From left to right, Willard Jackson, Dennis Jack and Bill Thomas, Alaska Native veterans form Southeast Alaska met with lawmakers at the Alaska State Capitol on Friday, April 29, to discuss their issues getting land allotments from the federal government. Jackson and Thomas are veterans of the Vietnam war who are eligbile for land allotments, but no lands are available in Southeast Alaska, and veterans are frustrated by the lack of action. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

Haaland’s visit stirs optimism for Alaska Natives, but tensions remain

Access to lands remains a critical issue

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland visited Alaska this month, her visit was hailed as historic. Haaland is the first Indigenous person to be appointed to a cabinet position, and her visit to Alaska, the state with the highest per capita population of Indigenous people, was filled with visit with Alaska Native groups and to Alaska Native communities.

Haaland’s visit included several visits to Alaska Native communities and with Alaska Native leaders. She traveled to Anchorage and Fairbanks, but also to the remote community of King Cove near the Alaska Peninsula. That community has long sought a road through federally protected lands that would give access to a nearby airport, but federal authorities have denied permits. The Associated Press reported Haaland made no commitments toward building the road during her visit. Haaland also visited communities on Alaska’s North Slope.

During her visit, Haaland met with representatives from several Alaska Native organizations including the Alaska Federation of Natives, the Tannana Chiefs Conference and Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska.

In an interview with the Empire, AFN President Julie Kitka said one of the major issues raised with Haaland was access to land, something many Indigenous communities in the state struggle with. Roughly 60% of Alaska’s lands are owned by the federal government, Kitka said, and federal permitting can hamper economic development.

“From our vantage point at AFN, we are focused on our resource development,” Kitka siad. “We have a land claim settlement, we have retained certain acreage, surface and subsurface (rights), we are the legal owners of that we have an obligation to do things on that and our people should develop our resources.”

Kitka said that even as federal funding comes to the state from infrastructure spending, the permitting process could create problems for Alaska.

“For example, broadband. Massive amounts of resources will be coming out soon for building out broadband, we’re not going to be able to build that out without access and permits for doing that,” Kitka said. “It could be all for naught if they don’t have the access to be able to do it.”

But Kitka also said she was glad to have an indigenous person at the highest levels of government, and that Haaland understood Alaska Native issues in a deeply personal way.

“It’s so exciting and historic to have a Native American in that position,” Kitka said. “She understands the subsistence way of life. She and her team understand the salmon crisis.”

“Land, land, land.”

Joe Nelson is co-chair of the AFN Board of Directors as well as a chairman of the Sealaska Corp. board of directors. He too, said access to land was a priority.

“We had some quality time, I think, as far as a number of different groups getting in front of her and sharing our issues,” Nelson said. “And our issues are always land, land, land.”

Nelson said there were parts of the landmark Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act that were left unresolved and there were many communities that haven’t yet received their land conveyances from the 1971 law.

“With the state being so vast and ANCSA being such a core part of the story here, and ANCSA still having so many outstanding issues.” Nelson said. “The main one that won’t be new to anybody here in Southeast, it’s Haines and Tenakee, Peters, Wrangell, Ketchikan being landless.

Those communities were left out of ANCSA and have been pushing for changes to the act, according to Alaska Natives Without Land, a an advocacy group for landless communities in Southeast Alaska. Alaska’s U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, both Republicans, introduced legislation in 2021 that would amend ANCSA to include the five landless communities.

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Nelson said he was in a meeting with Haaland and several Alaska Native Vietnam veterans, many of whom have been advocating for their own land conveyances under a different law. Before ANCSA passed in 1971, a deadline was drawn on the Alaska Native Allotment Act of 1906 which allowed Alaska Natives to apply for land allotments of 160 acres. But in the late 1960s, many Alaska Natives were serving in the armed forces, many of them in the Vietnam War, and many missed the opportunity to apply.

But in 2019, Congress passed the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act, reopening the window for application and making lands available to Alaska Native veterans of the Vietnam War era. That process was partially halted when the Biden administration ordered a review of orders under President Donald Trump.

Haaland —whose father served in Vietnam — announced during her visit the Department of the Interior was opening 27 million acres of Alaska land for veteran selection.

But for veterans in Southeast Alaska, Nelson said that’s not a solution.

“A lot of the new land, including when the original act passed, it precluded a lot of the Tongass (National Forest),” Nelson said. “The veterans in Southeast want to be able to select in their traditional lands. They don’t want to be forced to go out of region, or go to other communities to select, and that’s been a challenge.”

The Dingell Act precluded national forests and parks, which are overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But Nelson said Haaland’s cabinet position and oversight of the Bureau of Land Management were helpful for the issue.

“In the bigger scheme, it’s inching in the right direction as far as acknowledging the issue and trying to find a path forward and continue to improve the options,” Nelson said of Haaland’s announcement.

Disappointment for Southeast veterans

On Friday, state Sen. Josh Revak, R-Anchorage, held an event at the Alaska State Capitol honoring many of the veterans who had met with Haaland. Veterans have been frustrated with the slowness of the process, and many worry they won’t be able to select lands before they die. For veterans in Southeast Alaska, the 27 million acres of land available are of no use to them.

“I chose to apply for land up in the interior because my wife and my family has ties to that area,” said George Bennett Sr., a Vietnam veteran who’s been pursuing the land allotment issue for years.

Other veterans said they were disappointed by the lack of answers from the federal government.

“We had an hour with her,” said Bill Thomas, a former state representative and Vietnam veteran. “It was probably one of the worst meetings I’ve ever attended.”

Another veteran, Willard Jackson, said he would likely not apply for his land allotment because he didn’t want to encroach on the lands of other Alaska Natives.

Revak said Haaland and the Biden administration should take action to make lands in Southeast Alaska available.

“I would like to see the secretary and the administration open traditional lands,” Revak said in an interview. “We’ve owed it to them for decades. At the end of the day the secretary and the administration should be able to make this happen.”

Kitka said Haaland promised to return to Alaska later this year.

A fraught history

The relationship between the federal government and Indigenous people is fraught with historical tension. Federal authorities, often in service of and aided by private interests, have committed acts of violence against Indigenous people that fall within the definition of genocide as defined by the United Nations 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Article II of the Convention defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” including, “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part” and “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

In Alaska, federal troops in the 19th century bombed several Alaska Native communities in Southeast Alaska including Kake, Wrangell and Angoon. The federal government has never formally apologized for those events , but in 2020 U.S. military commanders met with Alaska Native leaders and signaled that an apology may be forthcoming.

The federal government also operated a system of boarding schools that separated Indigenous youths from their families well into the 20th Century, and discoveries of mass, unmarked graves of children in Canada in 2021 have led to inquiries there and in the U.S. In June 2021, Haaland announced the Bureau of Indian Affairs was launching the Indian Boarding School Initiative, an effort to address the country’s history with residential schools.

That report is expected soon, said Tyler Cherry, spokesperson for Haaland’s office, in an email.

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.

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