Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (1971) (Major Acts of Congress)
Steven J. Gunn
Congress designed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 (P.L. 92-203, 85 Stat. 688) to resolve the land claims of Alaska's Native inhabitants. Alaska Natives, including Indians, Eskimos, and Aleuts, occupied Alaska for centuries before the Treaty of Cession from Russia of 1867 when the United States purchased Alaska. However, neither the Treaty of Cession nor any subsequent act (including the Organic Act of 1884, in which the United States made Alaska a "district" and allowed for the creation of a local government and the enforcement of local laws, and the Alaska Statehood Act of 1958, in which the U.S. made Alaska the forty-ninth state) clarified the nature or extent of Alaska Native land rights. These rights were based on the Natives' historic or aboriginal use and occupancy of Alaska lands, not on treaties between Alaska Natives and the United States.
By the time the United States made Alaska a state in 1958, it had formally recognized the land rights of only a handful of the state's Native villages. For example, in 1891 Congress established the Annette Island Reserve for the Metlakalta Indian Community and after 1891 a number of presidential orders created other reservations. But many Native inhabitants continued to make claims for land that government officials did not formally recognize.
The Alaska Statehood Act set in motion a conflict between the state of Alaska and its Native inhabitants that eventually led to the adoption of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Through the Statehood Act, Alaska disclaimed all rights to any lands belonging to Alaska Natives. However, the Act
Image Pop-UpThe Brooks Range in Alaska towers over Dalton highway, which runs parallel to the Alaskan pipeline. The discovery of oil created pressure for the government to settle claims by the Alaskan Natives for most of the land in the newly established state. Natives received 44 million acres of land and $962.5 million in return for relinquishing their claims to the rest of Alaska.
SETTLEMENT OF NATIVE LAND CLAIMS
The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act gave Alaska Natives legal title to approximately forty-four million acres of Alaskan land. The Act also established an Alaska Native Fund of $962.5 million to compensate the Natives for the lands and rights taken from them. The Act extinguished "[a]ll aboriginal titles, if any, and claims of aboriginal title in Alaska based on use and occupancy." The Act revoked all reservations in the state, except the Annette Island Reserve.
In the Act, Congress stated its desire to settle the Native land claims "without creating a reservation system" like that found in the continental United States. The Act established a landholding system different in two fundamental respects from that in the lower forty-eight states. First, Alaska Native lands were owned not by tribes or by the United States as trustee for the tribes, but rather by newly established regional and village corporations. The Settlement Act authorized the creation of thirteen regional corporations and over 200 smaller village corporations to own and manage the forty-four million acres selected by the Natives and paid them the $962.5 million settlement. All Natives were eligible to be shareholders in one or more of these corporations, which were chartered under Alaska state law. Second, Native lands were owned by the regional and village corporations as "fee simple," which meant there were no restrictions on the ability of the corporations to use or sell the lands as they saw fit. In contrast, nearly all Native lands in the continental United States are owned by the federal government, held in trust for the tribes, and cannot be used or sold without the consent of the United States.
ARE ALASKA NATIVE LANDS INDIAN COUNTRY?
The corporate ownership of Native lands and the ability of Native corporations to freely sell their lands distinguish Alaska Native landholdings from most, if not all, Indian landholdings in the continental United States. In view of these distinctions, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Alaska v. Native Village of Venetie (1998) that Alaska Native lands (other than the Annette Island Reserve) do not qualify as "Indian country," a category of lands under United States law that includes Indian reservations, allotments made under the General Allotment Act, and other lands set apart and administered by the United States for Indians. Because Native lands are not Indian country, Alaska Natives cannot exercise full governmental powers over them. For example, Natives cannot regulate or tax the activities of nonmembers who live, work, travel, or conduct business on Native lands. These activities are governed instead by state and federal law. Native tribes, however, do have the power to regulate many activities occurring inside Native country.
The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act extinguished the aboriginal hunting and fishing rights of Alaska Natives. After the Act, Natives were required to comply with state laws when hunting and fishing anywhere in the state. Many of these state laws prevented Natives from engaging in their traditional subsistence ways of life. In 1980 Congress remedied this problem by enacting the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. This act allowed Alaska Natives and other rural residents to engage in subsistence hunting and fishing on public lands.
See also: INDIAN GENERAL ALLOTMENT ACT (DAWES ACT).
Arnold, Robert D. Alaska Native Land Claims. Anchorage: Alaska Native Foundation, 1976.
Prucha, Francis Paul M. The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.