At first glance, Metlakatla looks similar to many of the other villages in Southeast Alaska: glacier-cut coastlines, dense temperate rainforests, dramatic mountains in the backdrop. But locals know better — there is something distinctly different about the place. Spend enough time there, and you’ll notice it too. Metlakatla Indian Community is the only federal reserve in Alaska, and is not a part of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
“It’s not just a feeling or perception. ANCSA is a fundamentally different system than a reservation system,” said Gavin Hudson, Tsimshian, who is the Metlakatla Field Representative to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and was previously on the Metlakatla Tribal Council. “And those differences are reflected in how a community views itself.”
Fifty years ago, the community of 1,400 was caught in the crosshairs of a monumental decision: should they keep their reserve status, or should they join other Indigenous Alaskans as part of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act?
If they had chosen to participate in the ANCSA system, they would have received a sizable payment, and the means to create a village corporation and regional corporation. They also would have been granted a significant portion of the surrounding acreage. However, the way they could have interacted with this land would’ve changed — their reserve status would have been revoked, and they would have to go through the corporations to manage the land, not their own tribal government.
In some ways, the island town was already different from many other Indigenous Alaskan communities, making their land claim options unique as well. Metlakatla originated in 1887, when Anglican Missionary William Duncan led a group of 826 Tsimshian people from British Columbia to start a new settlement in Alaska. Congress officially established it as the Metlakatla Indian Community, Annette Islands Reserve in 1891.
There were only a handful of other federal reserves in the state prior to ANCSA. As the Alaska Federation of Natives described, there was an eclectic mix of Indigenous groupings at the time, including tribal organizations, regional non-profits, individual village tribes, urban Native groups and tribes that had federal reservations, like Metlakatla. More than 200 village tribes did not have federally recognized reserves, and therefore did not have a back-up option beyond ANCSA. If Indigenous claims were not addressed, they would have likely lost all of their land. In contrast, tribes with federal reserves still would have been able to hold on to their reserve land allotments if they did not join ANCSA. Ultimately, every other community with a reservation, apart from Metlakatla, chose the ANCSA terms.
It wasn’t an easy decision for the tribe to make, said Hudson. His dad recalled a time of intense debate, which even divided some families who couldn’t agree. In the end, it came down to a community-wide vote, resulting in today’s dynamic: Alaska’s lone reservation.
“Our council at the time refused to take part in [ANCSA] because they wanted to keep their sovereignty, and make their own decisions on what to do with the lands and waters within the reservation — and there was no price for that,” he said.
The pressure to choose ANCSA would’ve been intense, according to Charles Wilkinson, professor of law emeritus at the University of Colorado. Wilkinson specializes in public land law and federal Indian policy, and has done extensive research on history in the Western U.S. From his historian’s perspective, Metlakatla’s decision stands out.
“The truth is, there was huge pressure to terminate. It was a huge decision, and it was hard. You had to have to really want it,” said Wilkinson.
Metlakatla wasn’t the only tribe that faced these options.
Around 20 years earlier, the Klamath tribe in Oregon had the choice to terminate their reserve status as well. The termination would remove their federal services and land ownership, in exchange for a monetary payment. Like in Metlakatla, the debate in the Klamath community was highly controversial. Some wanted to accept the deal, others felt they should keep their tribal sovereignty. Outside forces only made the pressure worse — both the federal government and the logging industry heavily lobbied Klamath to accept the terms.
The motivations behind the lobbying were clear. At the time, Klamath managed one of the largest ponderosa pine forests in Oregon, and was one of the wealthiest tribes in the nation. The logging industry wanted access to this land, but couldn’t do so as long as Klamath’s sovereign status remained.
“It was resource land that characterized most of the terminated tribes,” Wilkinson said. In Metlakatla’s case, it was the oil industry that sought a speedy settlement. For Klamath, it was loggers pushing the deal forward. Different resources, but the same idea.
In 1954, the Klamath Termination Act officially ended the tribe’s oversight of the area, after a majority of the community accepted the new arrangement. Years later, the tribe’s sovereign status was restored, but their original land base was never returned.
