Alaska’s Federation of Natives celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, or ANCSA, at its annual convention, held virtually.
Native and non-Native leaders praised its ANCSA’s accomplishments. The key date was Dec. 18 passed, half a century from the day in 1971 when President Richard Nixon signed the landmark legislation into federal law.
But now, with ANSCA in its 51st year, there are things left undone.
Sam Kito, Jr., one of the remaining Native leaders who helped steer the settlement along an uncertain path through Congress in 1971, told the AFN convention that the biggest unfinished business are Native subsistence rights.Emil Notti, first president of the AFN and another architect of the settlement, said in previous interviews his biggest regret was not building ironclad subsistence rights into the federal bill before it passed.
Subsistence rights are still in a limbo. They apply on federal lands, but not state lands. Wild fish and game do not respect man-made boundaries, however, so there are complications for wildlife managers, and uncertainties in many rural communities.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Kito challenged the new, younger Native generation at AFN to finish the task.
ANCSA in fact repealed Native subsistence rights with Congress believing that the state would guarantee the traditional rights. But it didn’t, so Congress tried to finish the job in 1980 in the Alaska National Interest Lands and Conservation Act, or ANILCA.
ANILCA reinstated substance rights, but at the insistence of the state of Alaska reserved it for “rural” residents rather than Alaska Natives.
The state was to adopt rural preference into state law to allow uniform and efficient management of fish and game across the state. It was a jury-rigged, ad hoc solution: The state of Alaska in effect recognized Native subsistence since most residents of rural villages were Native. system because the federal law did not have the explicit Native guarantee.
This worked, until it didn’t. It lasted only until urban sports hunting and fishing groups, mostly non-Native, decided to fight rural preference. Alaska voters defeated a ballot measure opposing rural subsistence rights, but sports group went to court. The Alaska constitution, it was argued, forbid preference rights in allocations of resources like fish and game. Despite the public vote, the sports groups won in court.
For years there were efforts to get a constitutional amendment through the Legislature. Polls showed the public would have approved it by a wide margin had it made it to the ballot, but urban legislators, lobbied by sports groups, consistently blocked it.
Currently there is a subsistence priority on federal lands, but not on state lands. This is the tangle left for the younger generation to sort out.
One other issue raised in the AFN convention this year was public safety in rural villages, where the state has a constitutional obligation to keep citizens safe but it has not fulfilled the obligation, at least in rural Alaska.
At the convention Gov. Mike Dunleavy said he hopes to do better with more funding for state troopers and village public safety officers, special teams of state criminal prosecutors deployed to regional “hub” communities and other improvements to the public safety system.
These are just proposals, however. The Legislature must approve them and provide funding. Promises like these have been made before. Will the governor and Legislature keep them this time?