The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act turns 50 this month. Few could have predicted in 1971 how this would help shape Alaska and its economy today.
Tens of thousands of Alaskans are now employed by the private, legally-formed development companies known as ANCSA, which have also transferred 45 million acres of federal land to private ownership.
Today, Alaska Native Societies, abbreviated ANC, do business around the world, primarily on behalf of federal agencies. The resulting profits flow back to Alaska, much of which is reinvested here.
Indigenous businesses are now important sources of capital for business growth in the state, and what is important is that this is patient capital invested for the long term, not money. sharks from out of state looking for a quick profit.
Alaska legacy businesses, many of which are family-owned, look to Indigenous corporations to form partnerships for expansion or to sell in retirement, and Native corporations prefer to invest in their homes when they can.
Have you ever noticed all those office towers in downtown Anchorage with the names of their native company owners displayed proudly? Much of this office space is occupied by operating companies owned by NCAs.
In addition, dividends paid to Aboriginal shareholders are an important source of new money brought to the state. While many shareholders live out of state, most are in Alaska, many in rural villages.
Data released over the past few years shows that dividends can be very large depending on the company. Much of this money is spent in the Alaskan economy.
What is remarkable to me is how ordinary it all seems to most Alaskans today. NCAs are taken for granted, as if they always had to be.
This is not quite true, of course.
Emil Notti, first president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, who is widely credited with leading the land claims movement to a successful conclusion in 1971, has often pointed out that without the unique circumstances and timing of the 1960s – including the sympathetic federal administrations under Lyndon B Johnson and later Richard Nixon – and the discovery of oil on the North Slope of Alaska, ANCSA may never have happened, at least not when and how it happened. is produced.
Things could have gone wrong in several ways. Willie Hensley, another colony architect, says if regional Native associations hadn’t overcome historical rivalries and suspicions, Congress would have used this as an excuse to do nothing.
Notti’s patient negotiation at the head of the AFN kept unity, which was essential for the settlement, Hensley said.
Another way things could have turned out badly is if Alaskan politicians hadn’t abandoned their initial opposition to the colony, which involved a significant area. Hensley recalls a tense meeting with then-US Senator Ernest Gruening in which the senator berated him for claiming a large amount of land.
Then Alaska Governor Bill Egan wasn’t thrilled either. The state has expressed support for a 10 million acre settlement, but not the desired 40 million AFNs. Mike Gravel, who followed Gruening to the US Senate, was the first elected official from the state of Alaska to support 40 million acres.
When he became governor, Walter Hickel, like Egan, supported only a small colony. Hickel has been returned. In the US Senate confirmation hearings for his appointment as Home Secretary, he approved the largest land package.
How it happened is a tale. Hensley and other AFN executives cornered the governor in his Washington, DC hotel room and threatened to oppose his appointment. Hickel earlier supported 40 million acres, but then backtracked in the face of exhortation from Alaskans who opposed the colony.
US Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, who chaired the Senate Interior Committee that held hearings on Hickel’s appointment, placed great emphasis on AFN’s views. It was also crucial that the state support the larger land deal.
Interestingly, the first Alaskan business group to support a substantial settlement was the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce after its board of directors was won over by Don Wright, who then succeeded Notti as the head of the ‘AFN. Wright argued that having 40 million Alaskan acres in private rather than federal ownership would be good for economic development.
However, many Alaskans still opposed the ANSCA, among them Bob Atwood, influential editor of the Anchorage Times, who was quick to use what was then the state’s largest newspaper to argue his views and which influenced Anchorage’s business leaders and politicians.
What ultimately spun Atwood and other opponents was oil. The companies that were then planning the Trans-Alaska Pipeline to move the newly discovered oil from the North Slope needed a right of way through federal lands, and this was blocked until Indigenous claims to the lands. are settled.
Historian Jack Roderick, now deceased, recalled Ed Patton, the first president of Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., showing up to an Anchorage Chamber of Commerce meeting and, in his typical blunt style, saying “No claims law, no pipeline”.
The Alaskans absolutely wanted the pipeline, so that was the end of most opposition to the ANSCA.
The oil industry helped lobby Congress for settlement. It was a covenant of convenience, of course, but it worked. What is less known is that two years later, in 1973, Indigenous groups helped Congress pass the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act, so the pipeline could be built.
It was also a covenant of convenience. Half of the $ 962 million in cash from the ANCSA settlement was paid for by an overriding federal royalty on oil production from Prudhoe Bay. The pipeline had to be built so that a large portion of the cash settlement would be paid.
ANSAA is now considered a huge success, but there have been problems. Most companies have done well, but there have been stumbling blocks for a few.
Some Native Alaskan people also felt that the benefits of ANSCA were not shared equitably, which led to a vigorous renewal of a tribal movement in Alaska.
Today, however, this is seen as a positive, as tribes can do things locally that private ANCSA companies cannot. Tribes can also tap into federal funding sources for local services and development.
Despite its flaws, the 1971 settlement is seen as a model of how a society can resolve Indigenous land claims in a peaceful and constructive manner. Other Western countries have attempted to replicate ANSAA. Only Canada came close, and it was done differently.
In most places, the stars, politically and economically, did not align like they did in Alaska. If that hadn’t happened, would there have been a settlement?
Probably, but it would have been smaller.
Would there have been a pipeline? Probably, but it would have been significantly delayed. And that would have created a lot of trouble and resentment.
Tim bradner covered the first land claims movements in the 1960s for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner and the Tundra Times.
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