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Restoring Land to Sealaska Keeps a 40 Year Old Promise

Chris E. McNeil Jr.
2/4/11

When Sealaska’s lands legislation is reintroduced to Congress in the next few months, the Alaska Native regional corporation will be simply asking the U.S. to keep a promise.

In 1971 the United States Congress passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). It promised Sealaska and its Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian tribal member shareholders land in the Tongass National Forest, which is the ancestral home of these tribes. The money would help Sealaska become a business leader in Southeast Alaska. But the land—one half of one percent of the 17 million acre forest—would be another kind of a base, one for which these tribal member shareholders could plan their future.

Chris McNeil, Tlingit, president and CEO of the Sealaska Corporation

The legislation amends the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, and would allow Sealaska to select the 85,000 acres from areas outside of those designated 40 years ago by the act. In Southeast Alaska some are saying that Sealaska should select within the “box” on a map showing the ANCSA designated area. But the designated areas are nearly half salt water, and the remainder includes the watersheds where some towns draw their drinking water. Instead, Sealaska is asking for the right to select lands that better suit its needs and those of others in Southeast Alaska.

Sealaska’s oldest and largest business opportunity is logging. Sealaska has developed markets and uses for second growth timber, keeping more than 400 people employed and local mills in business. More than one-third of the land it seeks has already been logged, and all of it already has roads. Ultimately, Sealaska anticipates that the 85,000 acres can sustain 40 million to 50 million board feet annually.

And Sealaska also seeks pieces of land for future development of green energy businesses and cultural tourism, and other pieces of land that contain sacred sites.

The Tongass is the home of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian, who call it Haa Aaní. It is the largest rainforest in North America. It is so large that it touches every corner of Southeast Alaska.
In 1906 U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt took the forest from the tribes by a stroke of pen. While the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act settled the tribal members claims to the land, established Sealaska and promised money and lands—Sealaska has yet to receive all the land it was promised. In recent years it has grown reluctant to select lands containing old growth forest and watersheds that are important to people and wild life. And that is why Sealaska is again asking Congress to amend ANCSA, and allow it to claim land suitable for a sustainable timber business, as well as other lands that include the sacred.

The promise of ANCSA was one of economic viability for Alaska Natives. Sealaska has grown as a Native corporation, and is now one of the largest employers in Southeast Alaska. For Sealaska to remain a leading employer, it needs the last 85,000 acres promised in the ANCSA.

For the country as a whole, the promise of returning land to tribes is not unusual. But for Sealaska the promise is far more recent than many of the treaties that Indian tribes in the Lower 48 signed with the U.S. ANCSA was passed during the lives of most members of Congress.

Other tribes which lost land by the stroke of Teddy Roosevelt’s pen have gotten it back. In the early 1970s Blue Lake was restored to Taos Pueblo, and lands on Mount Adams were returned to the Yakama Nation. Now Sealaska is seeking a small percentage of the ancestral lands that Roosevelt gave to the U.S. Forest Service. Sealaska seeks the land in the hope of providing for future generations.

Alaska’s Senators Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich and Representative Don Young agree that the U.S. needs to keep its promise to Sealaska. There have been enough broken promises. Some we can’t change because they happened so long ago. But here is a promise that the U.S. as a country can keep.

Chris McNeil, Tlingit, is president and CEO of the Sealaska Corporation, which represents more than 20,000 Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian tribal member shareholders living in Southeast Alaska and beyond.

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