Sullivan Recognizes 50th Anniversary of Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act

WASHINGTON—U.S. Senators Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski (both R-Alaska) yesterday introduced S. Res. 482, a resolution recognizing the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) and the lasting impact of this landmark law on Alaska and Alaska Native people. ANCSA, the largest land claims settlement in U.S. history, transferred 44 million acres of federal land to 12 newly formed Regional Alaska Native Corporations (ANCs) and more than 200 Village and Urban ANCs, fostering economic development through managing and developing the land for the benefit of their Alaska Native shareholders.

“It is a story of self-determination and, in many ways, heroism, and it is a story for the ages,” said Sen. Sullivan. “I am honored to represent these wonderful people—many of the leaders who are still alive who made this happen fifty years ago—and their children and grandchildren. We have more work to do, but fifty years ago, on December 18, 1971, it was the start of a new, positive, innovative chapter in the history of Alaska.”

Transcript of remarks

Mr. President, today I introduced a resolution with Senator Murkowski celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act--ANCSA, as we call it back home in Alaska--which was an enormously consequential piece of legislation that, after years and years of debate right in this body, passed the House, then passed the U.S. Senate, and then was signed into law by President Nixon on December 18, 1971, almost exactly 50 years ago to this day. It was a great day for Alaska.

I know Senator Murkowski was on the floor earlier talking about ANCSA and why it is so important and why in Alaska, right now, we have been celebrating 50 years of this important piece of legislation.

I want to go back in time a little bit to help explain, because part of what Senator Murkowski and I do here is we are constantly talking about and educating our colleagues about this very unique legislation, which happened right here in the U.S. Senate. 

If you go back in time to 1867, that is when the United States purchased Alaska from Russia. Within the agreement, there was acknowledgement of the Alaska Native people and their lands, but, still, almost 100 years after the purchase from Russia, even following statehood for Alaska, the claims settlement that the Native people had to their own lands was still in limbo.

It got a kick and a turbo charge when oil was discovered on Alaska's North Slope during a worldwide shortage, which created new urgency to develop Alaska for our resources but to do so by settling these land claims.

There were allies in the Federal Government who were helpful, but it was truly the Alaska Native people and their determination to themselves and to future generations and their resiliency and brilliance which led to the passage of ANCSA 50 years ago, which became the largest and, certainly, most innovative indigenous land settlement, certainly, in U.S. history, and it is no exaggeration to say probably in the world--44 million acres of land going to the Native people of my State. 

It brought tremendous educational, social, political, economic, and cultural achievements for the Alaska Native people. It certainly wasn't perfect, but this body played a very important role. 

Now, there were obstacles, challenges. In fact, when you look back on the history over 50 years ago, it was kind of a classic David-and-Goliath story. 

Let me spend a few minutes going back in time to set the stage for what was happening in Alaska.

In 1954, the U.S. Department of the Interior did a health survey on the Native people of Alaska. Here is a quote from that survey: ``The indigenous people of Native Alaska are the victims of sickness, crippling conditions and premature death to a degree exceeded in very few parts of the world. . . . health problems are nearly out of hand. If . . . Americans could see for themselves the large numbers of the tuberculosis, the cripple, the blind . . . the malnourished, the desperately ill among [this] relatively small [Native] population,'' it would have a profound impact on them. And it did. 

Even in the face of these crippling conditions, the Alaska Native people joined hands, joined hearts and said: This is our land. We need rights to it.

They did this by coming together. In the mid-1960s, they formed the Alaska Federation of Natives--AFN, as we call it back home--an entity that is very important to our communities.

Of course, the Native people in our State looked for potential allies. In the lower 48, they gave speeches. They wrote columns. They formed their own newspaper, The Tundra Times, edited by legendary Howard Rock, which was highly read throughout the State, celebrated throughout the globe, and had an enormous impact on bringing people together.

A few years ago, my team and I combed through some of the hearings that led to ANCSA. It was many years in development. There were field hearings that took place in Alaska in 1968, 1969--3 years before the passage of ANCSA.

Incredibly proud and determined first peoples from all over the State--Tlingit, Haida, Athabascan, Inupiat, Yupik, Aleut--travel to Anchorage, to Fairbanks to give their testimony in field hearings to U.S. Senators. Some of them had never even left their villages. Some of them didn't even speak English. 

Many were veterans--and I am going to talk briefly about that. Dozens and dozens of young men and women, old men and women, all of them testifying before U.S. Senators and Congressmen, telling their stories of how they lived off the land and the rights that they needed for thousands of years on the land.

They told stories of strong and resilient people who had been able to thrive in some of the harshest conditions in the planet. But as I mentioned earlier, they also told stories of health challenges. 

The first AFN president, Emil Notti, who is still a great leader in Alaska, then only 36 years old, spoke with passion at these hearings and heartbreak about the conditions in rural Alaska.

He said to a group of Senators in a hearing:

The indigenous people of Native Alaska are the victims of sickness, crippling conditions and premature death to a degree exceeded in very few parts of the world.

