Southeast Alaska's Native People Wait 40 Years for Return of Their Land

Rosita Worl

Over-regulation and anti-Native bias seem to touch every aspect of life for Native peoples in Southeast Alaska, from how our people make teddy bears to whether the U.S. will keep its pledge to restore85,000 acres of our homelands to us.

Bills now in Congress would return land promised 40 years ago to the Sealaska Corporation. Passage of the Senate’s Southeast Alaska Native Land Entitlement Finalization and Jobs Protection Act (S. 730) and related legislation in the House (H.R.1408) would complete the transfer and restore a measure of justice.

The land represents a mere fraction of the 23 million acres that the U.S. took from us in 1907. With this 85,000-acre transfer, our Sealaska Corporation will keep 400 jobs, protect sacred sites and diversify the economy in one of the most remote places in the United States. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) in her Senate bill also sets aside another 151,000 acres of the forest for conservation.

For millennia we prospered by balancing our need to use our lands, Haa Aaní, with the need to conserve them and their many resources. But a century of U.S. ownership has made us paupers in our homelands, a rainforest more vast than any other in North America.

We will never leave.

In the century since the Tongass National Forest was established in our homelands, few Southeast Alaska residents, and even fewer of the tourists who come by the thousands, are aware of our presence beyond the name, taken from a Tlingit village near Ketchikan.

We feel like environmental refugees who live in a desert, not a rainforest. We are restricted by misguided court decisions and conservation rules—latent colonial attitudes continue even in the 21st century to treat us like children who cannot manage the lands that we managed since time immemorial.

One example is Glacier Bay, an ancient homeland for Tlingit clans, many of whom now live in the village of Hoonah. Our oral history tells of the movement of glaciers across the bay, and yet our people remained because of the ties we have to our lands.

I can remember our elders telling us about U.S. National Park Service personnel burning our cabins at Glacier Bay to try to force us to leave. One of the ancient practices among our people is to gather seagull eggs, a traditional delicacy, at Glacier Bay. But now we are not allowed to do even that.

Historically, our fisheries in all the waters of Southeast Alaska provided our wealth. Now, like other fishermen, we are regulated by the state and its licenses. Today, Alaska’s salmon stream out of the state—iced, boxed and jetted down to the toniest restaurants and the wealthiest homes in the Lower 48.

Our subsistence fishing, which should be protected, amounts to only 2 percent of the fishery. Yet we are 16 percent of the population. If our fishermen were allowed even 16 percent of our aboriginal fishery, we could feed whole villages.

When our people want to make arts and crafts for sale, government regulations presume to tell us what our traditions are. For example, when some wanted to make teddy bears from certain animal furs, regulators told them that it wasn’t our tradition.

Yet for millennia we made whatever we needed, whether clothing, toys or other items. If there is a tradition at play here, it is our tradition of making items from the resources on our lands for our own use, for sale or for doing business in other ways that provide for our people.

Sealaska Corporation follows in that tradition: developing new businesses, managing lands, providing jobs, giving scholarships, and preserving our heritage so that we will always speak our languages, sing our songs, and dance our dances on our homelands.

We have waited 40 years. Now it’s time to pass the legislation that fulfills the pledge of land made to us.

Rosita Kaahaní Worl, Ph.D., was a member of the founding board of trustees of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, and is president of the Sealaska Heritage Center and vice chairwoman of theSealaska Corporation.

