Ivy Leaf - Fall 2010

Alaska and the Yukon

Comparative Public Policies Toward Indigenous Peoples

Article and photos by Dr. L.A. Wilson II and Dr. Brian Black


American Indians. Native Americans. Alaska Natives. First Nations People. Indigenous People. Aboriginal People. Regardless of the name one uses to describe these first residents of North America, their treatment at the hands of European immigrants has been one of the sadder epochs of U.S. and Canadian political history. Although this saga may seem quite distant from our lives today and, particularly, from the lives of most of the students at Penn State Altoona, one group recently set out to close the gap in our understanding. They focused their study on one of the active frontiers of Native relations: the northern areas, including Alaska and the Yukon Territory of Canada.

In these areas, both Alaska Natives and Canadian First Nations People have, in the latter decades of the twentieth century, attempted to bring a resolution to longstanding land claims in Alaska and Canada. The resolutions they have sought are different from one another and quite different from the treatment of American Indians in the lower forty-eight states.

Two Penn State Altoona faculty, L.A. Wilson II, assistant dean for research, and Brian Black, head of the Division of Arts & Humanities and professor of history and environmental studies, led a group of students to Alaska and the Yukon to see first-hand the lands in dispute and meet directly with leaders of the Alaska Natives and First Nations People who have pressed their claims with the United States and Canada. These also are the individuals responsible for the implementation of the resulting policies for the benefit of their people.

For the most part, the students were enrolled in Black's "History of the American West" course and had signed up for an additional one-credit course co-taught by Black and Wilson titled "Alaska and the Yukon: Comparative Public Policies Toward Indigenous Peoples." Gabby Davis, Gordon Roscovich, Lisa Kasianowitz, Marcy Ladson, Ryan Kenner, Stephanie Adams, and Dan Brown were joined for this activity by two Penn State Altoona "GO-60" program participants, Frank and Ann Rosenhoover. Black and the students joined Wilson in Juneau, Alaska, on May 14, 2010, traveled to Whitehorse, Yukon, and returned home on May 25, 2010.

The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act

Although there have been many phases to American relations with Native Americans, today the typical American Indian tribal relationship with the U.S. government is a paternal one in which the Secretary of the Interior provides oversight for their affairs. Oil and gas revenues, for instance, are held in trust by the Department of Interior and changes in land use must receive the approval of the Secretary of the Interior. In the continental United States, this has been the basic arrangement of Native policies since late in the nineteenth century.

Such existing models did not, however, pertain to Alaska Natives. In the late twentieth century, as they looked to models for the resolution of their lands claims, they seized upon the concept of holding their land in fee simple — the maximum ownership possible under common law. This meant they could subdivide the land, sell the land, or pass the land on to their descendents. They wanted to break the paternalism of the traditional treatment of American Indians by the federal government.

Alaska Natives have been pressing land claims since the Russians had the audacity to sell both them and their lands to the United States in 1867. While the treaty with Russia ("Seward's Folly") permitted the Russian inhabitants the option of "all the rights, advantages, and immunities of citizens of the United States," the "uncivilized native tribes" were explicitly excluded. It took until the middle of the twentieth century before voting rights, equal access to educational opportunities, and many of other benefits of citizenship were assured. In the 1960s — with the added impetus of the civil rights movement in the lower forty-eight — Alaska Natives began energetically pressing for the resolution of their land claims. With increased ability to communicate with one another, the Alaska Federation of Natives came together to present a unified claim on state and federal officials.

With the discovery of oil on the north slope of Alaska, the oil industry became an important ally of Alaska Natives pressing for the resolution of land claims. Until these land claims were resolved, the construction of the 800-mile Alaska pipeline project would be nearly impossible. The additional pressure of the oil industry to resolve these claims led President Richard Nixon to sign into law the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) in 1972.

This innovative legislation created twelve regional corporations representing the geographical distribution of different tribal groups in Alaska. A thirteenth also was created to represent Alaska Natives not residing in Alaska. ANCSA extinguished claims to aboriginal title, resolved a variety of land claims, and granted forty-four million acres of land and nearly $1 billion in cash to these newly formed corporations. Every Alaska Native living in 1972 was provided with 100 shares of stock in a Native corporation but was prohibited from selling these shares until 1992 (subsequent legislation extended this prohibition indefinitely and requires agreement of shareholders that shares can be sold).

Listening to the voices of Alaska Natives

In Juneau, the group met with Rosita Worl, director of the Sealaska Heritage Institute and Richard Harris, executive vice president of the Sealaska Corporation. The Sealaska Corporation — one of the twelve regional corporations created by ANCSA — represents the Tglinit, Haida, and Tsimshian tribes of Southeast Alaska and consistently has been one of the most successful of the regional corporations.

