Ketchikan Daily: AK delegation proposes new Native corporations for 5 'landless' communities in SE

Alaska's congressional delegation is reintroducing legislation that would allow each of the Alaska Native communities of Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Haines and Tenakee to form urban corporations and receive thousands of acres of federal land.

The Unrecognized Southeast Alaska Native Communities Recognition and Compensation Act, which Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan introduced in the Senate on Thursday, aims to correct the omission of the five communities from the 50-year-old Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

Alaska Rep. Mary Peltola will introduce the measure in the U.S. House next week when it is back in session, according to a Thursday press release from the Alaska delegation.

The original settlement

ANCSA created 12 regional Alaska Native corporations and over 200 village, group and urban corporations and endowed them with a total of about 45.5 million acres of land and $1 billion to settle their claims to lands and resources with the U.S. government. But the original legislation omitted five Southeast Alaska communities, preventing them from forming corporations and receiving settlement payments.

In 1993, Congress directed the secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior to prepare a report answering the question of whether Congress had "inadvertently denied" those communities "status as recognized villages or urban places" under ANCSA, as the final report explained. The report was unable to find any consistent reason to justify those communities' exclusion from ANCSA when compared to Juneau, Sitka, Craig and Kasaan, which all were included in the 1971 settlement.

The proposed bill

Under the delegation's proposed law, each of the five aforementioned communities would be eligible to establish a new urban corporation, which, if formed, would be endowed with 23,040 acres of federal land — 36 square miles.

"For years, Alaska Native residents in five southeast communities have been denied the land and opportunities afforded by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, a historic injustice that Congress has a duty to rectify," U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan said in a prepared statement announcing the bill's introduction. "I am hopeful my colleagues will recognize the federal laws and circumstances that uniquely impact Alaska and join Senator Murkowski and me in quickly advancing our legislation for the benefit of our constituents."

"Alaska Native leaders in these communities are asking for no more than the opportunity granted to other Native communities 50 years ago," said Murkowski in a separate prepared statement. "I urge colleagues on both sides of the aisle to look at the facts and help us get this done, so we can finally put an end to more than half a century of injustice in Southeast Alaska."

Peltola said the bill would provide "new opportunities for economic growth and self-determination," and called the bill "an overdue but important step in the right direction.

"I am proud to partner with my delegation colleagues to introduce and advance this crucial legislation," she added.

Ketchikan's lands

In December of 2021, the Ketchikan Daily News spoke with Randy Williams, who is the president of the advocacy group Alaska Natives Without Land that has worked to amend ANCSA to include the five Southeast Alaska communities.

In a phone interview Thursday, he affirmed that the latest version of the bill is nearly unchanged from the previous iteration. If approved, it still would allow the formation of a new Native corporation in Ketchikan, separate from the Cape Fox Corp. in Saxman.

"There would be two corporations in this community that both have potential to be very productive in terms of economic development for the community," Williams explained in the original Dec. 3, 2021 phone interview. "I mean, we're not diametrically opposed to each other, because we would both be in business — and business is business, right? You're not always friends in business — But certainly, we would hope that we could talk to Cape Fox and maybe develop some synergy with them, and maybe even work on some projects together to make money and do something in the community that may be a bigger project than one corporation can do alone."

Getting it passed

With the bill introduced, the next challenge will be getting it approved. And it won't be the first time Murkowski has tried to allow the five Southeast Alaska communities to form their own corporations. The congressional delegation introduced the bill in November of 2021, but it failed to gain widespread support and become law.

Before that, in 2016 and 2017, Murkowski introduced similar bills while she was the chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. After they were introduced, both iterations were sent back to her committee for review, but failed to advance out of committee even with her as leader, aide Karina Borger explained in an email on Dec. 7, 2021.

But Williams on Thursday was optimistic that the bill could become law.

"We're very excited about our chances this year," he said. "It's a long time coming, right? I mean, 50 years of our people trying to get landless, and so many of course have died just trying to get to this point. So it's a good thing. It seems like we've done it for the last two or three years, but we hope this year will be the year that we can move it through Congress. "

More work needed

If the bill is approved, Williams explained, much more work will be needed to begin the process of establishing a Native corporation for Ketchikan.

"The difficulty of this particular bill, too, is there's no direct funding capabilities except for maybe $2.5 million is in the bill right now, but that's not really enough to truly develop a corporation," he said in 2021. "I've started several businesses, and a million dollars to just do planning and getting things set up is not unreasonable. And you're talking about a major corporation here that's going to have land that they have to survey, and land that they have to go out and review, and there's all kinds of costs associated with the corporation getting land, and moving forward as a corporation. And just setting up the office is going to be close to a million dollars a year."

The corporations formed under ANCSA had access to much more money to get their corporations started, Williams said.

"These corporations (that) are going be established today, the five communities are going to have to develop rather quickly, and then be very resourceful in their ability to finance any of their projects or business projects that they may have," he said.

"Administratively, it's going to be a challenge to develop these corporations," he added. "I mean, it's a challenge that we look forward to, because it's taken us 50 years to get here, right? But it still is going to be a challenge — and one that we think that we'll be able to get through."

By:  Sam Stockbridge
Source: Ketchikan Daily