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Justice To First Inhabitants

June 2024
3min read


Sir: In Alaska today sixty thousand Indians, Eskimos, and Aleuts are fighting peacefully to protect their lands from expropriation by the state of Alaska. Their struggle ranks in historical importance with the great Indian wars of the West a century ago. Some time in 1970 Congress is expected to enact legislation to settle Alaskan native land claims, and the reasonable demands of these claims offer the United States a priceless opportunity to do justice to its first inhabitants, whose treatment in the past reflects little glory on our nation. As far as justice is concerned, it is all on the side of the natives.

They have conclusive legal and moral claims to most of Alaska’s 375,000,000 acres. They have not sold their land, nor ceded it by treaty, nor lost it in war, and were generally secure in the possession of their land until the Statehood Act of 1958. At that time Congress granted Alaska the right to select 103,000,000 acres of land from the public domain. To protect native land rights against the new state, Congress stipulated that “the state and its people do agree and declare that they forever disclaim all right and title … to any lands or other property (including fishing rights) the right or title to which may be held by any Indians, Eskimos, or Aleuts.” Despite this clear statement, the state has moved to lakelands claimed by the natives, lands that are essential to their survival. Today’s oil boom in Alaska threatens to accelerate greatly the dispossessing of the natives. The Atlantic Richfield oil strike at Prudhoe Bay and the $900,000,000 sale of oil exploration rights on a portion of the North Slope in September, 1969, are on lands taken by the state from the Eskimos.

The Indians, Eskimos, and Aleuts are among the few hunting and fishing societies remaining in the world today. They live in delicate balance with the land. At this moment in our history, when thinking Americans are growing increasingly alarmed at the destruction by man of man’s environment, we can learn a lesson from the natives of Alaska that can help us preserve the land we live on for ourselves and future generations.

Concern for the property rights of America’s aboriginal peoples has been a central feature of our public land policy from the earliest days of our government. A proclamation of the congress of the Confederation in 1783 and the ordinance for the Northwest Territory of 1787 establish the rule that aboriginal occupancy creates a property right that the United States alone has the power to extinguish.

In 1823 Chief Justice John Marshall, in the case of Johnson v. M’Intosh , first announced what has endured to the present day as the cornerstone of judicial recognition of the land rights of American Indians. America’s original inhabitants are, he stated, “the rightful occupants of the soil with legal as well as just claims to retain possession of it.” In the Organic Act of 1884 establishing territorial government in Alaska, Congress confirmed the natives’ right to the land and pledged future legislation to convey title to them. For eighty-six years it has postponed action on this promise.

Despite all these legal commitments the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management over the past decade has granted the state title to 6,000,000 acres of land and tentatively approved the transfer of another 12,000,000 acres. In response to native appeals Secretary of the Interior Stewart E. Udall in 1966 imposed a freeze on the transfer of additional lands and halted the issuance of new oil and gas leases on the public domain until Congress could make a disposition of native claims.

As a test case the then governor of Alaska, Walter J. Hickel, filed suit against Secretary Udall to compel him to grant to the state the lands of the Indian village of Nenana. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the ninth district is now considering the case.

When Governor Hickel appeared at Senate confirmation hearings on his appointment by President Nixon to succeed Mr. Udall as Secretary of the Interior, Senator Henry M. Jackson obtained from him a promise that the land freeze would remain in effect until the Ninetyfirst Congress adjourns. Secretary Hickel has indicated that unless Congress acts by the end of 1970 he will resume the transfer of native lands to the state.

The Alaska Federation of Natives— representing the state’s three aboriginal ethnic groups—has proposed in a bill now before Congress a fair and moderate compromise of land claims. Its proposal asks that title to 40,000,000 acres be apportioned among the many villages. This is roughly 10 per cent of the land to which they are entitled. In return for the extinguishment of their claims to more than 300,000,000 acres of other land, worth tens of billions of dollars, the natives ask only for cash compensation in the amount of $500,000,000 (about $1.50 an acre) and a 2 per cent royalty on minerals. The monetary settlement would not be paid to individuals but rather to native-owned village, regional, and statewide development corporations, so that the money would go to launch essential self-help programs in health, education, housing, employment, and economic growth. In contrast, the federal government has offered $500,000,000, no royalty, and 12,000,000 acres of land, without mineral rights.

The settlement proposed by the Alaska Federation of Natives is just, reasonable, and humane. With a secure land base and sufficient capital the natives would be able to assure rational and coherent development of their natural resources without disrupting the ecology of the land—a land they have never despoiled. Justice demands that Congress and the American people do not deny them the chance they deserve.


—Ed.

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