A word from the president: 40 years of ANCSA

By: Margie Brown, CIRI president and CEO

As the year 2011 comes to a close, I wish you the best of the holiday season. For me, this year passed very quickly. I find it remarkable how rapidly it seems the last four decades have passed by. This month, we commemorate 40 years of opportunity for Alaska Native people with the passage the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA).

ANCSA was enacted on Dec. 18, 1971. It settled Alaska Native peoples’ aboriginal land claims and distributed 44 million acres of land and $962.5 million to 12 Alaska Native regional corporations and more than 200 village corporations. It enabled economic development across the state, including construction of the 800-mile-long trans-Alaska oil pipeline from Alaska’s North Slope to the Port of Valdez. And it empowered some 80,000 Alaska Native people who enrolled as shareholders and generations of their descendants to improve their lives by helping them participate and compete in Alaska’s and our nation’s economic, political and social development.

It is difficult to overstate ANCSA’s impact upon Alaska Native people and the state. Each corporation has interpreted its ANCSA mandate to benefit current and future generations of shareholders in its own way. Through time, the corporations have had varying levels of success. But as a group, they have sustainably enhanced the quality of life of tens of thousands of Alaska Native people. Income levels, graduation rates, employment, health and life expectancy for Alaska Native people have quantifiably improved from pre-ANCSA levels.

ANCSA created local, Alaska Native-owned corporations that had the economic ability and incentive to develop Alaska resources and keep the profits in the state. Many of these businesses are reaching outside of the state to do business and then import profits into Alaska to benefit their shareholders and grow Alaska’s economy. And they are creating opportunities for Alaska Native people and other Alaskans by creating jobs, dividend income and support for a broad range of education, health care, social and cultural services.

ANCSA drafters had to balance the competing interests of Congress, misaligned state, federal and private interests and the rights and needs of Alaska Native people. They had to agree to decisions that would impact all Alaskans, and I doubt that any similar settlement would be possible without the then-existing combination of extreme social, economic and cultural needs of Alaska Native people, the young state of Alaska and nation’s interest in developing North Slope energy resources. No one person is responsible for ANCSA; rather, it was created by many acts of courage as people reached deep to accommodate these competing interests.

One such courageous act that would lead to ultimate passage of ANCSA came from then-Secretary of Interior Stewart L. Udall. Secretary Udall realized that a fair settlement would not be accomplished if federal oil and gas and mineral leasing and other land actions continued while settlement negotiations were ongoing. He made the extremely controversial decision to halt all dispositions of federal interests in Alaska. This action created necessary pressure to get settlement discussions moving in earnest. In spite of the howls of protest, Mr. Udall stood firm and the land freeze held.

Several years ago I had occasion to be in the lobby of the LaFonda Hotel in Santa Fe, N.M. Across the room from me sat Mr. Udall, now a distinguished elder, long retired from public life. I gently introduced myself to him and thanked him for having the courage to order the land freeze, an act that proved to be vital to ANCSA’s passage. I described CIRI, its progress and thanked him for the personal growth that I have been able to achieve because of the settlement. Mr. Udall seemed very pleased to be discussing ANCSA once again. He said he did not think anyone remembered the role that the land freeze played. He beamed when I assured him I remember and that others do as well. We parted company happy to have made that connection.

As I commemorate the anniversary of ANCSA, I think of my chance encounter with Mr. Udall and try to put in perspective how he and others, especially the young Alaska Native leaders, seized the opportunity that the time and circumstances presented. I do not second-guess them and their decisions, but admire their collective efforts to create a lasting, powerful impact on Alaska’s Native people and the young state of Alaska.

Please join me in celebrating ANCSA’s passage. It was a remarkable agreement that continues to empower Alaska Native people to participate in the state and national economies and to succeed in life by using their own hard work and intelligence, while respecting Alaska Native values and balancing the needs of current and future generations of shareholders.