This map, provided by Alaska Natives Without Land, shows possible federal land grants for the landless community of Tenakee Springs, one of five communities in Alaska not granted land by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971. (Screenshot)

This map, provided by Alaska Natives Without Land, shows possible federal land grants for the landless community of Tenakee Springs, one of five communities in Alaska not granted land by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971. (Screenshot)

50 years after ANCSA, some still fighting for land

The five landless communities and Vietnam veterans were left landless by the act.

The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, known commonly as ANCSA, created the regional Alaska Native corporations, including Southeast Alaska’s own Sealaska Corporation, as well as more than 200 urban and village corporations, among other sweeping changes.

But not everything was executed perfectly to the minds of many, and exactly a half-century on from its signing date on Dec. 18, 1971, residents of Alaska whose ancestors have inhabited these lands for more than 10,000 years are still striving to fix aspects in the act that leave them landless in their own ancestral lands.

Members of the five communities in Southeast Alaska excluded from forming village corporations — Haines, Ketchikan, Petersburg, Tenakee Springs and Wrangell — are engaged in a multi-generational fight for inclusion in the ANCSA agreement.

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In another ongoing fight, Vietnam War-era Alaska Native veterans of Southeast Alaska, long seeking land made available to them by an act in 1906 that was overwritten by ANCSA . Land was made available in the late 1960s, but many of those veterans missed the opportunity to apply for it. As Alaska Native veterans, many of whom may not even be aware the land allotments are available, get older, the chance of them — or their descendants —missing out on the opportunity to get more than 100 acres of land grows greater.

The landless communities

“Without village corporations, the study communities did not get the 23,040 acres that each of the village and urban corporations in Southeast Alaska received,” read a 1993 report into the exclusion of the landless communities by members of the University of Alaska Anchorage for the Departments of Agriculture and Interior. “Those land entitlements have proven particularly valuable in Southeast Alaska where there are extensive stands of commercial timber.”

Now, Alaska Natives Without Land, the nonprofit dedicated to pushing the agenda of the landless communities, continues the half-century fight for recognition and inclusion of their communities in ANCSA, said Haines shareholder Harriet Brouillette.

“I’ve lost both of my parents who were both landless. Their hope and dream was that they’d see some sort of settlement in their lifetime. I started working on this settlement when I was just out of college. I was in my 20s. Now I’m in my 50s. I’m a grandmother,” Brouillette said in a phone interview. “Why wouldn’t you think this isn’t the right thing to do? And why should we be begging to have some of our lands back?”

The fight has gone on under a number of names since the landless communities’ exclusion, said Cecilia Tavoliero, president of the Southeast Alaska Landless Corporation. Their main avenue of effort to rectify the exclusion is through bills recently introduced by the Alaska congressional delegation in the Senate as S.3269 and the House as H.R.3231

“We have the same goal as always: to get ANCSA amended to include our five communities. There was no reason for our five communities to get left out,” Tavoliero said in a phone interview. “We started mobilizing in our communities. So many people have had their hopes high and then dashed, high and then dashed by the bill.”

In recent years, the emphasis on timber harvesting has declined, with Sealaska recently cutting back on its operations in the sector, but land is always valuable and tourism is proving increasingly lucrative and sustainable for communities in the Southeast, Tavoliero said. Creating the village corporations for these communities will also give the Alaska Natives who live there a chance to develop their land in a sustainable way with their own people.

“When these corporations start up, we will not be relying on outside talent. We have the talent to develop it from inside our own tribes, Brouillette said. “People were brought in and they made a lot of money. And then they left.”

Working with groups that had previously opposed the bill has hopefully increased their odds of being passed successfully in Congress, Brouillette said.

“What we’ve done is taken a look at previous years and looking at why we weren’t successful: looking at who in our communities wasn’t supporting each other. In our case that was the environmental groups,” Brouillette said. “We opened up the lines of communication and started talking to each other about what this meant, about righting a wrong, about social justice. It’s timely as it seems like social justice is becoming more and more talked about.”

The passage of these acts would bring benefits to each of the landless communities in ways both big and small, Brouillette said.

“I see a more vibrant tourism economy. I would hope that more people who want to live at home will be able to come back home and build a house and buy a house and stay here year-round,” Brouillette said. “More people at the grocery store buying groceries. More people buying fuel. More people are contributing to the economy we have here. More hotel rooms are full.”

There are also less tangible ways the restoration of traditional lands to the landless communities would be expressed, Brouillette said.

“I look at my kids, and they’re carvers, artists,” Brouillette said. “They deserve to be able to walk in the forest and take a log to make a canoe, or a totem. They can’t do that right now.”

The 50th anniversary of ANCSA is a worthy one, Tavoliero said, but for the communities left out in the cold, it’s a reminder of chances they never got.

“We’re smiling and celebrating with our brothers and sisters who are celebrating the 50 years of ANCSA this week but we haven’t had those opportunities,” Tavoliero said. “I know the corporations bring billions- with a b- of dollars into Alaska. It’ll be good for the whole committee, not just the shareholders, and for the whole state.”

