Native Alaskans Are Compensated for Their Land Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Native Alaskans received compensation in return for relinquishing their claims to lands they historically occupied with the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

Summary of Event

The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) was signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon on December 18, 1971. It represented the culmination of a long struggle over native land claims that was compounded by the immediate need to construct a pipeline to carry oil from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez through lands claimed by Native Alaskans. The ANCSA granted 44 million acres of land and $962.5 million to Native Alaskans in exchange for the relinquishment of their claims to the remaining nine-tenths of the land in Alaska. The law provided for an equitable distribution of funds among the three primary native groups (the Aleuts, Inuits, and Eskimos) and allowed first village corporations and then the regional native corporations, formed by the ANCSA, to select their lands. The Alaska Federation of Natives, Alaska Federation of Natives speaking for the Alaska Native groups, accepted the settlement by a vote of 511 to 56, despite concerns about how it would affect traditional native patterns of hunting and fishing. Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (1971) Native Americans;Alaska Native Alaskans [kw]Native Alaskans Are Compensated for Their Land (Dec. 18, 1971) [kw]Alaskans Are Compensated for Their Land, Native (Dec. 18, 1971) [kw]Land, Native Alaskans Are Compensated for Their (Dec. 18, 1971) Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (1971) Native Americans;Alaska Native Alaskans [g]North America;Dec. 18, 1971: Native Alaskans Are Compensated for Their Land[00490] [g]United States;Dec. 18, 1971: Native Alaskans Are Compensated for Their Land[00490] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Dec. 18, 1971: Native Alaskans Are Compensated for Their Land[00490] [c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;Dec. 18, 1971: Native Alaskans Are Compensated for Their Land[00490] Hickel, Walter J. Nixon, Richard M. [p]Nixon, Richard M.;Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act Udall, Stewart L.

The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act provided for an equitable distribution of funds among the three primary native groups of the region, Aleuts, Inuits, and Eskimos, such as this Eskimo family of the Kuskokwim River region. The measure transformed Alaskan native economies from subsistence-level hunting and fishing economies to business-for-profit economies. The difficult transition from life on reservations to membership in native corporations nevertheless gave Native Alaskans influence in state politics that they had never before enjoyed.

(Library of Congress)

Land claims had long been a disputed issue between Native Alaskans and the U.S. government. A Supreme Court ruling in 1955 declared that the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution did not protect native land rights. When Alaska became the forty-ninth state of the Union in 1959, it was granted the right to select 103.3 million acres of land over the next twenty-five years without any acknowledgment of claims by Native Alaskans. Between 1959 and 1969, the state claimed 19 million acres. By comparison, Native Alaskans owned only 500 acres and had restricted title to another 15,000 acres. Since the state claimed nearly 28 percent of Alaskan territory, fears arose that there would be little valuable land remaining to satisfy native claims, and native opposition to state land claims intensified.

Some Native Alaskans believed that proposed use of their lands by the state or federal government would violate traditional rights enjoyed by the native inhabitants. The Atomic Energy Commission, Atomic Energy Commission, U.S. for example, sought to use Cape Thompson as a nuclear testing site; it was situated near an Eskimo village, with a population of three hundred, at Point Hope and the ancestral lands the villagers used for hunting. Another issue under dispute was the proposed Rampart Dam, a hydroelectric project that was to be built on the Yukon River in the north-central region of the state. Opponents of the dam argued that it would damage wildlife breeding grounds, displace twelve hundred natives from seven small villages, and endanger the livelihood of five thousand to six thousand others who depended on salmon in that area. Finally, the state was beginning to legislate hunting restrictions on state-owned land, which natives believed would threaten their traditional way of life. In the early 1960’s, native groups began to take action to protect their interests. From 1961 through 1968, Native Alaskans filed claims protesting the state’s use of 337 million acres of Alaskan territory.

In 1960, Native Alaskans constituted roughly 20 percent of the Alaskan population. For those living in native communities or villages, life consisted of subsistence hunting and fishing, which necessitated access to large amounts of land. Many were seasonally employed and lived in poverty. Some 70 percent had less than an elementary education, and only 10 percent had received a secondary education. Owing to disease, alcoholism, and impoverished conditions, the average life span of Native Alaskans was about thirty-five years of age, half the national average. Many Native Alaskans believed that existing laws, rather than protecting them, stripped them of rights to lands that they claimed. They generally did not consider either the state or the federal government to be supportive of their concerns.

Two other groups who entered the contest over land claims were developers and environmentalists. Developers desired the construction of more fisheries and canneries, as well as highways and industries that would enable Alaska’s natural resources to be fully developed. Environmentalists sought protection of certain lands as parks, natural wilderness areas, and wildlife refuges. By 1966, land disputes had become so hotly contested that Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall ordered a freeze on all transfers of land claimed by the natives until a mutually acceptable agreement could be reached.

