Models of Sovereignty and Survival in Alaska


The cultural survival of this country’s indigenous populations is dependent on our ability to maintain our cultural values, practice our ancient traditions, and control and govern our own communities. But American Indians and Alaska Natives have historically been subject to federal policies that have sought to annihilate or assimilate Native Americans.

More recent policies have supported the rights of Native peoples in the United States to maintain their heritage and to exercise self-determination. But Native Americans are increasingly concerned that the gains they have made since the enactment of the 1975 Indian Self-Determination Act are now threatened by court decisions from the highest level that are adverse to Indian peoples and weaken tribal governments. For Alaska Natives, this peril was exemplified in the Supreme Court ruling that our major land holdings are not “Indian country.” Other governmental actions portend the diminishing of governmental programs and funds guaranteed to Native Americans by either law or by moral imperatives to support the physical and cultural well being of Indian peoples. Many Native tribes such as those in Alaska are forced to use their meager resources to fend off cultural challenges like the English-language-only legislation that undermine the survival of Native languages.

Despite the ongoing threats and adversarial initiatives, American Indians and Alaska Natives remain undaunted in their resolve to maintain their cultural traditions and languages and their tribal land bases. They have strengthened their tribal governments and have initiated multiple efforts to survive in the 21st century and to continue on their path to self-determination and self-governance.

Alaska Natives’ experiences differ from those of American Indians in the continental United States, but our goals remain the same as our Indian brothers and sisters to the south. Instead of having a unified tribal government with an affiliated land base like Natives in the Lower-48 states, Alaska Native tribal government and lands are separate; we nevertheless have developed new and complex institutional forms and strategies to advance our welfare and cultural survival.

Despite the dramatic changes we experienced in the last three decades and our valiant efforts to protect their communities and rights to govern our own communities, Alaska Natives’ cultural and physical survival remain uncertain. We are plagued by a host of physical and social ailments. The conditions and infrastructure in our communities parallel Third World countries, our economies are characterized by the highest unemployment rates in the country, and our traditional hunting and fishing rights continue to be challenged.

Steven J. Langdon, an anthropologist who has widely studied Alaska Native societies, sums up the future of Alaska Natives: “Although Alaska Native peoples have some influence in determining that future, a much larger role will be played by other Americans who will establish crucial rules under which Alaska Natives will live through the Congress and the courts of the United States. We all share responsibility of Alaska Native peoples.”

Alaska Natives have been bold, persistent, innovative, and fairly successful in our attempts to achieve self-determination and self governance. Much of the literature that describes Native governance, however, tends to focus on the frailties of tribal governments caused by efforts to deny or undermine Native peoples’ basic rights to self rule. More often these reviews fail to provide an understanding of the realities of Native governance or they neglect to portray the success of Native efforts to protect their political rights and promote self-determination. This critical assessment of earlier writings is not to imply that Native societies have been able to maintain their traditional political organizations and exercise the full authorities and powers they had prior to contact with Westerners. In fact, traditional and Native traditional governments and those established under the auspices of federal legislation have been subject to ongoing extraneous pressures. But Alaska Natives have also met these challenges with a degree of success and at the same time created or availed ourselves of opportunities to advance the welfare of our communities. In this issue of Cultural Survival Quarterly, Natives who are responsible to Native people describe some of their institutional efforts.

Alaska Natives, who numbered over 80,000 at first contact with Westerners, include the Inupiat and Yup’ik Eskimo of northern and western Alaska; the Aleuts of the Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian Chain; the Athabascan of interior Alaska; and the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian of southeast Alaska. They had their own traditional forms of government long before the arrival of Russians in 1741. Governance over their communities and lands and resources was exercised largely through kin-based groups. With the exception of the Aleuts who were nearly annihilated by the Russians, traditional institutions remained fairly intact throughout the Russian era, which lasted until 1867 when Alaska was purchased by the United States.

