Since Time Immemorial

The following opinion piece was authored by Rosita Kaa háni Worl, PhD. Worl serves as Chair of the Sealaska Board of Directors Lands Committee.  The commentary was written in response to the finalization of Sealaska’s ANCSA lands.  A shorter version was published in the Juneau Empire.

We owe a debt of gratitude to the people who helped Sealaska secure its final land entitlement last month. It was a victory for Sealaska, but the process, which took ten years, was grueling, costly and sometimes shockingly uncivil. Frankly, we came away realizing that a lot of people who opposed and tried to thwart us seem to have little or no understanding of Alaska Natives’ aboriginal ownership of Alaska and of the historical efforts by Native people to protect it.

We have owned and occupied Southeast Alaska “since time immemorial.”  Science attests to the undeniable fact that indigenous Peoples have been present in our homeland for more than 10,000 years.  We flourished off the bounty of the 23 million acres of land extending from the current Canadian border on the south to past Yakutat on the North; an area that is rich in maritime and temperate rainforest resources.  Over these eons we developed a complex and rich culture aptly symbolized by our ancient and unique arts that have received international acclaim and more often unwanted collection.  Our ancestors understood the land and resources were the basis of their livelihood and culture.  That affinity led them to vigorously defend the ownership of our land beginning from first contact with explorers to the present day. They rebuffed all who would attempt to usurp this homeland as their own. 

In 1802, the Sitka kwáan led the military effort to forcibly demonstrate to the Russians that we owned the land.  When Russia sold Alaska to the United States, our clan leaders united and proclaimed that if the United States wanted to buy Alaska then they must buy it from the Native people, who were the unconquered, legitimate owners.  Our early leaders debated whether they should wage war against the United States, but wisely decided they could not win a military encounter.  Instead, they used their political prowess and oratory skills to proclaim to the U.S. officials that they owned Alaska. The historical records are replete with the protestations of the clan leaders asserting ownership of Southeast Alaska. 

A new cadre of leaders organized in the early 1900s under the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood to remarkably use the political and legal institutions of the United States to protect our interests.  They protested the creation of the Tongass National Forest and the Glacier Bay National Park and went to Congress to seek the right to pursue compensation for the taking of our lands.  Teeyhíttaan Clan Leader William L. Paul, Sr., brought his clan’s claim of land ownership to the United States Supreme Court and won recognition that aboriginal title existed in Alaska, setting the aboriginal claims to lands for all of the indigenous people of Alaska.  In Southeast Alaska the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indians of Alaska carried on the land claims effort.  Their efforts led to a settlement.  Unfortunately, the size of the award was limited by the U.S. Court of Claims’ authority to negotiate settlements and the Council was ultimately paid a pittance of $7 million for the taking of 17 million acres that comprised the Tongass, Glacier Bay and the Annette Island Reserve. 

Undaunted by the paltry award for the richest land in Alaska, we joined with other Alaska Natives by providing the leadership and, from our land award, leveraged a pool of funds to pursue the enactment of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) in 1971. Tlingit and Haida Central Council contributed to this effort through a loan to the Alaska Federation of Natives to cover lobbying expenses. Under ANCSA, we—who originally owned the 23 million acres of Southeast Alaska—were awarded a fraction of our original land ownership.  Sealaska—the regional corporation representing Southeast Alaska—and the village and urban corporations were authorized to collectively select a mere 630,000 acres of land from designated geographical areas.  From this limited land base that constituted less than 3 percent of our original lands, Congress under ANCSA directed the corporations to promote the social, cultural and economic welfare of Southeast Alaska Natives.  Nevertheless, we were joyful over the award and dedicated ourselves to enhancing our social and economic welfare through the corporations and through public policy advocacy and initiatives.   