Worl and Harris reviewed both the history of ANCSA as well as its evolution as it has sought to confront contemporary issues. Among the most important of these has been the requirement that regional corporations share 75 percent of their profits with all other regional corporations. Since the economic success of the regional corporations has varied (at least one has gone through bankruptcy), the more successful regional corporations have been required to subsidize those that are less successful and, in the view of Worl and Harris, this requirement has placed even greater pressure upon the successful ones to turn a greater profit in order to meet the needs of their shareholders. The issue of the "left-outs" (those born after 1972) has caused some stress but has been resolved in favor of including them as shareholders even though it "dilutes" the value of prior shares. Even now, the Sealaska Corporation is petitioning the federal government for the last of the land to which it is entitled under ANCSA and there is conflict over its choices with the non-Native, conservationist, and environmental communities. Some of the lands it has identified include some of the remaining old-growth portions of the Tongass National Forest, which are currently protected from the harvesting of timber. Opponents fear that these forests will be cut if transferred to the Sealaska Corporation.

What is particularly interesting about the ANCSA regional corporations in general and the Sealaska Corporation in particular is that these corporations, like any other, have a fiduciary responsibility to protect the assets of the corporation for their shareholders. At the same time, these corporations are the major vehicles by which Alaska Native culture and historic land use are to be preserved. In many respects, the two individuals with whom we spoke represented the leadership of this regional corporation in these two realms of responsibility.

First Nations' People of the Yukon

Following our meetings in Juneau, we made our way by ferry to Skagway, Alaska, and then to Whitehorse, Yukon. In Whitehorse, we met with Regional Chief Eric Morris, Chief of Chiefs in the Yukon Territory, and members of his staff. This meeting began with the singing of a traditional Tlingit song welcoming us by Isaiah Gilson, a young staff member who accompanied himself on a drum.

In 1973, the Council for Yukon Indians was formed to press their demands for resolution of lands claims. Their joint statement, "Together Today for our Children Tomorrow," became the basis for their negotiation with the Yukon Territorial and Canadian national governments. As in Alaska, the focus of attention was upon First Nation people's right to lands that had traditionally been used to support a subsistence lifestyle — a land use whose history can be traced back thousands of years. In contrast to Alaska, however, Canadian First Nations People sought sovereignty over the land they were to be awarded. Once a general agreement was reached in negotiations with the Canadian government, individual First Nation tribes were responsible for establishing specific agreements relating to the provision of social and police services for those living on tribal lands. Some of these agreements have only recently (ca. 2007) been negotiated.

While Alaska Natives needed to deal with the issues surrounding the "left outs," Canadian policy needed to deal with the issue of non-status Indians. For much of the twentieth century, First Nations people who married a non-Indian or took a private sector job was said to have revoked their Indian status and no longer entitled to those benefits (mostly modest education and health benefits) provided to "Indians." An Indian who wanted to enter a liquor bar could do so only if he/she revoked his/her Indian status.

Subsequent to the meeting at the First Nations' offices, Chief Morris invited the group to accompany him to the side of the Yukon River, where he conducted a traditional smudging ceremony, cleansing the body and spirit. Chief Morris placed sage, some grasses, and other herbs in a conch shell, set them afire, explained the nature of the ceremony, and, as he circulated among us, invited each person to bathe themselves in the smoke or "smudge." We joined hands — right hand facing up, left hand facing down — and Chief Morris offered prayers for our good health and gave thanks for our ability to gather for the day's discussion. We then were given small amounts of tobacco to cleanse our hands and send bad spirits away as we dropped the tobacco into the rushing river.

Looking back ... moving forward

Our Alaska Native and Yukon First Nations hosts were generous with their time and attention. They simply asked that we take what we learned from these visits and share the information with others in hope that it will foster a greater understanding of the place of these indigenous people of North America in the twentieth century.

Alaska Native and Yukon's First Nation People share many of the same social and economic challenges. The remoteness and size of their village settings pose significant problems in the provision of basic services such as sanitary water and sewer systems, access to health care, educational opportunity at even the primary and secondary levels, and economic opportunity. As in other non-Native communities, these factors lead to increased social dysfunction and chronically high unemployment. Unfortunately, both Alaska and the Yukon rely upon resource extractive economies that are best compared with those of underdeveloped countries.

As is probably true of any opportunity to study abroad, the students broadened their understanding of our world. Traveling through Alaska and the Yukon, they traversed rain forest and tundra. They saw orca and humpback whales, salmon, halibut, seals, sea lions, river otter, black bears, wolves, ravens, and many bald eagles. Cathy Connor, a geologist/glaciologist at the University of Alaska Southeast, led the students on an excursion to the face of the Mendehall Glacier — a glacier that has receded approximately half a mile since 1946 -- where the students saw first-hand the implications of climate change. She also explained how rising sea levels already are impacting the lives of Native villages along the coasts of Alaska. All of this served to provide a context in which to understand the policies regarding indigenous people that were the focus of this class.

After a semester of coursework preparation, consequences of U.S. and Canadian policy toward Alaska Natives and Yukon First Nation People have emerged in living color. "I never realized," explains Lisa Kasianowitz, a 2010 graduate in Letters, Arts and Sciences, "how these large scale policies so profoundly affect the everyday lives of real people." While both Alaska Native and Yukon First Nation People face daunting social and economic challenges, Marcy Ladson, a 2010 graduate in History and Environmental Studies, points out that "the young people to whom we spoke gave us real hope that the future will be different for them."