Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act
Pressure to settle land claims
The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 is a very complex Act that sets into law what has been called a national experiment on a truly grand scale. The Act, known as ANCSA, has been both praised and criticized. To begin to understand the circumstances that led to the passage of ANCSA it is important to note that ANCSA was developed for a group of human beings who had a very real claim to their ancestral homelands in Alaska, a claim that had not been extinguished in treaty.
Click to view full-size map. Krauss, Michael, Gary Holton, Jim Kerr, and Colin T. West. 2011. Indigenous Peoples and Languages of Alaska. Fairbanks and Anchorage: Alaska Native Language Center and UAA Institute of Social and Economic Research. Online: http://www.uaf.edu/anla/map
As the young state of Alaska began to develop, Alaska Native people were in danger of being disenfranchised and sidelined. An Athabascan raised in the Cook Inlet region has described what it felt like to be Alaska Native in the state in the late 1960s - before the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act - as like being "-- foreigners in our own country".
The plight of Alaska Native people likely would have not been enough to compel settlement. However, economic forces would come into being in the late-1960s that would compel Congress to move to settle the yet unsettled aboriginal claim to land by Alaska Native people.
The state of Alaska began to move to acquire the 105 million acres of land promised to it under the Statehood Act. Secretary of Interior Stewart Udall became convinced of the need to both recognize and settle aboriginal claims to land prior to making further conveyances to the state of Alaska. He placed a "land freeze" on all conveyances of and permits on federal land in Alaska until the matter was settled.
In 1968, oil was discovered on State land on the North Slope of Alaska. Soon, plans for an 800-mile pipeline traversing Alaska to move oil from the Prudhoe Bay oil field to the town of Valdez were in the works. Alaska Native groups claimed that any pipeline right-of-way stretching across the state must surely cross Native land. In 1970 a federal judge agreed and halted the issuance of the pipeline construction permits.
Both of these actions, the halting of the pipeline construction permits and the placing of a land freeze on further disposition of federal land, put pressure on Congress to act to settle the matter. Congress enacted the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act on Dec. 18, 1971.
The passage of the Act was not without struggle. For four long years, spirited debate focused on just how much land Alaska Natives would retain and how much cash they would be granted for the extinguishment of their claims. The final bill that emerged settled the amount of land at 44 million acres. In addition, as payment for lands not conveyed, the monetary component of the settlement was $963 million to be distributed in accordance with the terms set out in the Act.