The 1867 Treaty of Cession that transferred Alaska from Russia to the United States held that the “uncivilized tribes” were to be subject to the same laws and regulations as other American Indians. The Tlingit immediately challenged the authority of the United States. They asserted their sovereignty initially by declaring their exclusive ownership of southeast Alaska. (Worl) In 1886 In re Sah Quah, the Tlingit further contended that they retained internal governing authority exclusive of the United States and that federal laws prohibiting slavery, a practice that was integrated into Tlingit culture, did not apply to them. The Alaska Federal District Court rejected these arguments and ruled that the Tlingit were subject to the U.S. Constitution. (Case)

The growth of the non-Native population in Alaska was followed by a diminishment of Native control over lands, resources, and communities. Out of necessity, the major concern of Native peoples centered on land rather than governance issues in their relationship to the Americans and federal government. The federal government’s evolving policy toward Alaska Natives embarked on a somewhat different course than that of the Lower-48 Indian tribes. Rather than interlocking reservation lands and tribal governments, the United States acted through legislative actions and policy and later a Supreme Court decision to separate Indian lands from tribal governments in Alaska. The Alaska territorial government adopted legislation in 1915 that authorized Native villages to form local governments. The federal government dealt with Alaska Native governance through the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 (IRA) and its amendment in 1936. Two major provisions of the IRA allowed American Indians living on reservations to establish tribal governments, and it also authorized the U.S. Secretary of the Interior to acquire and hold land in trust for the tribes.

These initial IRA provisions did not fit the circumstance of Alaska Natives and southeast Alaska Indians sought an amendment to the IRA to include Alaska. The Tlingit and Haida had united in 1912 under the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood to deal politically with new issues brought as a result of the American occupation. As a result of their efforts, the IRA was amended in 1936 to allow Alaska Natives to organize on a village basis to form tribal governments. But despite the efforts of the federal government to persuade Natives to adopt federally recognized constitutions, relatively few of the 200 or more Native villages in Alaska adopted an IRA form of government and even fewer secured lands or reserves.

After their initial activation, most IRA governments slipped into a dormant phase. Most villages seemed to be content with their traditional forms of government, and some villages largely in southeast Alaska formed municipal governments. Beginning in the late 1960s, Alaska Natives embarked on a new course to achieve self-determination and self-governance.

Regional and Village Corporations

Spurred by the State of Alaska action to select their land entitlement and supported by funds from 1960s federal War on Poverty initiatives, Native peoples during that decade organized themselves into 12 regional nonprofit associations (see sidebar this page). Their primary focus was to seek a settlement of their aboriginal land claims, and they unified their efforts through the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN), which they organized in 1966.

Congress, with the endorsement of Native leaders represented by the AFN, enacted the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) in 1971.1 It resolved their aboriginal land claims and delegated the responsibility of implementation of the act to state-chartered corporations rather than tribal governments. Collectively 12 regional and more than 200 village corporations were to receive 44 million acres of land, held under fee simple title rather than as trust reservation lands.2 Shareholders in the corporations were Alaska Natives enrolled in a region or village who received 100 shares each in their region’s and/or village’s corporations—quite different from tribal membership that was constituted on a perpetual and communal basis.

Congress in its declaration of policy noted that the settlement was to be accomplished in conformity with the economic and social needs of Natives. In the three decades since the enactment of ANCSA, Alaska Natives have demonstrated that we view the corporations as more than economic or financial organizations. Unlike shareholders of other for-profit corporations, we tailored the corporations to meet our social and cultural needs.

Native people went to Congress several times to seek amendments to ANCSA that embodied their cultural values. Typical corporations sell stock to raise funds and seek investment opportunities to increase shareholder returns. Because they do not want to dilute potential dividends for the shareholder base, they do not give free shares to new shareholders. Neither do most corporations provide unequal benefits to special classes of shareholders. But Alaska Natives did both these things by seeking and obtaining a Congressional amendment to allow us to enroll children born after 1971 as shareholders and to provide special benefits to our elders. The regional corporations also established nonprofit institutions through which they could provide scholarships, not only to their shareholders, but to their descendants who may not be enrolled as shareholders. These corporations sponsor a multitude of programs and activities to preserve and enhance the traditional heritage of their memberships.