This map from the Bureau of Land Management shows the nearest available land for land allotments for Alaska Native Vietnam veterans who may have missed their chance to apply for up to 160 acres while deployed abroad. (Screenshot)

This map from the Bureau of Land Management shows the nearest available land for land allotments for Alaska Native Vietnam veterans who may have missed their chance to apply for up to 160 acres while deployed abroad. (Screenshot)

Alaska Native Vietnam veteran land allotments

In 1971, ANCSA repealed an earlier act, the 1906 Allotment Act, which allowed for the transfer of 160 acres of “vacant, unappropriated, and unreserved non-mineral” land to Alaska Native under certain conditions, according to the Bureau of Land Management. Subsequent legislation approved the allotments of more than 16,000 parcels of land to applicants.

But for many Alaska Native Vietnam War era veterans who were deployed as ANCSA was put in place, the opportunity to apply for land was complicated by their active service.

In 2019, the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act, introduced by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and co-sponsored by Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska,and 14 others in 2019, helped rectify that, reopening the window for Alaska Native veterans who served from Aug. 5, 1964 to Dec. 31, 1971 or their heirs to apply. The application window was reopened from December of 2020 for five years, closing on Dec. 29, 2025.

But for many of those veterans, it’s not so simple, said George Bennett Sr., who’s worked for years to help other veterans get their land. For many in the Southeast, the lands, which are located largely in central Alaska, are on the traditional lands of other tribes.

“There’s many things that we see coming to the surface,” Bennett said in a phone interview. “There’s several veterans in the Southeast area that have no desire to claim any land outside the Tongass, including myself. Many of those guys grew up in a very cultural era. We have respect for a lot of those people and those tribes that are living in that area.”

Much of the land offered is in harsh or inaccessible places.

“It’s all mountains and glaciers. It’s inaccessible. It would cost a lot of money to get into these lands, should we get them,” Bennett said, referring to the nearest lands, located northwest of Yakutat and the Malaspina Glacier. “I don’t think they’ve offered us any good land.”

According to the Bureau of Land Management, the act does not include federal land within a unit of the National Forest System or National Park System, which would preclude land in the Tongass National Forest, making it currently impossible for those hailing from tribes in the Southeast to apply for land in their ancestral environs.

“There are veterans who do not want to apply because it is not within the Tongass,” Bennett said. “The Tongass is a tough one to open up for anything.”

George J. Bennett Sr. is one of hundreds of Alaska Native Vietnam veterans eligible to apply for a land allotment in Alaska under the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act. Many other veterans are now deceased or have not applied for their allotment. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire File)

George J. Bennett Sr. is one of hundreds of Alaska Native Vietnam veterans eligible to apply for a land allotment in Alaska under the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act. Many other veterans are now deceased or have not applied for their allotment. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire File)

And for veterans of a war fought half a century ago, finding them to let them or their heirs know the application period is reopened can be difficult with old and incomplete records.

“We try to reach out and find these,” said Darrell Brown, a Vietnam veteran and the Veteran Land Allotment Specialist at Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, a recently created position. “One of the things I’ve found of the veterans, about 40 percent are deceased. Some of them passed away in Alaska, but maybe we don’t know who their families are.”

There’s also the ever-present barrier of technology — filing an application online can be difficult for those who have spent their lives living a less computer-oriented lifestyle. The pandemic has made it even more difficult to connect and to help veterans fill out the application, Brown said, as representatives can’t go to the villages to help in person very easily.

“It’s kind of bewildering for our Native Veterans,” Bennett said. “You’re looking at veterans that are (on average) 75.5 years old. We just lost a couple in the last several days.”

The Bureau of Land Management lists the numbers of missing potentially eligible veterans, broken down by the region of their Native corporation. Of the 744 missing addresses for making contact with these veterans, 132 are located in the Sealaska region. Now, Brown is reaching out to anyone who might know these veterans.

“I’ve got a list of well over 500 people that I’m trying to connect with,” Brown said. “One of the challenges is that some of the addresses I’ve got are addresses from when people were in the military 50 years ago. People move. People lose contact.”

For some of the veterans, younger family members have been able to help bridge the technology gap. For others, word of mouth has been able to connect veterans with the program to get them help applying for their land, Brown said.

“It’s been enjoyable to hear some stories of connecting people. We want to make sure the families, the veterans, their heirs, can take advantage of these programs. It’s the right thing to do,” Brown said. “We’ve talked with a couple veterans who did that. One had a son, and another had his grandchild help him navigate that.”

Brown strongly encouraged any eligible veteran to fill out the application now, even if the lands offered may be unpalatable at this time – circumstances can change. Veterans are also recommended to designate an heir, in case they die, who will still be able to apply for the lands. The Alaska Legal Services Corporation may be able to assist with that, Brown said.

“You never know what’s going to happen,” Brown said. “It’s better to have the paperwork in order and you can always make that decision.”

Napoleon is famously attributed the phrase “Ask me for anything but time,” a sentiment Bennett echoed. The deadline for the application window is in 2025, but for many veterans, age and ailments exacerbated in many cases by harsh terms of military service.

“The five-year window is going to come up on us pretty fast,” Bennett said. “We’re still trying to get a hold of veterans.”

For those who know a veteran who hasn’t applied, the Bureau of Land Management has a list of necessary steps on their website. For those who require more assistance or know someone who hasn’t applied for their land allotment, Bennett recommended they contact Brown at dbrown@ccthita-nsn.gov or 907-463-7311.

• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at (757) 621-1197 or mlockett@juneauempire.com.

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