A word from the president: Let’s be careful about how we link ANCSA and SBA 8(a) business development program

By: Margie Brown, CIRI president and chief executive officer

This year we will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). It was a milestone event when President Nixon signed ANCSA into law on Dec. 18, 1971. The Act simultaneously settled Alaska Native peoples’ aboriginal land claims against the federal government and stimulated economic development, including construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline, which continues to benefit all Alaskans.

ANCSA also created 12 Alaska Native regional corporations and more than 200 village corporations that are rapidly becoming Alaska’s most important economic drivers. These corporations are owned by Alaska Native people who primarily live in the state and are primarily staffed by Alaska residents. Most of the revenues these corporations earn stay in the state and are either reinvested in Alaska business or paid out as salaries or as dividends to their shareholders.

ANCSA stands out from every other North American government settlement of aboriginal claims because it uses capitalism and the corporate business model to compensate and economically empower generations of Alaska Native people without ongoing government oversight, intervention or funding. ANCSA created autonomous, self-sufficient corporations that are free to develop and use their own strategies to support current and future generations of shareholders’ needs through corporate growth, dividend payments, job creation and other social and cultural services.

Over the years, each Alaska Native corporation has interpreted ANCSA in its own way by establishing its own business model. Many individuals and institutions have also used ANCSA and its goals to justify a broad spectrum of policies, laws and actions. But as we move further and further away in time from the passage of ANCSA we are in danger of not only forgetting its intent, but revising its history.

A case in point, the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) 8(a) business development program is an example of a government program that many people attribute to ANCSA, even though it has no direct connection to the Act. ANCSA aimed to settle land claims and provide sustainable economic and cultural benefits to generations of Alaska Native people. Congress created the SBA 8(a) program to help eligible small disadvantaged businesses develop and compete in the U.S. economy. One way the 8(a) program assists eligible businesses is to give them special access to government contracting opportunities. In this way the purposes of the Act and the 8(a) program are consistent with each other.

Alaska Native corporations have used the advantages provided in the 8(a) program and their participation has become controversial in recent years. The program has been investigated on Capitol Hill, there is pending legislation to strip Alaska Native corporations of 8(a) contracting privileges and the SBA drafted new rules designed to reduce the possibility of 8(a)-related fraud and abuse. Both supporters and critics of Alaska Native corporation 8(a) participation have argued their points and talked about how the program is related to ANCSA. We need to be cautious, however, in how the relationship is described.

ANCSA and the 8(a) program share goals related to fostering sustainable growth and development of Alaska Native-owned businesses. But ANCSA and the SBA 8(a) program are not linked in that one does not directly flow from the other.

I understand the fierceness with which we need to act to defend the 8(a) program and the way Alaska Native corporations participate in that program. We feel so strongly about the benefits of the program that we have joined with other like-minded Alaska Native corporations to put forth a reform package in order to save it. But in doing so, we all must stop short of making a link to ANCSA that is not founded in the Act. Doing so invites those who want to amend the 8(a) program to reach into ANCSA and make amendments there as well. Inadvertently reopening ANCSA . . . and threatening the economic, cultural and social benefits that it is delivering to generations of Alaska Native people, is not a smart thing to do.