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summersilversummergold's picture
Hypothesis: Is it possible, Sealaska Inc. is poised to partner with a multi-national mining conglomerate, who would be interested in leveraging "over-regulation and anti-Native bias" (Wilderness designation and Roadless rule) to enter into a contract with an ANCSA corporation bypassing those restictive regulations, and post-clear cuts, could lease forestry roads and privately lease mineral rich parcels in this group of bills--paying a royalty rate the Sealaska Inc. board determines? If so, is it ethical to use "anti-Native bias" to promote passage of this legislation, and allow ruinous mining--that could be a detriment to the limited subsistence fisheries/Native food preferences by contaminating air/water/ground/marine species habitat in a fairly pristine boreal rainforest ecology? The lands chosen by the Sealaska Inc. board, include uranium, rare earths, gold, copper, coal. Sealaska Inc. could obtain more credit/loans to build ports, mining infrastructure, utility access, improve roads and easily export timber and minerals--all by leasing such industrial infrastructure. Newer mineral surveys that are private, proprietary data could include marine mining. Hypothetically, its all possible but Sealaska Inc. shareholders aren't privileged to any of this information and any confidential business activity--"over-regulation" of Sealaska Inc. board's own doing. Sealaska shareholders can't vote their corporate proxy to support board candidates that support/oppose any such hypothetical mining industrialization--presumably to keep anti-mining protests to a minimum, and to reduce legislative, environmental and media analysis of any potential mining impacts--during climate change. Melting glaciers and warming watersheds in the Tongass could impact these lands, especially after clear-cuts, causing flooding, erosion and impacts from stronger winds/storms. There isn't accurate scrutiny of potential impacts on species, miners, associated Sealaska Inc. employees, or subsistence Native food users. This legislation and Sealaska's corporate reports don't reflect accurate species, human, heavy metals air/ground/water/marine habitat data projections. Nor does Sealaska Inc. share relative plans that could be of use for shareholder small businesses, who may need capital access/small business loans to make viable business plans associated with this legislation. The purpose of Sealaska Inc. is to promote the cultural and economic wellbeing of its shareholders. If a group of shareholders did want to make a business venture--in commercial fishing, or refined wood products, or raw art materials--there is no indication that shareholder ventures would have Native preference. If a qualified group of Sealaska shareholders were inclined to have a sustainable eco-resort tourist facility with port/air/road access, would that shareholder venture get preference over a non-Native mining venture on the same parcel? It is unlikely Sealaska Inc's board would put that to a proxy vote. Shareholders have no knowledge of prior mining talks, preliminary inquiries by non-Native (most probably non-American) mining companies. There is no shareholder representative, democratic process to vote for industrialization or sustainable ventures or conservancy. This is a blatant disregard of shareholder rights, unnerving secrecy, with potentially catastrophic consequences to the very Natives Ms. Worl is employed to serve, most likely for a relative pittance in revenues, mining royalties, and a sustainable budget for reclamation and restoration. Much less liabilities to the subsistence food chain from heavy metals contamination. Sealaska Inc's board and executives would stand to gain untold bonuses, with creative accounting, minimum shareholder hires, consulting fees, and being shareholders of the mining company's stock--purchased before legislation is passed and the stock's value rises.
1dandelioninthegarden's picture
Dear Dr. Kaahani Worl: Nice work! We are sending prayers of hope that legislation passes.
chico2dc's picture
Anytime we can regain our lands...its a good day.
beaver's picture
America hopes Indian problems and all land claims will disappear in 100 more years. Considering that we have Indians who are extremely eager to serve in America's military - which is the ultimate form of assimilation - I'd say America's Indian problems will disappear in 15 years or so. We need to hold on to our Indian cultures and Indian sovereignty. We need to resist all forms of Americanization - whether it is inter-marriage, serving in America's military, Christianity, honoring veterans, meaningless consumerism, saluting the American flag, or something else. We need to turn off the television - our media is as "controlled" as the media in communist countries and countries with dictators. We need to stop speaking in English. For that matter, we also need to stop thinking in English! I don't even think in English. We need to stop asking for apologies or cash payments; we need to demand our land back!
truthteller's picture
Ms Worl fails to mention that some Tribes on Prince of Wales Island see this as a corporate land-grab. Sealaska talks a fine game about tradition and culture, but guess what? The goal here is to harvest timber, sell it in the round and ship it out. Pure and simple. No 'culture' involved other than the 'culture' of corporate capitalism. Sure loggers want the jobs. But Prince of Wales Island, where most of the land will be located, has been working & collaborating with all stakeholders on alternatives. Once these trees are cut and shipped, it will be another depression on PWI. Ms Worl's indignation rings just a bit hollow. Here are two words for you, Ms Worl: "Clear-Cutting".
letmypeoplego's picture
Ms.Worl is overrated.....Sealaska's history is not one to be envied by Native people. 50 of Sealaska's managers and boardmembers (Worl included) authorized 660 thousand dollars a month in salaries. Shareholders average 66 cents per day..........never in 40 years averaging $2 per day. Now they want more to sell as pulp to Asia, to collect at risk and long term at risk bonuses. Tongass National Forest : hearing before the Subcommittee on Public Lands, National Parks, and Forests of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, United States Senate, One Hundred First Congress, first session, on S. 237 ... S. 346 ... H.R. 987 STATEMENT OF AUSTIN HAMMOND, CHILDREN'S CULTURE CAMP Mr. Hammond. My name is Austin Hammond from Haines and in Tlingit they call me Chief of the Walks. I head a children's cul- ture camp; I am working with the children. I would like to see all the loggers stay away from Chilkoot, be- cause that is where the fish spawn, all the sockeye, in the lake. If you clearcut I know it will end. I try to do all I can for my grand- children. They need someone to do something for them. I have been trying to talk to them for five years now, and they told me they are going to cut the trees down. And I told them, "No, you have got to keep away from it, 300 feet from the lake when the fish spawn." After that they asked me, "What about way up there?" I told them no. I know what was going to happen if they do cut from way up they are going to keep cutting it down to the lake again. In the winter time, they have to come down to shelter, the deer. They come down to the shelter in the winter time, and where the grass is still green and they eat it. Now, when you do clearcut, you will have nothing left in Chilkoot for the brown bears that are up there. I told them the brown bear is going to come close to us if they do not watch, and the brown bear is going to walk around our houses. It happens, it comes around. Thank you.
letmypeoplego's picture
Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realise we cannot eat money. ~Cree Indian Proverb