Cook Inlet Region, Incorporated, also known as CIRI, is one of twelve land-based Alaska Native regional corporations created by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 (ANCSA or the Act).
The Act addressed the aboriginal claim to land by Alaska Native people by mandating the formation of for-profit corporations representing various regions of the state and by providing land and seed capital to those corporations. CIRI is one of those corporations, with regional boundaries that roughly follow the traditional Dena’ina territory of southcentral Alaska. CIRI was incorporated on June 8, 1972.
Through ANCSA, Alaska Native people living on Dec. 18, 1971, were allowed to enroll as shareholders of one of the regional corporations. Some 79,000 people were originally enrolled through this process. Each enrolled Alaska Native was subsequently issued 100 shares of restricted stock in the regional corporation to which he or she was enrolled. In this way, ANCSA provided the framework for the corporations to provide economic, educational and social service and other cultural benefits to current and future generations of shareholders. Today, CIRI has more than 8,800 shareholders. Our Alaska Native shareholders are of Athabascan and Southeast Indian, Inupiat, Yupik, Alutiiq (Sugpiaq) and Aleut (Unangax) descent. Approximately one-third of CIRI’s shareholders live in Anchorage, one-third in other parts of Alaska and one-third in other states in the Lower 48 states and Hawaii.
ANCSA, a purposeful alternative to the reservation system, was the first settlement of its kind between Native Americans and the federal government. Alaska Native leaders fought for the corporate structure for holding land and capital, with the freedom to control their own economic and social future.
Through the years, CIRI has grown into one of Alaska’s leading corporations with diverse business interests across the state, the nation and overseas.
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.
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.
The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, known as ANCSA, has been called an extraordinary experiment in relations between the federal government and indigenous people because it uses business models to mold the federal government’s relationship with Alaska’s indigenous peoples.
At the time ANCSA was passed, Alaska Natives had made claims to lands covering the entire state of Alaska. These were valid claims by peoples whose cultures dated back into the pre-history of the region.
As Congress struggled to craft the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, what emerged was the view held by both Alaska Native and congressional leaders that a reservation system with sustained federal government oversight was not what was wanted by either party. Alaska Native leaders fought hard for full and complete control of their destiny, without the oversight of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. And that is what they got.
The Act dealt with all Alaska Native groups, creating twelve distinct regional and over 200 village corporations representing about 79,000 Alaska Native people. A 13th regional corporation was established later to accommodate the wishes of some Alaska Native people who had moved outside of the state – although this was not strictly necessary as Alaska Native people living outside the state had other options that allowed them to enroll into one of the other twelve regional corporations formed within the state.
The Act provided for the conveyance of 44 million acres of land in Alaska through an entitlement process that allocated land to each of the regional and village corporations. The Act also provided for nearly $1 billion as compensation for land not returned, which funds were allocated to the corporations and when distributed were to act as seed capital.
Alaska Natives benefited from the fact that the claims were settled by an act of Congress as opposed to a treaty because Acts can be amended; treaties cannot.
ANCSA is a living document, and some of the changes that have been made to the Act have been very significant. For example, ANCSA originally called for Alaska Natives to be allowed to sell their Native corporation stock 20 years after the passage of the Act. In other words, Native control could have been lost. As a result of major amendments enacted in 1988, however, Alaska Native shareholders were authorized to continue the restrictions on the sale of stock in perpetuity. This means that Alaska Native control of the corporations can continue as long as the shareholders want. As a result of the amendments, stock restrictions can be lifted only by a vote of the majority of shares. To date, no corporation has voted to lift the restrictions.
The first two decades after the passage of the Act, the twelve land-based Alaska Native regional corporations faced many challenges including the sometimes difficult job of fulfilling the land entitlements set out in the Act. In addition, the corporations struggled to make profitable investments and to grow successful businesses in the early years. Now, 40 years since the passage of the Act, the twelve Alaska Native regional corporations are becoming an economic force in Alaska, owning and operating large businesses within the state, providing jobs and dividends to their shareholders.
What is perhaps the most noteworthy about ANCSA and the regional corporations is that the traditional Alaska business model has been turned on its head. Ever since Alaska was first colonized by the Russians, the model has been for outsiders to exploit Alaska’s resources, such as furs, gold and oil, and export the profits outside the state. With Alaska Native corporations, the model is reversed. Alaska Native corporations are firmly rooted in Alaska and will always be. But besides doing business in Alaska, they are doing business throughout the United States, and in some cases, around the world. Profits earned from these businesses are returned to Alaska headquarters where they are used to create Alaska jobs and pay dividends to the Alaska Native shareholders, the majority of whom live in the state.
Besides the direct economic impact of the corporations, Alaska Native people have begun a process of developing enduring institutions that provide important services to Alaska Native people. Among these are those founded by CIRI: Alaska Native Heritage Center, The CIRI Foundation, Cook Inlet Tribal Council, Southcentral Foundation, Cook Inlet Housing Authority, Koahnic Broadcasting Corporation and the Alaska Native Justice Center.
Alaska Native corporate leaders face the challenge of being both concerned about the social and cultural well being of Alaska Native people in general, the Alaska Native shareholders in particular, as well as the bottom-line. But at its heart, ANCSA is about creating opportunities, not entitlements. Through continued growth, Alaska Native regional corporations will have a positive influence on Alaska’s economic and social development for generations to come.