How the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act works

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The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, known as ANCSA, has been called an extraordinary experiment in relations between the federal government and the indigenous peoples of Alaska. Here is a brief explanation of how that works.

When oil bubbled to the surface in 1968 on Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay oilfield it brought more to the surface than was intentioned. As the state worked to secure a pipeline to transport its new-found wealth, Alaska Natives became increasingly concerned about their ancestral home and hunting lands.

They saw before them a fate similar to the history of  the Lower 48 States’ tribes and they were determined to work within the legal framework of Alaska and the United States Constitutions to maintain legal rights to their land and secure equality.

A group of young Alaska Native leaders, many from the NANA region, worked diligently and strategically to make certain that the fate of Alaska’s Native people rested in their own hands.

ANCSA is the culmination of years of work by Alaska Native people to ensure the future economic stability of their people.

Signed into law by President Nixon in 1971, ANCSA is the largest land claims settlement in United States history. The settlement resolved the issues around the land claims of Alaska Native peoples by transferring government-held titles of Alaska land to 12 Alaska Native regional corporations and more than 200 village corporations. A 13th Regional corporation was created for Alaska Natives who no longer lived in Alaska.

More than 44 million acres of land in Alaska, including the surface and subsurface rights once claimed by the federal government, were transferred to these 12 corporations, changing the legal relationship of Alaska Native people to their land.

Prior to ANCSA, Alaska Native peoples co-owned Alaska’s land with the federal government. After ANCSA, Alaska Native people became shareholders of their regional corporation – basing landownership on the corporate model, layering this new relationship onto the traditional and tribal.

How ANCSA Works

The 13 Regional Alaska Native Corporations and the more than 200 village corporations each own land in different ways. Prior to its enactment in 1971, ANCSA allowed both types of corporations to select federal lands within their traditional boundaries (in NANA’s case, for example, Northwest Alaska).

Village corporations selected lands near their villages, in most cases. Village corporations owned surface lands. In the NANA Region, all of the villages, except Kotzebue, merged their assets with NANA to simplify land ownership and reduce administrative burdens.

Subsurface mineral rights to all lands went to the Regional Corporations.

There are a few exceptions to the structure of Alaska’s regional and village corporations.

ANCSA allowed communities located on previously established reservations the option to own their reservation lands, both surface and mineral title, and not participate in the cash settlement. All villages on reservations chose this option; for example, Venetie in the northern interior and St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea.

ANCSA and Alaska

ANSCA became a vehicle for far-reaching changes in federal land management in Alaska. The Act set the stage for, and led directly to, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) of 1980, under which 80 million acres of federal public domain land was designated as national parks, wildlife refuges, national forests, and wild and scenic rivers.

Of this, 55 million acres were classified as “wilderness,” the most protected classification possible under federal law.

ANCSA is important to Alaska in that this owned lands in Alaska and established a significant base of private land ownership in, what was then, an undeveleoped state where, previously, the majority of land was owned by the federal government.

This private ownership made opportunities, such as natural resource development,  viable and was a significant inducement for new investment. Additionally, a pool of Alaska owned and controlled investment capital was created.

While prudent management requires some of the capital to be in diversified investments outside Alaska, a large percentage has been invested in business and industrial support enterprises inside the state – growing the overall statewide economy.

Sharing the Resources

An important provision of ANCSA requires both Regional and Village corporations to share 70 percent of their natural resource revenues with other member tribes. This protects those corporations that do not have significant natural resources.

For example, all Native corporations benefit when a mine is developed or oil is discovered or timber is logged on one corporation’s land.

Alaska’s system starkly contrasts with the reservation system in the Lower 48 States where tribes who, due to fortunate location, are able to own and operate successful businesses, such as casinos, are not required to share revenues with tribes who cannot operate successful casinos or other businesses due to their location or other circumstances.