Alaska's Indian, Eskimo, and Aleut peoples, increasingly concerned that native-owned lands will fall into nonnative hands, are looking to Congress for help. To safeguard 44 million acres of ancestral lands, native groups are pushing for amendments to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
Some of those involved with the legislation also see the debate over it as an opportunity for the United States to rethink the basis of federal policy toward Native Americans.
A package of amendments sponsored by the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) was approved March 31 by the House of Representatives.
The Senate failed to act on an identical package last year. But proponents say that, with Democrats now the majority in the Senate, arguments against the changes by the US Department of the Interior are likely to carry less weight this time around.
``We feel very much that we need to get something through this Congress,'' says Alaska state Sen. Willie Hensley, an Inupiat native and former president of the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN).
The consequences of failure are ``drastic,'' he says. ``Our country would look terrible if the US government allowed all [Alaska] native lands to fall into the hands of multinational corporations.''
When Congress first passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971, the law was hailed as progressive and fair - a promising new chapter in the history of US relations with Native Americans.
In settling native claims of aboriginal title to the land, the act gave them 44 million acres, or roughly one-tenth of Alaska.
Rather than establishing Indian reservations, as had been done in most other states, Congress provided for the creation of native corporations that would hold title to the land. Every Alaska Native American born before Dec. 18, 1971, received stock in a regional and a village corporation, with the stipulation that the stock could not be sold until 1991.
The act, in effect, gave natives a 20-year grace period to become familiar with the corporate world, and to get their corporations up and running, before moving into the mainstream.
But native leaders - even those who, like Senator Hensley, helped draft the 1971 law - now say it is dangerously flawed. The land held by the native corporations is in danger of being lost, they say. Under the present law it either will be sold one day to satisfy corporate debts, or will fall into the hands of big, nonnative companies that buy up the natives' stock come 1991, they predict.
Although the native corporations got off to a slow start, and one has sought protection under bankruptcy laws, most have vast oil, gas, mineral, and timber resources.
``The native regional corporations are the future of this state,'' says Michael J. Burns, president and chief executive officer of Alaska Pacific Bank Corporation.
To many Alaska natives, however, ``our land has near-sacred status, and most of us do not think of it as a disposable commodity,'' says John Borbridge, another of the original architects of the settlement act. The connection between the paper stock, the native corporation, and the land can be difficult to understand, says Mr. Borbridge.
It is ``entirely possible'' for an Alaska Native to sell his stock in the native corporation, and then fully expect to hunt, fish, and live on the land, just as he always has, Borbridge explains.
A Tlingit native of southeast Alaska, Borbridge was the first board chairman of Sealaska Corporation, one of the 13 regional native corporations. He says the 1971 law was an honest effort by Congress to see that justice was done in settling Alaska native land claims. ``But if an act of justice is being lost,'' he adds, ``we need to address that.''
The issues are complex, and even Alaska Natives disagree over what should be included in the amendments now before Congress. Involved are long-simmering debates over subsistence rights, land use, and resource development.
The major sticking point: tribal self-government of Alaska's 200 native villages.
The amendment package provides that native shareholders can choose to transfer land from the native corporations to the village governments.
Some wonder whether the land would really be safeguarded for future generations if held by village governments. Borbridge says it would. He supports the position of the Alaska Native Coalition, which maintains that village governments in Alaska enjoy the same special privileges as tribal governments in other states.
Federally recognized tribes elsewhere in the US are largly self-governing - exempt from federal and state taxation, protected from lawsuits, and not subject to state condemnation of their land.
The coalition claims the current amendment package erodes these tribal rights in the interest of protecting the native corporations.
But Hensley and others who speak for the AFN are not so sure. They say the powers of Alaska village governments have not yet been fully defined by the courts.
The AFN says its amendment package remains neutral on the issue of tribal sovereignty, while implementing the most pressing reforms.
The amendments, for instance, allow native shareholders to delay indefinitely the date their shares go public - thereby keeping the stock and the land in native hands.
``Most people in the native community realize there's an urgency here to protect the land, the stock, and the corporations,'' says AFN spokesman Jim Benedetto. ``Then, later, we can see what we can do to deal with the issue of tribal sovereignty.''
But Borbridge, who is writing a book about the settlement act and its impact on Alaska Natives, says the confusion over sovereignty can be traced to the Interior Department, which has never had a consistent and comprehensive policy toward Alaska natives.
He adds: ``I just don't want Americans to look back at us 20 years from now and say, `There goes another failed social experiment.'''