The Native corporations have sought to protect their land base to ensure that it can never be alienated, or lost through sale, taxation, or other legal means such as satisfaction of debt. They obtained an amendment to ANCSA that offered land protections such as a land bank, in which Natives cannot lose undeveloped lands through taxation or other legal means. Many of the corporations also adopted policy statements that prohibited the alienation of lands and adopted bylaws that set high voting standards to make the sale of lands almost impossible.

The Native corporations also use their economic influence in the political arena to benefit Native peoples. While Native corporations are not always recognized as tribes, they maintain a relationship with the federal government unlike that of other corporations, and most espouse a dual and interrelated mission of enhancing the economic and social welfare of Native peoples. Most notable is their effort to protect the subsistence hunting and fishing rights of Natives living in rural communities. For special statutory purposes, Native corporations are recognized as tribes in 117 federal legislative acts. Many of these legislative acts provide special economic advantages and protections for Native corporations and afford them some of the same opportunities as other federally recognized tribes. Additionally, Native corporation membership dues provide the major source of support for the AFN, which is actively involved at the state, national, and international level and widely acclaimed for its political astuteness and advocacy of Native rights and issues.

The financial success of Native corporations has been extremely varied. Several have teetered on bankruptcy while others have been immensely financially successful. Some corporations have made one-time distributions of $50,000 to $65,000 while others have not been able to pay out dividends. A number of corporations have investments at the state, national, and international levels while others have been inactive and threatened with dissolution because they failed to file corporate reports required by the State of Alaska.

During the late 1980s, when Natives were discussing the threats posed by the removal of restrictions on the alienation of ANCSA stock, it was popular to say that corporations were alien institutions. The framers of ANCSA and public policy observers, on the other hand, described Native corporations as social engineers and mechanisms for economic assimilation into the larger society. The truth perhaps lies between these two positions, as Native corporations have become increasingly prominent in many Native communities and have been viewed by many as a measure to achieve self determination, as Carl H. Marrs, chief executive officer of Cook Inlet Region, Inc., argues in this issue of Cultural Survival Quarterly.

Reinvigorating Tribal Government

The 1975 self-determination legislation gave new life to the traditional and IRA governments. It allowed village tribal government to contract to administer service programs formerly administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs or the Indian Health Service. It, in part, supported resurgence in the activities of tribal government. However, the greater impetus for the tribal sovereignty movement can be traced to the late 1980s when Alaska Natives began to realize that they could lose their lands under ANCSA. This threat came from the provision that restricted the alienation of stock only until 1991. Fearing the loss of their lands, a series of AFN meetings were held to discuss and act on a resolution of this dilemma. One of the proposals that emerged was the transfer of ANCSA lands from Native corporations to tribal governments. A number of tribes organized under a statewide organization, United Tribes of Alaska, to advance this notion. It was clear that Congress would not support the so-called “retribalization” of ANCSA lands without language that threatened to undermine the powers of tribal governments.

The idea of seeking congressional approval to transfer ANCSA lands to tribes was abandoned, but the sovereignty movement became entrenched. The 1987 ANCSA amendments continued the stock alienation restrictions until such time as a majority of all of the outstanding shareholders in the corporation voted to eliminate them. But the tribes continued to encourage village corporations to transfer their lands to them. A few village corporations responded, but the idea never took hold because it was not assured that the U.S. Secretary of the Interior would treat the lands as trust lands and many feared that lands could be lost.

After this period, tribes began in earnest to assert their sovereign status, as Vernita Herdman describes in this issue. They reorganized under the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council, which sought to protect and strengthen tribal governments. They also began to exercise their governmental powers. One such power, to levy taxes, was challenged by the state in 1998. Joe Nelson and Karol Dixon discuss in this issue the case of Alaska v. Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government, in which the Supreme Court ultimately decided that ANCSA lands did not constitute Indian country.

The tribes also began to focus on their governmental functions and initiated efforts to contract the administration of governmental services that had previously been provided by Native regional nonprofits. The decentralization of governmental services was not uniformly supported and soon encountered opposition both from internal and external sources. Although services were controlled and provided at a local level by tribal governments, a greater amount of the limited pool of government money was directed toward administrative costs rather than direct services. Some communities experienced decreases in governmental services and others complained of ineffective delivery of services, for reasons including lack of trained personnel, inexperience of tribal governments in delivering services, and low levels of funding.

