Alaska Native Land Claims & Tribal Sovereignty Issues

Alaska Natives settled land claim disputes with the United States government uniquely, opting for the creation of Alaska Native owned, Regional (and subsequently Village and Group) Corporations (ANCs), rather than reservations. A relatively hasty completion of the land claim settlement was spurred by the discovery of oil in 1968 on the north slope of Alaska. In 1971, the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) was passed, after six different house bills were considered by the United States Congress and a separate committee was formed to reconcile the differing views (Linxwiler,1992) .

The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act represented a dramatic departure from every other land settlement the federal government engaged in with tribes.

---Mara Kimmel, Political Science professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage 

After ANCSA, Alaska Native people became shareholders of their regional corporation – basing landownership on the corporate model, layering this new relationship onto the traditional and tribal.

---The NANA Regional Corporation

“This legislation created Alaska Native Corporations (ANC), which would become the vehicle for distributing land and monetary benefits to Alaska Natives in lieu of a reservation system. ANSCA permitted the conveyance of about 44 million acres of land to the ANCs [who selected the land], along with cash payments of almost $1 billion in exchange for extinguishing the aboriginal land claims in Alaska. Regional Corporations were required to be formed as profit-making entities, while village, urban, and group corporations could decide whether to be profit or nonprofit entities (United States Government Accountability Office, 2006)."

ANSCA included the transference of the surface and subsurface rights once claimed by the federal government, to these twelve corporations, changing the legal relationship of Alaska Native people to their land (NANA ANC). A thirteenth corporation was created for Alaska Natives who no longer lived in Alaska. “Sharing is an important provision of ANCSA," the Nana Regional Corporation points out on their website, “[it] requires both Regional and Village corporations to share 70 percent of their natural resource revenues. This protects those corporations that do not have significant natural resources. For example, all Native corporations benefit when a mine is developed or oil is discovered or timber is logged on one corporation’s land. Alaska's system starkly contrasts the reservation system in the Lower 48 in which tribes who, due to fortunate location, are able to own and operate successful businesses, such as casinos, are not required to share revenues with tribes who cannot.”  

Unlike tribes in the continental United States, Alaskan tribes have no land base over which they can assert sovereign authority.

—Mara Kimmel, UAA Political Science professor

Kimmel continues to explain in her paper presented at the 2009 Amsterdam Conference on the Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change, “ANSCA did not specifically address the question of whether tribes maintained any sovereign authority over the claimed ANCSA lands. The U.S. Supreme Court settled this question in 1998 in Alaska v. Village of Venetie Tribal Government. The Supreme Court determined that because ANCSA conveyed lands to ‘state-chartered and state regulated private business corporations,’ such lands did not meet the requirements for dependent Indian communities. As a result, the Court held that ANCSA severed tribal territorial jurisdiction over ANCSA lands. ANCSA therefore ‘left [tribes] as sovereign entities for service purposes, but as sovereigns without territorial reach.’ The lack of territorial sovereignty limits tribal self-determination and creates environmental insecurities because it highlights the lack of control over lands and resources that remain integral to tribal identity and subsistence.”

Learn more about the Alaska v. Village of Venetie Tribal Government decision and read the opinion.

Read Mara Kimmel's complete paper on Alaska Tribal Governance

Two Exceptions

Tribes as governments are involved with (1) marine mammal management, and (2) tribal members as individuals are active in subsistence resource management (Kimmel 2009).


Marine Mammal Management

The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 vested management authority for marine mammals with the federal government and prohibited all taking of marine mammals with few exceptions. Act of October 21, 1972, 16 U.S.C.A. §§ 1361 et seq. One exception allowed Alaska Natives to continue to harvest marine mammals for subsistence purposes (defined to also include the making and selling of traditional handicrafts made from marine mammals). The law did not direct federal regulation of marine mammals until there was a biological showing that a population was in danger, which left a management vacuum that was soon filled by Alaska Native tribes who organized into a variety of commissions including the

                        Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission

                        Eskimo Walrus Commission

                        the Alaska Sea Otter & Stellar Sea Lion Commission

                        Alaska Native Harbor Seal Commission

These commissions now work hand in hand with federal and state biologists and regulatory agencies to manage certain marine mammal stocks in Alaska. Although these commissions have been successful at manifesting the government-to-government relationship between tribes and the federal government, the scope of that authority is limited to the species subjected to the agreement (Kimmel 2009).”


Subsistence Rights

“One of the defining features of the right of self-determination for Arctic indigenous peoples is the right to continue cultural practices and subsistence traditions and this is profoundly true for Alaska Natives. Title VIII of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) defined subsistence uses and users, and provided a means for those users to be involved in managing subsistence resources. Act of December 2 1980, 16 U.S.C.A. §§ 3111 et seq. ANILCA provided both a priority for subsistence uses of natural resources over other types of uses such as commercial or recreational harvesters, and a system of committees and councils to integrate local input into management practices. The state of Alaska established a similar scheme providing for local involvement into resource management, but does not provide a similar preference for subsistence uses. See CASE, supra note 20 at 292-97 (Kimmel 2009).”

More Resources

Alaska Native Sovereignty
University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center 

Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act Resource Center

Alaska Tribal Governments
University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center