Both Metlakatla and Klamath were part of a larger tribal termination trend common during that era, although in some cases it was only years later that the termination aspect of a policy became clear.
“I don’t think Metlakatla thought it was termination at the time, but I do think they recognized they had special hunting and fishing rights, and thought that it was really important to get that aspect of it right,” Wilkinson said.
Even with this recognition, there still would have been some aspects of the outcome left to chance. Tribal sovereignty, in a legal sense, was different 50 years ago. The Bureau of Indian Affairs was oftentimes the primary governing power, rather than a tribe’s own government. There were also fewer legal protections for hunting and fishing rights.
“There wasn’t anything to make you think sovereignty was a really good option either,” Wilkinson said.
This dynamic caused many Alaska Natives to be wary of an unproductive trustee relationship with the federal government. In this lens, ANCSA represented an opportunity for self-determination and further autonomy over their homelands. Ideally, this definition of land would include fishing and hunting rights.
“When they said land, they meant more than what American law means when it says land. In American law, if you’ve got land you got some things, but there are a lot of other rights you don’t have,” he said.
The ambiguous legal future of land, sovereignty, and subsistence rights would have made any termination decision at the time more unclear. Sovereignty and tribal land rights have evolved since the 70s, and the number of lawyers that specialize in this area have significantly increased. But back then, there would have had to have been some betting that their idea of the future would turn out correctly.
According to Hudson, the risk payed off.
“I would be confident saying that most of us in Metlakatla still think that it was the right decision to keep the reservation,” he said.
Today, the island reserve has a thriving fishing and tourism industry, with several Tsimshian cultural programs and museums open to visitors and locals alike.
Like other villages in the state, they still face a set of unique rural Alaskan obstacles. Climate change has strained the local economy, salmon runs have been weaker, and high costs of food, energy, and internet can burden households.
Where they differ from other Alaska Native villages is in management. The Metlakatla Indian Community has authority over its fisheries, forests, and legal system, while most other Alaskan communities also have to coordinate with the state government.
The setup makes Metlakatla similar to neighboring tribes in the Lower 48. In fact, their community is part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ northwest department, rather than the Alaskan department like the rest of the state’s Indigenous communities.
“In general, I think that we have more in common with the tribes of the Northwest region in terms of governance, governing, managing minerals and forests, fisheries and hatcheries,” Hudson said.
It has also created a slight disconnect between Metlakatla and other Alaska Native communities. While many Alaskan villages encounter the same challenges in relation to climate change and rural development, the mechanisms they are able to use and institutions they must go through are different. These contrasts are reflected in policy considerations. When Hudson spends time with Indigenous Alaskans from other regions at the Alaska Federation of Natives each year, he is regularly surprised at how little he relates to conversations about community plans and present day dynamics.
Despite the contrasts, Hudson is always happy to hear about the successes of the regional corporations. He also acknowledges that there are some beneficial aspects of ANCSA, such as additional economic development opportunities or extra funds for heritage centers and cultural initiatives. However, it’s like comparing apples to oranges — the two systems are so unrelated in his mind, that it’s difficult for him to even imagine what life would be like in Metlakatla had they chosen ANCSA instead.
“Having a reservation … it goes to the very core of who we are,” he said.
Travel elsewhere in Alaska, and one might hear the inverse of this statement, with reservations seeming like a foreign concept for those who grew up part of ANCSA.
Governance distinctions aside, Hudson believes there are more parallels across Alaskan Indigenous communities than there are differences. He hopes in coming years, the southeastern region and statewide Alaska Native population will find ways to cooperate more outside of their existing institutions.
“Even though there are differences that are undeniable. We still have friends and relatives all across Alaska,” he said. “We’re still Alaska Native. And we still stand in solidarity with our Indigenous brothers and sisters across the state.”
This story is part of a reporting collaboration between Alaska Public Media, Indian Country Today and the Anchorage Daily News on the 50th anniversary of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Funding for the ANCSA project was provided by the Alaska Center for Excellence in Journalism. Read more in the series here.