The 1990s was a period of institutional change and adjustment as a number of governmental programs and services shifted from the regional to village level, and in some cases back again to the regional level. Some regional associations were better able than others to respond to the growing strength of tribal governments. They developed new strategies and models that accommodated both regional and local delivery of services and at the same time advanced self-determination and self governance, as demonstrated in Loretta Bullard’s article about Kawerak, the nonprofit service provider in the Bering Straits region.

Perhaps the greatest measure of institutional success and self-determination is reflected in the ability of the health nonprofit organizations and tribal governments to forge an agreement to establish the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. The organization, profiled in this issue by Trudy Anderson, was formed to provide statewide health care through a hospital and medical center in Anchorage. In addition to providing state-of-the-art health services, it employs 544 individuals. (Association of ANCSA Regional Corporations Presidents/CEOs 2003)

Tribal advocates in a few villages, particularly in the Association of Village Council Presidents region in southwest Alaska, have supported the dissolution of their municipal governments organized under the State of Alaska. Even though it meant less state funding, the tribal supporters saw advantages in having a single government within their communities rather than competing governments. Other tribal governments, such the Haines Borough IRA government, which Debra Schnabel discusses in this issue, actively sought to establish cooperative relationships with their communities’ municipal governments.

As these new institutional relationships and links between regional organizations and local governments became entrenched, Alaska’s congressional delegation during the 2002 AFN convention forewarned the Native community that diminishing federal funds would not accommodate 200 or more tribes in Alaska. While the delegation did not suggest that Alaska Natives seek the elimination of tribal governments, they did advance the notion of the “regionalization” of tribes to support fiscally efficient delivery of services. At this point in time, the tribes are working to respond to the congressional delegation’s proposal.

Achieving Sovereignty

Beginning in the late 1960s, Alaska Natives began to exert greater political control through the formation of new quasi-governmental regional nonprofit organizations and their unification through a statewide organization, the AFN. Alaska was divided into 12 regions paralleling the geographical boundaries of their traditional groups. The 1970s and 1980s brought the proliferation of specialized regional institutions and divided political authority and control among the many entities. Powerful Native corporations emerged and began to exert tremendous political power. Through the 1990s, the regional organizations were joined by tribal governments that articulated their demands for recognition of their sovereignty.

The tribal governments were successful in obtaining federal and state recognition of their special political status during the 1990s. The State of Alaska gave its lukewarm recognition of the trust relationship between Native peoples and the federal government as a result of a study that showed that $400 million or more were brought into the state annually because of their special political status. The 1990s was also decade of legal and political challenges to special political status and rights of Alaska Natives. It was a period of institutional conflict and tension as Native peoples worked out the relationships between their tribal governments and regional organizations. While the dependent sovereign status of Alaska Natives differs from that of federally recognized reservation tribes, the history of the Alaska Natives in the last two decades demonstrates a resolve by Native people to meet the legal and political challenge to their sovereignty in a variety of ways that maximize their self-determination and self-governance.

1. The Arctic Slope Native Association was the only region to vote against ANCSA. 2. The corporations were authorized to receive 44 million acres and most of the land entitlements have been conveyed to the corporations, but a small percent is still in the process of being conveyed.

Rosita Worl is a Tlingit from the Thunderbird Clan and House Lowered from the Sun in Klukwan, Alaska. She is president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute and a professor of anthropology at the University of Alaska Southeast. She also serves on the boards of the Alaska Federation of Natives and the Southeast Alaska ANCSA Board, Sealaska Corporation. She has served as the chair of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indians Economic Development Commission.

References and further reading

Association of ANCSA Regional Corporation Presidents/CEOs. (2003). Native Corporations A Legacy of Sharing. Anchorage.

Case, D.S. & Voluck, D.A. (2002). Alaska Natives and American Laws. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press.

