A new piece of federal legislation introduced by Alaska’s U.S. senators is aimed at granting land to five so-called landless Southeast tribes.

Five Alaska Native communities were excluded from the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971 which transferred 44 million acres and more than $900 million to 13 regional Native Corporations and more than 200 village corporations. It’s not clear why Alaska Natives in Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Haines and Tenakee were not allowed to organize village corporations and receive land under ANCSA, but this isn’t the first time legislation has been proposed to change it.

“There’s been legislation introduced in at least seven different Congresses to try to rectify this,” said Chuck Kleeschulte, with Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s office.“So this is just kind of a continuation of a long term effort to try before we get to the 50th anniversary of the claims settlement act passing to do something for Native in Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Tenakee and Haines.”

The legislation as proposed by Murkowski and fellow Republican Dan Sullivan would permit the five communities to form urban corporations and receive title to surface rights of 23,000 acres each. The Bureau of Land Management would draw up a list of lands the corporations could select from. State and municipal owned land would be exempt as would conservation areas.

Land transfers can be controversial, especially within the Tongess National Forest, which encompasses much of Southeast. The legislation is similar to a Sealaska lands bill that got recent approval. In that case conservationists didn’t want the land privatized, worrying it would be damaging to fish and wildlife habitat. Sportsman groups also opposed the move. Kleeschulte says the transfer could provide economic benefits to the tribes and regions.

“Given the current status of the timber industry in the Southeast I guess we would hope that people would look at this bill with a new perspective and not necessarily be fearful that the lands might be lost but that might be used for fishery development or tourism development or for other development if Natives in the five communities actually received them for their urban corporations,” he said.

Harriet Brouillette is the tribal administrator for the Chilkoot Indian Association in Haines. She says she hoped the five communities would have been included in the Sealaska bill. The communities have worked with the regional corporation over the last two decades to get this legislation passed.

“It was half my lifetime ago that I started working on the landless issue,” she said.

Brouillette says the draft legislation has basically remained the same over the years but was tweaked occasionally depending on the political climate. Brouillette says as the years pass, the chances of getting land selections gets slimmer. Twenty-three thousand acres is only a fraction of what the Chilkoot tribe says it’s entitled to. But she’s hopeful the bill has a chance of passing in the current U.S. legislature and administration.

“President Obama’s administration has been more open to working on Native issues and with tribal communities so we were really hoping that this would be a good time to see a resolution in our land claims settlement.”

If it does pass this time, Brouillette says it will be bittersweet. Her mother was a strong advocate of getting the five landless communities included in the ANCSA claims. But she didn’t get to see it happen in her lifetime.

“I just remember her telling me when I was 26 and going off to my first meeting that she had given up and it was up to me now to fight for our right for our right, for our own land.”
The Unrecognized Southeast Alaska Native Communities Recognition and Compensation Act is expected to be assigned to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which Murkowski chairs.