The stage was set for Congress to act. The path toward a land claims bill would be long and tortuous, and a final bill—the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act—would not emerge until December 1971. The details of that act, and its implications on National Park Service policy in Alaska, will be discussed in Chapter 4.

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Last Updated: 14-Mar-2003