Following the discovery at Prudhoe Bay, on the North Slope of Alaska, of one of the largest oil fields ever found, the federal government proposed that a pipeline be constructed across the state to transport the oil to Valdez, a city easily accessible for loading petroleum because of its position as a year-round ice-free port on Prince William Sound. The proposed route of the eight-hundred-mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline System Trans-Alaska Pipeline System[Transalaska Pipeline System] included twenty miles of land that was claimed by Native Alaskans, who feared that construction of the pipeline would likely lead to other infringements of their land claims. By this time, however, the Alaska Native Brotherhood and the Alaska Federation of Natives, among other native groups, were well organized to press for their interests. It became evident that the land issue would have to be resolved before the pipeline was built.

Walter J. Hickel, Udall’s successor as secretary of the interior, extended the land freeze in 1970. A federal restraining order halted the project until a settlement could be reached. Because developers and oil companies were anxious to get the project under way, pressure was applied to settle the issue quickly. Other interested parties anticipated benefits from the construction of the pipeline, which promised lower petroleum prices to the federal government, revenue to the state, land preservation to environmentalists, and previously denied rights to natives, particularly title to land that they believed was theirs. British Petroleum, one of the interested parties, agreed to lobby for a bill that would protect native land interests. A joint Senate-House conference committee drew up the final bill, which gained widespread support. It passed Congress and President Nixon signed it into law on December 18, 1971.

Significance

The ANCSA resolved the long-standing dispute regarding native rights to land in Alaska. Native land claims were extinguished in return for title to 44 million acres that included mineral rights, as well as $962.5 million in additional compensation. Twelve regional corporations were established between 1972 and 1974 (to which a thirteenth was added for natives not living in Alaska) in order to manage the funds and organize land selection. Every Native Alaskan became a member of a regional corporation, in which he or she was given one hundred shares of stock. In addition, about 220 village corporations were formed to oversee the distribution of land at the local level. Native reservations were abolished, and 16 million acres of land were set aside for selection by the village corporations.

The village corporations were allowed to select their land over a three-year period and the regional corporations over four years. Beneficiaries of the land claims were required to be one-quarter Native Alaskan (either Inuit, Aleut, or Eskimo) and had to be born on or before December 18, 1971. While the land selection involved a lengthy process, native corporations eventually selected 102 million acres instead of the allotted 44 million. For twenty years after the passage of the act, Native Alaskans were not permitted to sell their stock to nonnatives, and their undeveloped land was not to be taxed. In 1987, Congress passed the “1991 amendments,” which preserved the tax-exemption benefits on undeveloped lands indefinitely and allowed new stock to be issued to Native Alaskans born after December 18, 1971.

The ANCSA was, in many respects, a watershed in the history of Native Alaskans that promised to change their way of life permanently. The act began the transformation of Native Alaskan cultures from a subsistence economy based on traditional hunting and fishing patterns to one based on ownership of modern business-for-profit ventures. Many Native Alaskans embarked on a difficult transition from life on reservations to membership in native corporations that undertook a variety of commercial enterprises. These corporations invested in banking, hotels, fisheries, real estate, and mineral exploration. Some were successful and some were not. Nevertheless, the acquisition of land and income gave Native Alaskans a position of influence in state politics that they had never had before. Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (1971) Native Americans;Alaska Native Alaskans

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anders, Gary C. “Social and Economic Consequences of Federal Indian Policy.” Economic Development and Cultural Change 37, no. 2 (January, 1989): 285-303. Includes discussion of the effects of the ANCSA on the Alaskan Natives.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Arnold, Robert D., et al. Alaska Native Land Claims. Anchorage: Alaska Native Foundation, 1978. A comprehensive discussion of the act and its significance.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berger, Thomas R. Village Journey: The Report of the Alaska Native Review Commission. Reprint. New York: Hill & Wang, 1995. A critical account of the effects of the ANCSA on Native Alaskans.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berry, Mary Clay. The Alaska Pipeline: The Politics of Oil and Native Land Claims. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975. Describes the influence of the construction of the pipeline on the passage of the ANCSA.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Case, David S., and David A. Voluck. Alaska Natives and American Laws. 2d ed. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 2002. A detailed description of the historical interaction of Native Alaskans and U.S. law.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Haycox, Stephen W. Frigid Embrace: Politics, Economics, and Environment in Alaska. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2002. Presents some of the historical roots of the environmental controversies in Alaska. Devotes discussion to the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay and other milestones.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Strohmeyer, John. Extreme Conditions: Big Oil and the Transformation of Alaska. Juneau, Alaska: Todd Communications, 1997. Illustrates the impact of the petroleum industry and law on native peoples.

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