Eye-opening journey through the villages of Alaska

Village Journey: The Report of the Alaska Native Review Commission, by Thomas R. Berger. New York: Hill & Wang. 199 pp. $16.95. ``Don't try to fix 100 years of bad Indian law in a single case.'' This admonition from my supervisor when I practiced law at the United States Department of Justice might well have been the warning to Justice Thomas Berger as he journeyed to 60 villages to hear, record, and recapitulate the views of Alaskan natives on the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 (ANCSA).

The act created 13 native regional corporations and many native village corporations to hold the land and administer the money that native Alaskans received for giving up their land claims as well as hunting and fishing rights. This is an important book by a former justice of the Supreme Court of British Columbia about the legal, political, and moral rights of indigenous peoples.

Justice Berger's journey was really a series of hearings in Alaskan villages and round-table discussions with native leaders and academics in Anchorage. He distills from hundreds of hours of testimony the basic goals of native village Alaskans: (1) ensuring that ancestral lands will remain in their possession and under their governance, (2) protecting and strengthening their subsistence practices, and (3) exercising control of decisions affecting their lives. But the 1971 act is undermining these goals and threatening the subsistence way of life, he says.

``The word `subsistence,' '' Berger explains, ``reminds most Americans of dirt-poor farmers, scratching a hard living from marginal land. In Alaska, however, subsistence means hunting, fishing, and gathering. More than that, it means a way of life that -- far from being marginal -- fulfills spiritual as well as economic needs.''

Fragments of testimony from the hearings enliven the book and explain subsistence: ``The land means everything to us, it brings us food, it provides for our clothing, it provides for our lodging, it brings us water. . . .'' ``Living in this kind of culture, in this harsh environment in this part of the world, you had to have an understanding in the sense of sharing and love just to survive.''

Others have critiqued ANCSA and recommended modest changes. But this study is unique in origin and perspective. The Inuit Circumpolar Conference, an international organization of Inuit (Eskimos) from Alaska, Canada, and Greenland, invited Berger to examine and report the views of natives in village Alaska, natives whose interests sometimes differ sharply from urban natives and officers of the native corporations.

The book attacks the framework of the settlement act: the corporations. ``The Native corporations were created by a reversal of the usual process whereby some individuals notice an economic opportunity, then organize to exploit it by forming a corporation and then [look] for capital,'' writes Berger. The village corporations are failing, not because they are run by natives, but because ``in most villages, no commercial business could have succeeded. . . .''

Berger constructs a careful and persuasive case for reforming the legal arrangements regarding native land titles, hunting and fishing, and self-government. He provides a lay reader with the background he needs to comprehend the book's conclusions, which call for strengthening tribal government and transferring much of the native-owned land to tribal governments.

The recommendations, especially regarding hunting and fishing rights, would require radical revisions of ANCSA, the subsistence provisions of ANILCA (the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980), and the Alaska subsistence law of 1978. Berger would rework the basic agreements struck in Congress and in the state Legislature that give a ``subsistence preference'' to non-natives as well as natives. Subsistence remains one of the most complex and heated issues in Alaska, and this book is sure to stir more controversy.

Unfortunately, even if all Berger's recommendations were followed, the problems of village Alaska would not end. Instead of large-scale natural resource development, Berger advocates strengthening reliance on noncommercial hunting and fishing. But subsistence cannot support the rapidly increasing native population, nor can it satisfy the upscale expectations of many native Alaskans. Hunting and fishing today are highly dependent on cash for snowmobiles, boats, fuel, and ammunition. Berger has no prescription for the infusion of income needed to continue subsistence, nor does he offer options for diverse life styles. But these shortcomings do not detract from the importance of the book. The proposals would secure native Alaskans' most essential asset -- land -- for future generations.

It should be no surprise that ``Village Journey'' falls short of showing how to fix over 150 years of ``bad'' Indian law, as well as all the problems brought to indigenous Arctic communities by contact with whites. Rather than dismiss the recommendations as too radical or insufficient, we need to look further for ways to improve and enhance them.

Gail Osherenko teaches natural resources law and conflict resolution at the Center for Northern Studies in Wolcott, Vt.

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