Worl, R. (1990). History of Southeastern Alaska Since 1867. In Northwest Coast Handbook of North American Indians Volume 7. Suttles, W., Ed. Washington: Smithsonian Institution.

Cultural Norms, Laws and Modern Resource Management Regimes. (1980). Paper presented to the Alaska Anthropological Association Alaskan Maritime Anthropology Session. Anchorage.




Native Regional Nonprofits

After settlement of Native land claims in 1971 through ANCSA, the regional nonprofits turned their attention to providing governmental services to their constituent villages. In many respects, they became quasi-governments. They provided a range of governmental services, and also represented and advocated for their village constituents on a number of political fronts such as subsistence hunting and fishing rights.

Some of the regional nonprofits became quite large and influential and today they are among the largest employers in the state. Collectively they account for 23 percent of the top-100 employers. For example, the Tanana Chiefs Conference of interior Alaska, discussed by Ginger Placeres in this issue, employs 632 individuals. (Association of ANCSA Regional Corporations Presidents/CEOs 2003)

Alaska Natives also formed other specialized nonprofit organizations within each of the 12 regions. They established housing, health, and electrical authorities that focused on the delivery of services to their constituent populations. A benefit of these specialized institutions is that they have each been able to focus on a single governmental function. Moreover, the regional institutions united to form statewide organizations that have been able to represent Alaska Natives at the national level, and they have been effective in securing and increasing governmental funds that otherwise would not have been available to them. Like their affiliate regional nonprofit institutions, these specialized nonprofit organizations have also become major forces within their regions providing both services and employment to Native peoples. For example, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation in the Yup’ik Calista region in southwest Alaska employs 940 individuals. With the exception of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indians of Southeast Alaska and the Inupiat community of the Arctic Slope, the regional nonprofits and the specialized institutions are not recognized as tribes. But they share many characteristics with tribes and function to advance the welfare of their communities. They have elected boards of directors representing communities or tribes within their region. They also maintain a relationship with the federal government as tribal organizations that can contract to administer federal governmental services subject to the approval of the village tribes under the 1975 Public Law 93-638 Indian Self-Determination Act.

Without a land base or taxing authority, a number of the nonprofit organizations are largely dependent on federal government money, but they have initiated efforts to leverage their federal dollars as a means to provide a source of sustaining funds. Some regional nonprofits have formed profit-making entities that provide additional sources of revenue to the parent nonprofit to support the services they provide.


Managing Native Natural Resources

Prior to the imposition of Western resource management regimes, Alaska Natives hunted and gathered their wildlife resources constrained only by environmental conditions, resource population levels and availability, technological capabilities, and customary norms and laws. As Native peoples began to experience conflicts resulting from competition for their resources and the inconsistencies between extraneous governmental regulatory regimes and their own traditional codes, they began to assert that they had rights to manage wildlife resources and subsistence practices. In the late 1970s they organized to advance this position. Initially, each Native organization focused on single species such as whales, walrus, or polar bears. Later they also began to organize on a regional geographic basis to protect and advance their collective subsistence interest. The Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission (AEWC) exemplifies a successful Native co-management regime with the federal government. It was founded by the Inupiat and St. Lawrence Island Yup’ik whaling captains, who organized in 1977 with the assistance of the North Slope Borough in response to the International Whaling Commission’s moratorium on subsistence whaling of bowhead whales. The IRA governments in the whaling villages adopted a concurrent resolution that delegated to the AEWC regulatory and enforcement jurisdiction over bowhead whale hunting. They incorporated their cultural norms and Western biological principles into a management regime that was ultimately accepted by the federal government. (Worl 1980)

A number of other Native organizations operate successfully in different tribal-federal co-management arrangements or as subsistence advocates. The AFN’s position in the ongoing subsistence conflicts has been to support co-management of wildlife resources that promotes local control and culturally appropriate allocation and regulation of wildlife resources. While Alaska Natives have not been entirely successful in securing control over wildlife resources and subsistence regulations, they have made significant gains toward these objectives. Today they work closely with federal management regimes through federal regional councils and advisory committees and other inter-governmental institutions.

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