Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (1971)

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Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (1971)

Steven J. Gunn

Congress designed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 (P.L. 92-203, 85 Stat. 688) to resolve the land claims of Alaska's Native inhabitants. Alaska Natives, including Indians, Eskimos, and Aleuts, occupied Alaska for centuries before the Treaty of Cession from Russia of 1867 when the United States purchased Alaska. However, neither the Treaty of Cession nor any subsequent act (including the Organic Act of 1884, in which the United States made Alaska a "district" and allowed for the creation of a local government and the enforcement of local laws, and the Alaska Statehood Act of 1958, in which the U.S. made Alaska the forty-ninth state) clarified the nature or extent of Alaska Native land rights. These rights were based on the Natives' historic or aboriginal use and occupancy of Alaska lands, not on treaties between Alaska Natives and the United States.

By the time the United States made Alaska a state in 1958, it had formally recognized the land rights of only a handful of the state's Native villages. For example, in 1891 Congress established the Annette Island Reserve for the Metlakalta Indian Community and after 1891 a number of presidential orders created other reservations. But many Native inhabitants continued to make claims for land that government officials did not formally recognize.

The Alaska Statehood Act set in motion a conflict between the state of Alaska and its Native inhabitants that eventually led to the adoption of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Through the Statehood Act, Alaska disclaimed all rights to any lands belonging to Alaska Natives. However, the Act also authorized Alaska to select more than 102.5 million acres from so-called "vacant, unappropriated, and unreserved" public lands within the state for its own use. Because Alaska Natives had asserted claims to most of the state's public lands, the State was unable, without protest and controversy, to select such lands under the Statehood Act. In 1969 the U.S. secretary of the interior imposed a moratorium on approval of the State's applications for public lands, pending settlement of Native land claims. Meanwhile, the discovery of vast oil reserves on the North Slope of Alaska, and the desire among non-Native commercial enterprises to make use of those reserves created additional pressures for settlement of the Native claims.


The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act gave Alaska Natives legal title to approximately forty-four million acres of Alaskan land. The Act also established an Alaska Native Fund of $962.5 million to compensate the Natives for the lands and rights taken from them. The Act extinguished "[a]ll aboriginal titles, if any, and claims of aboriginal title in Alaska based on use and occupancy." The Act revoked all reservations in the state, except the Annette Island Reserve.

In the Act, Congress stated its desire to settle the Native land claims "without creating a reservation system" like that found in the continental United States. The Act established a landholding system different in two fundamental respects from that in the lower forty-eight states. First, Alaska Native lands were owned not by tribes or by the United States as trustee for the tribes, but rather by newly established regional and village corporations. The Settlement Act authorized the creation of thirteen regional corporations and over 200 smaller village corporations to own and manage the forty-four million acres selected by the Natives and paid them the $962.5 million settlement. All Natives were eligible to be shareholders in one or more of these corporations, which were chartered under Alaska state law. Second, Native lands were owned by the regional and village corporations as "fee simple," which meant there were no restrictions on the ability of the corporations to use or sell the lands as they saw fit. In contrast, nearly all Native lands in the continental United States are owned by the federal government, held in trust for the tribes, and cannot be used or sold without the consent of the United States.


The corporate ownership of Native lands and the ability of Native corporations to freely sell their lands distinguish Alaska Native landholdings from most, if not all, Indian landholdings in the continental United States. In view of these distinctions, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Alaska v. Native Village of Venetie (1998) that Alaska Native lands (other than the Annette Island Reserve) do not qualify as "Indian country," a category of lands under United States law that includes Indian reservations, allotments made under the General Allotment Act, and other lands set apart and administered by the United States for Indians. Because Native lands are not Indian country, Alaska Natives cannot exercise full governmental powers over them. For example, Natives cannot regulate or tax the activities of nonmembers who live, work, travel, or conduct business on Native lands. These activities are governed instead by state and federal law. Native tribes, however, do have the power to regulate many activities occurring inside Native country.

The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act extinguished the aboriginal hunting and fishing rights of Alaska Natives. After the Act, Natives were required to comply with state laws when hunting and fishing anywhere in the state. Many of these state laws prevented Natives from engaging in their traditional subsistence ways of life. In 1980 Congress remedied this problem by enacting the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. This act allowed Alaska Natives and other rural residents to engage in subsistence hunting and fishing on public lands.

