“What Rights to Land Have the Alaska Natives?”*

255 million acres of Alaska are owned by the federal government.  That’s 60% of the state, more than Texas and Oklahoma put together.  This ownership is based on the 1867 purchase from Russia.  Why is all this land still owned by the national government?  It’s a good question without a good answer.

When statehood was granted in 1958, the new state was given the right to select 104 million of the 425 million acres of Alaska.  No thought was given to the rights of Alaska’s Native peoples.  But that was going to change.

Willie Hensley was a 25 year old Alaska Native from Kotzebue in 1966, attending graduate school at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.  His research proved to him that Alaska Natives did have rights to land, and they had never been addressed.  He began a political crusade to assert them.  He wanted the Eskimos, Indians and Aleuts of Alaska to get their fair share of that 103 million acres the State of Alaska was getting.

As a result, Native groups from around the state made claims to the land, and those claims were heard in Washington.  The total of all the claims exceeded the size of the state, and there was resistance and resentment among Alaska’s whites.  The result was political chaos, to the extent that Secretary of the Interior Udall in 1967 ordered a freeze put on Alaska’s lands, and refused to accept further selections by the state.

Then, in 1968, oil was discovered at Prudhoe Bay, and the entire issue came to a head.  A Native land claims settlement was needed in order to develop this gigantic discovery, and in 1971 Congress agreed to return 40 million acres to the Native people, along with a reimbursement of $962 million.  In the end, Alaska’s Natives received title to 44 million acres of their land.

The federal government’s rights to Alaska are based on its purchase of Russia’s claim to the land.  That claim was based on Russia’s history of exploitation of Alaska’s fur animals along its coast, and its virtual enslavement of the Aleut people.  The Russians never went up the Yukon, or the Kuskokwim, or any of Alaska’s great rivers.  They did send expeditions up the Copper River, but the Native Athapascans drove them out.

As the Russian claim to Alaska is tenuous, so is that of the United States government.  Legally, Alaska is part of this country, and it always will and should be.  Alaska’s Natives are patriotic Americans.  It’s a strategic piece of real estate, and we can allow no other country to own it.  The parts of Alaska that are necessary for national defense, such as Eielsen and Elmendorf Air Force bases, need to be owned by the federal government.

But what about the rest of that 255 million acres?  A good part of is in National Parks, like McKinely, or, properly, Denali.  This is some of the most splendid country in North America, and part of the national heritage of all Americans.  It stays as it is.

But then there’s all that other land, “managed” by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).  The forests are, in fact, mismanaged, and the reason the BLM exists is to manage land that the federal government has no other use for. If the federal government has no use for this land, why does it own it?  Why doesn’t it belong to Alaska’s Native people?

The most promising oil prospect in North America is Area 1002 of the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve.  But this land doesn’t really belong to the federal government.  It belongs to the native Inupiat, who claimed it in 1966.  That claim was made by a young Eskimo from Barrow named Charles Edwardsen on behalf of the Arctic Slope Native Association.  He claimed title to 96 million acres, the entire wilderness north of the Brooks Range, including Prudhoe Bay and ANWR.  That claim has never been satisfied.

It will not be satisfied in a court of law.  It will be satisfied politically.  Just as the oil of Prudhoe Bay led to the first Native Claims Settlement Act, let Area 1002 and its oil lead to another.

*  The title of Willie Hensley’s masters thesis.  Most of the history referred to in the post above can be found in the fifth chapter of John Strohmeyer’s excellent EXTREME CONDITIONS, Big Oil and the Transformation of Alaska.  


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