Big corporate decisions for Alaska's Natives

An elderly Eskimo woman who sews mukluks for a living in her tract home here says in broken English that she doesn't know what the word ``shareholder'' means. Although it's a fact that for 14 years she has owned stock in a native corporation created by the Alaskan Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). But ask her about 1991, the year that restrictions on Native corporation ownership will be lifted, and she nods with an instant sad recognition. In a single expression she reflects the concerns of all Alaskan Natives -- Eskimos, Indians, and Aleuts -- from the North Slope to the tip of the Aleutian chain.

Like the Orwellian specter of 1984, 1991 has become a very big Alaskan issue.

In 1991 the one-ninth of Alaskan land owned by Natives could be up for sale, and with it could go the Natives' ancient ties to the land -- an integral part of the whole Native culture, heritage, and identity as distinct peoples.

Federal law will permit outsiders to buy stock in the Native regional and village corporations, which own about 44 million acres of land conveyed to the Natives along with $1 billion under ANCSA in 1971.

Among the scenarios that concern Native leaders is the speculation that heavily financed buyers will make offers for the stock that Native shareholders will find hard to resist. Anyone, from a multinational corporation to a single wealthy Native, with a desire and a budget for resource-rich real estate could take over the lands on which 80 percent of the Alaskan Natives still subsist. The 1971 act also specified that the lands become taxable 20 years after conveyance, and this raises the concern that Native corporations, especially those financially strapped, would be forced to sell lands to pay the taxes.

Ironically, say Native leaders, the corporate structure set up to administer the Native lands and provide economic security for the Natives could very well be the tool that leads to the loss of those things.

When passed by Congress in 1971 to help free up the lands needed for rights of way for the Alaskan pipeline, the ANCSA represented the largest settlement ever secured by an indigenous people. And further, by setting up corporate rather than tribal structures to administer the land, the act marked a significant departure from traditional United States Indian policy.

Today the corporations, the state of Alaskan Natives, and the act itself are being scrutinized by no less than three major studies -- a US Interior Department report; an Alaskan Native Federation survey; and an extensive inquiry by a Canadian Supreme Court Justice, hired by the Alaskan Native Review Commission to hold unprecedented hearings in the bush to gather firsthand comments from Natives on the impact of ANCSA.

A preliminary consensus among often-dissenting Native factions is that the Natives want to amend ANCSA in ways that would forestall the underlying intent of the act, which was to assimilate the Natives.

``The feedback from Washington is that if we can reach a consensus on solutions, then we have an excellent chance'' to change the act, says Janie Leask, president of the Alaska Native Federation (ANF), an organization of Native corporate leaders.

The Natives' basic problems with the act are summarized by some of ANF's 1991 resolutions, reached at a convention this fall, which aim to:

Amend ANCSA to continue stock restrictions past 1991, perhaps including variations that would allow corporations to sell stock if the shareholders vote to do so, or allowing shareholders to sell their stock back to the corporations.

Allow corporations to offer stock to new Natives. (Only Natives born before Dec. 18, 1971, were enrolled as shareholders. Those born after that may inherit stock, but it is not a birthright.)

Protect all Native lands from being taxed or being lost in the case of bad debts, and allow land to be transferred to another Native entity without losing those protections.

Allow corporate assets to be tranferred to a different type of Native entity with membership instead of shareholders (like a tribal government), because the corporate system remains foreign to many traditional Natives.

``There's going to be a major confrontation between corporate and tribal government, and then we'll see what we bring to Congress as a united force,'' says Dalee Sambo, director of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, which has nongovernmental status at the United Nations to represent Arctic people. She foresees a confrontation, because the hearings by the Native Review Commission, sponsored by the ICC and the World Council of Indigenous Peoples, have turned up a consistent pattern, at the grass-roots level, of a lack of understanding of the corporate structure, and discontent with it.

While the corporate structure may have been a compassionate attempt to give the Natives a boost up in the free-enterprise system, many natives still live by choice at a subsistence level and by traditional customs.

Ms. Sambo says ANCSA was an overt attempt to assimilate the Natives: ``It's clear that the act means termination [of the Native way of life as it is tied to the land]. It was an act of social engineering. . . .''

She notes that the boundaries of the lands granted to the 200 village corporations were drawn up based on tribal subsistence hunting and fishing grounds, ``and that's a direct contradiction [if the land was to be developed for profitmaking enterprise].''

The role of the corporate structure in Native life is an ambiguous one for Natives. Their long tribal relationship with the federal government, which ended with the corporate settlement, left them expecting from the corporations what they had received from government services. The Eskimo woman mentioned above complains that her pipes freeze in the winter and that her Native corporation does nothing about it. Others complain that Natives hold only 8 percent of the jobs in their own corporations.

Although the Native standard of living has risen since ANCSA was passed, it still remains well below that for the average non-Native, according to a study last year by the Interior Department. But the increased standard of living is due mostly to the state's oil revenues being pumped back into social programs. While there has been varying success among the diversified corporations, cash dividends distributed by even the most successful corporations have been modest.

Many Natives don't even understand that their stock certificates represent a share of the land, explains Mary Kancewick, a Native Review Commission lawyer who has set up the bush hearings.

``There are many who never even heard of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. But most do know now, and are terrified of what might happen [in 1991],'' observes Ms. Kancewick, noting that many subsistence hunters and fishermen hardly participate at all in a cash economy, let alone understand corporate business.

While the corporations have not always met the expectations of those at the grass-roots level, there is no dispute that they have helped the Natives.

``If we have to lean on government for our cultural survival, then we're in deep trouble,'' explains Willie Hensley, president of the NANA Development Corporation, a regional Native corporation of northwest Alaska.

``The American definition of success is to get a bunch of money,'' says Mr. Hensley, who is not only the NANA president, but chairman of the state Democratic Party, and chairman of UnitedBankAlaska. To the extent that the Native corporations have done well, they've been better able to preserve their ties to the land, he suggests. Mr. Hensley observes that ``70 percent of the new businesses that begin each year fail.'' He contrasts that with the remarkable success of the Native corporations, which were a ``huge responsibility, thrust on hunters and fishermen and housewives.''

Roy Huhndorf, president of Cook Inlet Region Inc., adds, moreover, that the corporations have created a framework for more Native unity and political awareness. Mr. Huhndorf says the corporations have also stimulated more interest in higher education, because of the new need to understand law and economics. Further, he says, the corporation did stop encroachment of non-Natives on Native land. Native corporations, created by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 (numbers indicate estimated land entitlement in millions of acres*) Arctic Slope Regional Corp. 4.6 NANA Regional Corp. 2.3 Doyon Limited 12.2 Bering Straits Native Corp. 2.2 Calista Corp. 5.9 Cook Inlet Region Inc. 2.3 Ahtna Inc. 1.7 Chugach Natives Inc. 1.0 Sealaska Corp. 0.6 Bristol Bay Native Corp. 2.9 Koniag Inc. 1.0 The Aleut Corp. 1.3 *Total acreage is about 44 million, which includes historic sites and other small entitlements not shown here Source: Alaska Pacific Bancorporation

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