By CIRI Historian AJ McClanahan
Bureaucrats nearly derailed implementation of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in the early 1970s when Alaska Native leaders were struggling to create and run the new corporations. Former CIRI President Roy Huhndorf has described the first five years under ANCSA as a "wholesale, unending, bitter struggle."
Within months after the passage of ANCSA on Dec. 18, 1971, the Bureau of Land Management started writing land selection regulations designed to rewrite ANCSA and ignore congressional intent. Among other egregious provisions was a list of criteria for villages, which would have eliminated many villages from eligibility for land and money under the act. In addition, there were provisions placing numerous specific easements and many "floating" easements on lands to be conveyed. Requiring the new Native landowners to provide access to so much of their land, especially access routes that would be "moving targets" would have substantially decreased the value of Native lands and made management of trespassing almost impossible.
"Since the Settlement Act was passed in 1971, Natives have had to engage in an almost continuous struggle to prevent the Department of the Interior from using these provisions to chip away at the land rights granted them by Congress," testified Willie Hensley on June 14, 1976. At the time, Hensley was serving on the NANA Board of Directors, and he spoke in oversight hearings before the Senate Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs in Washington, D.C.
Hensley's concerns echoed those raised by then-CIRI President Huhndorf, who testified on June 10, 1976, that lethargy, under-budgeting and even a reluctance to implement the Act on the part of some officials produced a spirit of crisis and feelings of frustration. The interplay between local officials in Alaska and the BLM in Washington, D.C., drained Native leaders, he said.
The tasks before the corporations
were tough enough without the leadership having to deal with federal
conduct that bordered on malfeasance.
"We are being triply disadvantaged by the failure of the Secretary to convey lands to Native Villages 'immediately,' as is provided by Section 14 of the Act. Inflation is eating away at our settlement. The grace period from state and local taxation has been sorely depleted. And our leadership is being diverted from economic development by disputes over awesomely hostile interpretations of poorly drafted public land orders and Secretarial regulations," Huhndorf said.
Even under ideal conditions of cooperation with the government, Native leaders would have had their hands full.
"The corporations are trying manfully to accomplish in two decades what others, with great support, take generations to complete. We are seeking to establish useful, productive businesses; we are seeking to provide for the welfare of our shareholders; we are trying to train Native people for positions of leadership in the corporations," Huhndorf said. "All this takes time. These are constructive and important tasks. But we cannot accomplish these tasks if we are continuously dealt body blows by the Bureau of Land Management."
Speaking as president of
the Alaska Federation of Natives, Sam Kito, Jr. talked about the tremendous
potential the Act had, "The Settlement Act was hailed as an historic
departure from the sad history of broken treaties with the Indian
people. Congress indeed broke new ground; the Executive branch is
sadly unable to respond in the same spirit. Federal agencies, primarily
the Department of the Interior, continue to follow the path of the
past. Promise the Natives whatever it takes in order to get their
land, then break those promises to get even more of their land away
Kito had hope for ANCSA's future. "History need not repeat itself. The
time for fulfilling the promise of the Settlement Act has not passed.
The Act can be saved and the treaty fulfilled if the Secretary will
only decide to study the Act, understand its history, and administer
it as a treaty of settlement with the Natives rather than some form
of unjustified giveaway of federal lands," Kito said.
Although important "omnibus" amendments to the act had been passed early in 1976, little had been done to speed up conveyance of land. According to the June 15, 1976, Alaska Native Management Report, less than one-half of one percent of the 44 million acres mandated to be conveyed had been actually conveyed.
Within the next two years after the oversight hearings, however, three more amendments were passed to ANCSA on Oct. 4, 1976; on Nov. 15, 1977; and on Nov. 6, 1978. Although the amendments dealt with a variety of issues, ranging from CIRI lands to income tax provisions for Native corporations, the net effect of congressional action was to begin the process of convincing the bureaucracy that the implementation of ANCSA must be allowed to proceed. Gradually, the logjam on Native land conveyances was broken.
Although dealing with federal bureaucrats continued to be challenging at times, difficulties that Native leaders faced as an entire group never again sank to the level of ANCSA's first five years.
former CIRI president and CEO