Ralph Strong, an Alaska Native veteran from Klukwan, poses outside the American Legion Hall in nearby Haines. (Photo by Jillian Rogers)

Congress passed a law in March that gives Alaska Native veterans of the Vietnam War another chance to claim 160 acres of land. The Bureau of Land Management is still working out which lands are available and how they can be claimed. Tribal organizations in Southeast Alaska are already working to help eligible veterans take advantage of the opportunity.

Ralph Strong is an Alaska Native veteran from Klukwan. He says that the issue of land allotments for Alaska Native veterans goes all the way back to the purchase of Alaska by U.S. Secretary of State William Seward. 

Who was to deny him? The Native People didn’t know what was going on. There were no newspapers, there were no radio stations,” Strong says. “By 1906, Congress decided that they needed to do something for the Alaska Native People.”

That is when Congress passed the Alaska Native Allotment Act, allowing Alaska Natives to acquire 160 acres of land.  

Some Alaska Natives were able to secure tracts of land through that law, but Strong says it was not a well-known program.

“It was well-known to our ancestors because it became a law in 1906,” Strong says. “The later generations like myself were not even aware that that was available.” 

The allotment program ended in 1971 with the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Applications for allotments increased in the years leading up to the settlement, but Alaska Natives serving in the military were left out.

“Because they were in service during the last years of the allotment act they were not notified,” Strong says. “So the people that were in service at the time, they were not given the chance to exercise their right before it was extinguished.”

Since then many Alaska Natives have been working to give veterans another chance to apply for allotments. Desiree Duncan is the Lands Manager for the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. She says that some Alaska Native veterans were allowed to apply for land in 1998. However, that opportunity excluded residents of Southeast Alaska.

“That was due to the service dates and also the available land,” Duncan says.

The new law passed in March was drafted to include more native veterans. Now those who served between 1964 and 1971 are eligible to apply for an allotment.

Strong estimates there are around 30 Alaska Native veterans in Haines who may be eligible to apply for an allotment. However, he is not one of them.

“Because I was already out in ‘62,” Strong says. “Like I say, I have a grievance.”

He says because it is now law, it is up to him to ask for an amendment once the allotment application process is set up.

Duncan says that the Department of the Interior is still trying to determine which federal lands will be available for selection. Right now, the Department of Veterans Affairs is collecting veterans’ information so they will be prepared to apply when the time comes.

“They’re just encouraging everyone to contact the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) or their tribe and give them their address phone number, and email address so we can keep them informed.”

Last week, Duncan gave a presentation on the allotment process at the Chilkoot Indian Association in Haines. She says one of the biggest concerns that veterans have is the length of time to set up and process the applications.

“Their concern is what if they pass away between that time, and so now we’re encouraging them to do wills,” Duncan says. “Deceased veterans are eligible to apply if they meet the eligibility. Their personal representative can apply for them, and then their heirs will receive the allotment.”

Duncan says that Tlingit and Haida will hold a ‘will drive’ this summer to help veterans to set up wills.  The Bureau of Land Management must finalize rules for the allotment process and begin accepting applications by September 2020.