He told the committee then that life expectancy for the average Native Alaskan was 34 years old. This is in the late 1960s. The average life expectancy in the United States at that time was 69--34 years old to 69.

Many spoke of how much they had sacrificed for their country. And this is an issue I never tire of talking about. Alaska Natives serve at higher rates in the U.S. military than any other ethnic group in the country. So they are fighting for their country in World War II and Korea and Vietnam, and they are coming home and they are being denied fundamental rights themselves.

Here is what Jerome Trigg, a leader and a marine from Nome, had to tell U.S. Senators who were in Alaska. His testimony was said to have brought tears to the eyes of many. He looked at the U.S. Senators and said this: We have showed our patriotism as proudly as any Americans on Earth. We have answered the call of duty with pride in serving in our military. In World War II, we answered the call 100 percent. Every man--old and young--in every village volunteered with the Alaska National Guard.

On Vietnam, which was raging at the time, he said: I have never heard of an Alaska Native burning their draft card or our Nation's flag. We love our land, and we will sacrifice and fight to protect it.

He concluded with this thought, which I love: ``Sometimes I think the wrong people are running this hearing and taking our testimony,'' he said to the Senators. ``It seems that [maybe] we should be on the bench and you people should be . . . giving [us] the testimony.''

I love that--strong words from Marine Jerome Trigg, who had a very important point to make.

So many in our communities testified in front of Congress. One happened to be a beautiful, young Alaska Native woman in her thirties from the village of Rampart named Mary Jane Fate, who not only worked on this but came to Washington, DC, to lobby U.S. Senators to pass ANCSA. I had the very great privilege of being the son-in-law of that great Native woman who, unfortunately, passed away recently. That was my mother-in-law, Mary Jane Fate, who came to this body and made sure Senators understood what was happening in Alaska and got them to vote for ANCSA 50 years ago. 

So here is what it did in a nutshell. As I mentioned, it was the largest indigenous land settlement in the history of the country: 44 million acres of land, almost a billion dollars from the State and Federal Government to transfer land in fee simple--not the reservation system like you have in the lower 48, which was a huge innovation at the time. They own this land. It is theirs. It is not held in trust by the United States like it is in the lower 48 on Indian reservations.

Congress mandated the creation of for-profit Alaska Native corporations solely owned by Alaska Native shareholders. Twelve of these regional corporations and 200 village ANCs were created by the Congress. Sometimes people talk about ANCs as if they were some foreign entity. They were actually created right here 50 years ago.

What did all of this do? It provided economic opportunity. These were not typical entities, but they were more than just corporations. They were kind of a combination: social, cultural, economic. They passed on the values to the different shareholders. 

One of the great things about ANCSA was that it required, actually, the sharing of revenues. Some of these regional corporations did very well; others didn't. There were provisions early on that said, if these corporations are doing great and these aren't, there is going to be some sharing. It was called the 7(i) provision. These provisions have been critical to the survival of ANCs, which regional ANCs at times, as I mentioned, were receiving more revenue than others.

So that day 50 years ago--December 18, 1971--was really an important day for our State. How has it worked out? It has worked out well, but, of course, we always have more work to do.

Over the last 50 years, the Alaska Native people have managed their lands to foster sustainable businesses, created employment opportunities for all people--Native and non-Native--in Alaska, across the country, and across the globe. They have become the heart and soul of our economy in Alaska, employing thousands of both Alaska Native and non-Native people. 

And they have prospered with their own initiative and with innovative approaches to fostering economic development through self-determination. And beyond the economic benefits, these ANCs, these groupings, these shareholders in these Alaska Native entities created right here on this floor, provided benefits in terms of culture, language revitalization, scholarships, burials, funeral assistance, and an enormous focus on education. Over 54,000 individual scholarships were given to younger Alaska Native people. 

And, importantly, this law, passed by this body, gave the Native people the opportunity to thrive; to continue to live on their land, practice their culture, create leaders throughout the State. In what was once one of the most impoverished places in the country are now, in many areas, strong, dynamic--health, education, housing, food security, and sanitation have all improved immensely.

We have a long way to go. There is still a lot of misunderstanding. In Alaska, you have Tribes, Tribal members, you have ANCs, and shareholders. These are the Native people. You have crossover. And sometimes there is a misunderstanding.

For example, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act specifically excluded tens of thousands of Alaska Natives because they were members of an organization that Congress created. My own view was that was outrageous.

So that is why we need to keep educating our colleagues here. But overall, this was a story of success, of resilience, of what can happen when you allow people to take charge of their own destiny. It is a story of self-determination and, in many ways, heroism, and it is a story for the ages.

I am honored to represent these people, wonderful people--many of whom the leaders are still alive who made this happen 50 years ago--and their children and grandchildren. We have more work to do, but 50 years ago, on December 18, 1971, it was the start of a new, positive, innovative chapter in the history of Alaska. And that is why Senator Murkowski and I wanted to celebrate this very important milestone this afternoon.