Sen. Lisa Murkowski in 2014. (Skip Gray/KTOO)

Sen. Lisa Murkowski in 2014. (Skip Gray/KTOO)

By Katarina Sostaric, KSTK

A bill that would create corporations for five “landless” Native communities in Southeast Alaska had its first hearing in the U.S. Senate last week. This comes after a similar bill had its first hearing in a House of Representatives committee this summer.

The bill aims to establish Native villages in Wrangell, Haines, Ketchikan, Petersburg, and Tenakee and allow them to organize as corporations. The Southeast towns were left out of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 that distributed money and land to Native residents of many other communities.

Senator Lisa Murkowski introduced a bill in March to settle the land claims, and its first hearing was in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests, and Mining.

Leo Barlow of Wrangell testified on behalf of landless residents. He says the landless communities are not on par with those that were granted lands in 1971.

“Those corporations have been able to engage in business practices, they’ve developed an economic generator, in some cases, to produce significant economic benefits to their shareholders,” Barlow said. “But we can’t because we don’t have a land base to work with.”

Landless residents are shareholders of the Sealaska regional Native corporation, but residents of towns with urban corporations get additional benefits. Barlow says the landless residents have been denied 44 years of business opportunities.

Buck Lindekugel represented the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council at the hearing. He says SEACC’s fundamental concern is maintaining the integrity of the Tongass National Forest.

“We believe that giving lands to for-profit corporations, whether they’re Native or non-Native, from the Tongass is not in the best interest of the region and the existing sectors of the economy,” Lindekugel said.

Murkowski says it’s difficult to argue that the Tongass shouldn’t be touched.

“These are the people who have been living in the Tongass, raising their families in the Tongass, educating their children in the Tongass for time immemorial,” Murkowski said. “And so when I think about keeping the Tongass intact, I remember the people of the Tongass, and making sure that they have that access and that claim to their lands.”

A Bureau of Land Management official testified that the bill would create a, quote, “continual land transfer cycle” in Alaska by causing more communities to ask for corporate status.

Rep. Don Young introduced a similar bill and chaired its first hearing in a House Natural Resources subcommittee in June. Landless legislation has been introduced in Congress several times.