Alaska delegation continues push to add ‘landless’ Southeast communities to ANCSA

the Stikine River
The mouth of the Stikine River near Wrangell. (Sage Smiley/KSTK)

It’s been more than half a century since Congress passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, or ANCSA. The act put millions of acres of land in the control of more than 200 newly formed local and regional Alaska Native corporations, while extinguishing aboriginal land title in the rest of the state.

But five Southeast Alaska Native communities were left out of the deal. 

“We were literally involved from the very, very beginning, going back to the very first part of land claims,” said Tashee Richard Rinehart, who is Lingít – Kiks.ádi from Wrangell, one of the five communities excluded from ANCSA. “To be left out was a surprise to us.”

The Alaska delegation has been trying to change that by submitting and re-submitting bills over the past two decades. The bills are aimed at amending the 1971 legislation to include Wrangell as well as Haines, Ketchikan, Petersburg and Tenakee Springs.

“We see this as correcting an oversight from Congress that resulted in unfulfilled promises to the landless communities of Southeast,” said Sam Erickson, press secretary for Democratic U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, Alaska’s sole representative in Congress. “It’s been a priority of the Congressional delegation for decades, and we’re carrying on the legacy of (the late Rep.) Don Young and others who’re struggling to fix this injustice.”

Peltola filed a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives in late July. It’s a bipartisan bill, co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Minn. It is functionally the same as many others proposed in the past by Alaska legislators. 

“ANCSA was intended to address Alaska Native land claims by conveying land that can be used for economic, social and cultural well-being,” Erickson said. “Because they’re left out, these communities never got the opportunities for economic development and cultural preservation that the other communities did.”

“We think that this is a matter of fairness and of the federal government keeping the promises that it makes to Alaskans,” he added. “Providing these lands is an important step to empowering these communities.”

It’s a matter of longstanding discussion why the five communities were excluded from the initial 1971 law. A report by University of Alaska’s Institute of Social and Economic Research in the mid-1990s found no clear reason why the communities were excluded, other than Congressional intent.

At a Congressional hearing in 2015, Young speculated it was because of the thriving logging in and around the five communities at the time of the law’s passage in the early 1970s. At the time, Young said timber groups lobbied hard against the communities’ inclusion, fearing it would impact future logging claims

“It is so impactful for the five communities that were left out,” said Aaltséen Esther Reese, the tribal administrator for the Wrangell Cooperative Association, Wrangell’s federally-recognized tribal government. “This was our land since time immemorial. And it is recognizing that and giving our tribal citizens some of our land back that we had stewarded for tens of thousands of years. On a philosophical level, I think that’s very important.”

Not only does Wrangell’s exclusion from ANCSA keep it from receiving a township of land — just over 23,000 acres, spread out over the vicinity of the community — it also means community members have been barred from forming a local corporation, although many members of the local community are shareholders in the regional Native corporation, Sealaska. 

Alaska Native corporations are a huge chunk of the state’s economy, and the largest type of private employer in the state. 

“What could it do [for Wrangell]?” asked Rinehart. “I think the sky’s the limit.”

Rinehart said it’s unlikely a Wrangell Native corporation would go down the logging route of many original ANCSA corporations. He said village corporations are now looking at carbon credits, contracting jobs and other economic endeavors. 

“It’s been a long, long time; it’s way overdue, it’s over 50 years past due,” Rinehart said. “And it’s just a matter of justice at this point, really. It’s the right thing to do to fix a past wrong. I believe that each and every community will benefit. And when I say that, I don’t mean just the Native community. Of course, the Native community would benefit but the entire community of Wrangell would benefit and Ketchikan, Petersburg, Haines and Tenakee. They would all benefit — non-Natives as well as the Native shareholders.”

The people who would be shareholders in a Wrangell Native corporation wouldn’t be exactly the same as the Wrangell Cooperative Association tribal citizenship in town. Reese said it would be an entirely separate entity, with its own board of directors and management.

“So it isn’t necessarily related to the tribe as far as our membership rolls,” she said. “But WCA is very supportive of all the efforts to get Wrangell, and the other four communities their land.”

Reese agreed with Rinehart: a local corporation could be a significant boon for the community. 

“You’re talking about economic development, more opportunities for jobs in the community, being able to bring some of our people home, so that they can help in significant positions with the corporation, whatever the board decides,” Reese said.

If an ANCSA amendment to add the communities passed Congress, shareholder enrollment for the five communities would be the same as the original enrollment under ANCSA. It would allow shareholders and their descendants of the regional Native corporation Sealaska to receive a mirrored number of shares in a newly formed community-based corporation. 

Members of the five communities have banded together to advocate as “Alaska Natives Without Land,” a campaign backed by Sealaska, and the “Southeast Alaska Landless Corporation,” a nonprofit also focused on organizing the five communities.

The years-long effort to include the five communities under ANCSA has faced pushback. Last year, Petersburg’s borough government narrowly approved a letter to Congress opposing a previous version of the bill after years of divided town discussions

Some have concerns about specific sites included in proposed maps of the parcels that would be transferred to the landless communities. A few proposed tracts of land have come under criticism for falling outside areas where the landless tribes have direct historic ties.

Landless legislation has also, in the past, faced opposition from some environmental groups, because of potential development at the sites. Still others are concerned about the potential for restricted public access.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski acknowledged the difficulty of establishing land plots and negotiating potential use and access conflicts during a September 2022 interview with KSTK. 

“It’s hard,” Murkowski said, “because every acre in the Tongass is already committed or loved in some way.”

But, she said, she still believes Congress should honor the obligation of ANCSA. She re-introduced a bill in the Senate in June that would include the five landless communities

“What we’re trying to do is to resolve a long-standing inequity,” Murkowski said, “and do so in a manner that brings about consensus rather than conflict.”

Reese, Wrangell’s tribal administrator, said the years-long campaign to include Wrangell and the other landless communities speaks to how important it is. 

“I think it is indicative of how passionate our people are, to be able to receive that recognition and to be able to receive that land and to be able to receive those rights,” Reese said. “My hat is off to those who just continue to work tirelessly, because this has been going on, […] for quite some time. So a recognition of Richard Rinehart, of all of those who are passionately working on this, because it’s not easy to keep going.”

Alaska’s delegation has introduced a handful of other bills aimed at amending ANCSA this term as well. In all, the law has been amended over 100 times.

Get in touch with KSTK at or (907) 874-2345.

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