In time, it became apparent that the designated areas set aside for Sealaska’s land selection included environmentally-sensitive lands and rich subsistence resource areas that provide benefits to Natives and non-Natives alike. We chose not to select these areas so they would remain in public ownership for the benefit of all. We went to Congress to seek legislation that would allow us to select our remaining entitlement of more than 70,000 acres outside the designated areas to protect the environmentally-sensitive areas and areas with exceptional public interest value.

We also initiated an assessment of our experiences gained from the last 30 years of development of our lands. From this analysis, we identified three criteria—economic sustainability; economic diversity; and cultural sustainability—that would guide our land selections.

Once again Sealaska demonstrated its Native values by including the selection of sacred and historic sites.  These sites bind us and future generations to our ancestors and spiritual places.  In doing so we would forgo revenues that could be attained by selecting only economic lands. This decision followed on our earlier action to amend ANCSA to adhere to our cultural values by allowing Sealaska to enroll our descendants who were born after 1971 and to provide special benefits to our Elders.

The more than ten-year battle seeking the enactment of our final land entitlement legislation was grueling and disconcerting.  In a spirit of consultation and honest negotiation, we met with community representatives and different interest groups throughout the region and country in nearly 300 meetings. The staunch opposition, characterized at times by incivilities and racism we encountered, were shocking.  We were met with disrespect by some who refused to accept Native people had valid right to the lands of Southeast or that those claims should take precedence.  We were astounded that our efforts were described as a “corporate land grab” ignoring the undisputable fact that we are the original owners of all of Southeast Alaska; that our lands were taken without our consent; and that our entitlement represents only a miniscule portion of our aboriginal lands. We were astonished that segments of the conservation community, who espouse concern for Native people, rallied against our efforts at the direction of and for the direct and indirect benefit of their own rich members and corporate benefactors.  These organizations’ premise was that Natives do not have rights that might impinge on their rights and interests, and if Native rights exist those rights are secondary to their own interests and the interests of their rich sponsors.  We had become impoverished “conservation refugees” who were restricted from access to our lands and utilization of our subsistence resources through excessive governmental restrictions. Although we live in a land of rich resources, we may as well have lived in a desert. 

While we did not oppose the addition of new conservation lands, the compromises which we were forced to accept in the legislation were not to our liking.  The easements and public access requirements beyond the normal range of access provisions undermine the very core of private land ownership and have instilled in us a resolve to change the attitude that Native land is just another form of public property.

But yet in retrospect, it is remarkable that an indigenous group was able to enact legislation in this current political climate and opposition to Native land ownership.  However, we were not alone.  In addition to a committed board of directors and staff, we had the unwavering support of Alaska’s congressional delegation, including Senators Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich and Representative Don Young.  Our constituents, tribes in Southeast Alaska and throughout the nation, Alaska Native corporations, the Alaska Federation of Natives and National Congress of American Indians and countless non-Native citizens and organizations throughout the region, state and industry all supported our efforts. 

Lost in all the rhetoric about Sealaska’s 70,000 acre land award is the fact that 150,000 acres were dedicated for conservation purposes in our legislation.  Ongoing critics, who blindly accuse Sealaska of irresponsible development, are oblivious of the millions of dollars we have spent on scientific studies to assist us in planning for development and to improve our land stewardship.  They are unaware that Sealaska’s policy calls for sustainable development, mitigation of adverse environmental impacts, and social license from adjacent communities.  We are unlike the colonial developers who have come to Alaska to reap its bounty and then leave. We, who have lived on this land for 10,000 years and who intend that our future generations will live for another 10,000 years and beyond, have a vested interest in caring for our land.  Although we have legal title to only a fraction of our aboriginal lands, this is Haa Aaní, Our Land, and the spirits of our ancestors roam through these lands.

We note for the record that we still have unresolved land issues for those five recognized Native communities which did not receive their just land entitlement and for those veterans, who loyally served our country, but who have yet to receive their land allotments.  Despite its limitations, we celebrate our land legislation, and we thank all those who have helped us achieve this victory.  We commit ourselves to caring for our lands for current and future generations.

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