See also: Indian General Allotment Act (dawes Act).


Arnold, Robert D. Alaska Native Land Claims. Anchorage: Alaska Native Foundation, 1976.

Prucha, Francis Paul M. The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act

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ALASKA NATIVE CLAIMS SETTLEMENT ACT (1971). President Richard Nixon signed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) into law on 18 December 1971, granting title to 44 million of Alaska's 375 million acres to various groups of Alaska Native people. At the time, most of Alaska's land was undistributed.

In 1958 Congress passed the Alaska Statehood Act, authorizing the new state to select 104 million acres of unappropriated and unoccupied land in the state. But the statehood act also included a disclaimer of title or right by Alaska to lands that might be held by Alaska Natives. As the state began to make selections of the lands it desired, Natives began to protest the selections on the grounds of prior use, and therefore, potential Native title. By 1966 the federal Bureau of Land Management had approved state title to 12 million acres, but by that time, Native protests blanketed the entire state. Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall sought to resolve the confusion by issuing an injunction halting further conveyances to the state until Native claims could be dealt with fairly and comprehensively. Given the history of Native land claims in Congress and the courts, people in Alaska wondered how long it would take to resolve the conflict.

The discovery of America's largest single petroleum deposit, 15 billion barrels, at Prudhoe Bay on state-selected land on Alaska's North Slope in December 1967 immensely complicated the process. The only practical way to take the oil to market was via a trans-Alaska pipeline to the port of Valdez on the Gulf of Alaska, which meant building the pipeline across much Native-claimed land.

The statewide Alaska Federation of Natives, representing all Native groups, produced a bill, which, with modification, settled the Native claims (ANCSA). In exchange for clear title to 44 million acres in traditionally utilized areas, the U.S. extinguished Native title to the remaining land in Alaska, paying Native people $962.5 million in compensation. To make the money work in perpetuity for Alaska Natives, it was used to capitalize 12 (later 13) regional Native economic development corporations and as many as 211 village corporations, in one or another of which all Alaska Natives became preferred stockholders. The corporations were chartered under the laws of the State of Alaska and were free from paternalistic oversight. This settlement was monumental and unprecedented. Many Native leaders of talent and insight helped write the plan, lobby the bill through Congress, and explain its operation to Alaskan villagers. Among these leaders were Willie Hensley from Unalakleet, John Borbridge and Byron Mallot from the Alaskan Southeast, and Emil Notti from Koyukuk.

Though some analysts criticized the act as a vehicle for cultural genocide, forcing the alien concepts and structures of capitalism and modern for-profit corporations on Alaska Natives, Native leaders largely welcomed the measure. Some Native corporations experienced early financial stresses, but most weathered the start-up period and by the mid-1980s were stable. Amendments to the act in 1989 protected the land from foreclosure in bankruptcy and authorized new stock issues for persons born after 1971. In the early 2000s most corporations were financially successful, due in part to an opportunity to sell tax losses in the 1990s. Several corporations began to pay substantial dividends to their stockholders, and many had real estate and operating company holdings across America. Native leaders credit the act with protecting the Native land base in Alaska and establishing Native equality and legitimacy in the state.


Berger, Thomas R. Village Journey: The Report of the Alaska Native Review Commission. New York: Hill and Wang, 1985.

Berry, Mary Clay. The Alaska Pipeline: The Politics of Oil and Native Land Claims. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975.

Coates, Peter A. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline Controversy: Technology, Conservation, and the Frontier. Bethlehem, Pa.: Lehigh University Press, 1991.

Colt, Steve. Two Views of the 'New Harpoon': Economic Performance of the ANCSA Regional Corporations. Anchorage, Alaska: Institute of Social and Economic Research, 2001.

Mitchell, Donald Craig. Sold American: The Story of Alaska Natives and Their Land, 1867–1959. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1997.

———. Take My Land, Take My Life: The Story of Congress's Historic Settlement of Alaska's Native Land Claims, 1960–1971. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 2001.

Oswalt, Wendell. Bashful No Longer: An Alaska Eskimo Ethno-history, 1778–1988. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990.


See alsoAlaskan Pipeline ; Tribes: Alaskan .

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