Native, Inc.

AuthorHuhndorf, Shari


On a cold December day in 1971, a group of young Alaska Native people gathered in a classroom on the Alaska Pacific University campus in Anchorage. They had come to await a phone call from President Richard Nixon. Many had grown up in orphanages and mission schools; few had finished high school. For years they had organized, fighting a hostile government and Big Oil to secure a land claim for Alaska Native communities. Finally a bill had made its way through the U.S. Congress. Now they waited to see what Nixon would do.

When the call came, the president began by expressing his own view that the settlement was the right thing to do. But he wanted to hear from Alaska Native people before signing it. Congress had not solicited a Native vote on the settlement. Although Alaska Native people had worked mightily to achieve a settlement and shape its terms, they had played no formal legislative role. Those in the room represented Native associations from across the state. Would they agree to this legislation? All but one group said yes.

Applause broke out, and people gave each other high fives. Nixon had just agreed to sign the largest Indigenous land claims settlement in U.S. history. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) delivered nearly $1 billion in cash and conferred title to 44 million acres to Native people. The settlement would enable them to address their communities' lack of adequate housing, health care, education, employment, and clean water, the legacies of dispossession and Jim Crow-style segregation. Since then, Native corporations have become economic powerhouses with global influence.

The young people who filled the room that day included my father, Roy Huhndorf. As a child, I watched the fight for land claims and the settlement unfold. Most white Alaskans vehemently opposed the idea that Native people had claims to the land. My father donned a bulletproof vest during the day and attended college classes in the evening, year after year, to earn a degree that would help him meet the challenges of the moment. Threatening phone calls woke my parents, along with other Native families, in the dead of night. Their victory meant, among other things, that my generation gained access to higher education. Had there been no land claims settlement, I would not be a Berkeley professor.

But to win, Alaska Native people had to help Big Oil. Had oil not been discovered in 1968 at Prudhoe Bay, now the largest oil field in North America, Alaska Native people would likely have won no settlement at all. Courts decreed that Native land claims had to be settled before companies could develop that oil. For the first (and, so far, only) time, Congress settled Native land claims by establishing for-profit corporations rather than reservations with tribal governments. In so doing, lawmakers attempted to align tribal interests with those of oil companies.

The prospect of corporations presented Native people with a dilemma. The legislation aimed to integrate rural, subsistence-based communities into the mainstream capitalist system. Natural resource exploitation threatens Native people's ability to hunt and fish, practices on which they still depend. Moreover, "the corporate structure is the reverse of tribal structure," explains my father, still a prominent figure in Alaska Native politics. After 20 years, the corporations would go public, and the land would pass out of Native hands. Perhaps the land would be lost before then. The same young people who had lobbied for the settlement would be charged with running multimillion-dollar corporations with no relevant education or experience. Officials opined that Native people were inept and their corporations were destined to fail.

My father's story is a key part of this narrative. Along with other young Native people, he grappled with a settlement that brought promise along with potential peril for his own Yup'ik and Athabascan family members, along with Inupiat, Unangan, Sugpiaq, Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, and Eyak people in more than 200 tribal communities across the vast state. Native people, who had for decades watched their lands slip away, would have to choose between a settlement that imperiled their lifeways and no settlement at all. Or at least so it initially seemed.

But thanks to my father's generation, history took an unexpected turn. Alaska Native people transformed termination legislation into a tool for rebuilding their communities and spurring economic development across the state. Never before had Native organizations anywhere in the country wielded such power.

Nevertheless, the details remain devilish. Corporations are economic entities without legal standing as tribal governments. The absence of sovereignty and subsistence guarantees has compromised the safety and health of Alaska Native people, along with their ability to live off the land.

Fifty years after the passage of ANCSA, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear cases that will determine the future of Native nations in this country. At stake is tribal sovereignty. Cases about child welfare and the extent of Native legal jurisdiction on Native lands threaten to end policies of Native self-determination launched by the Nixon administration. These policies have benefited Native and non-Native communities alike.

The story of ANCSA tells what happens when Native communities gain the power to shape their own destinies. It is also a cautionary tale about what happens when those powers of self-determination are limited. Lawmakers should heed its lessons.

My boyhood was one of the most perfect ones I could have imagined," my father says about growing up in Nulato, a small Athabascan village on the Yukon River. As the crow flies, Nulato is more than 300 miles from Fairbanks, the nearest city, which remains accessible only by boat or plane. In places with no electricity, running water, or supermarket, Native people lived off the land.

Fishing in the Nulato River, which runs behind the village, counts among my father's favorite memories. "I remember looking into that crystal-dear water and fishing for grayling with a willow pole and an old string and a bone hook. I used to love to watch them coming up. You could see them coming up to the surface to get a fly and dive right back down, slowly like a bird in this clear water."

Village life is hard work. The Huhndorf family burned wood for heat and hauled water from the river. My father was the second youngest of nine children. As a toddler, he gathered kindling for the kitchen stove. As he grew, he fed the dogs and carried water. By the time he was nine or ten years old, he hunted spruce hens and ptarmigan in the woods surrounding the village.

The Yukon River is vast, flowing nearly 2,000 miles from its headwaters in British Columbia to where it empties into the Bering Sea. Its basin exceeds the size of the state of Texas. Each summer, massive salmon runs supply the major food source to Native villages along its length. Families gather at fish camps, catching salmon in nets and fish traps to put up food for the long winters. Ducks and geese supplement summer diets. Moose can be...

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