By Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today 

National conservation group now supports landless Natives legislation


December 6, 2023

The Wilderness Society conservation group has changed its position and now supports a bill that would create five new Alaska Native corporations in Southeast Alaska. It historically has opposed the creation of the new corporations.

Federal legislation would create for-profit Native corporations for five communities left out of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. The settlement act transferred almost a billion dollars and title to 44 million acres to Native corporations to make profits and issue dividends to Native shareholders.

Wrangell is one of the five landless Native communities included in the legislation, which has a long path to winning congressional approval in the next year. Multiple attempts over the years have failed to gain enough support.

“This is a long overdue shift in The Wilderness Society’s position and is a significant step toward correcting injustices against Alaska Native communities in Haines, Ketchikan, Petersburg, Tenakee Springs and Wrangell,” said Karlin Itchoak, the Wilderness Society’s senior regional director for Alaska, in a prepared statement.

“The fight to amend this act and reunite these communities with their ancestral lands is not just about rectifying a historical wrong, but also about ensuring these communities’ cultural survival and prosperity,” said Meda DeWitt in the statement. She is Naanya.aayí Tlingit from Wrangell, and the society’s senior specialist for Alaska.

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who sponsored the Senate bill, emailed, “I am pleased to see that The Wilderness Society has finally reversed their opposition to my legislation that would rectify the omission of five Native communities being excluded from ANCSA, and seeks to make reparations for the financial and cultural harm of this injustice.”

Richard Tashee Rinehart Jr., Tlingit, is advocating for the bill on behalf of the five communities. He applauds the society’s new position. The group has more than a million members and supporters, according to its website.

“We’re very thrilled. … It makes a difference when a group that large is supportive,” Rinehart said.

He said the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council last year came out in support of legislation, and the Sierra Club and EarthJustice, two large national environmental organizations, have changed their opposition to a neutral stance.

Rinehart said the landless bill has long been viewed as a timber issue.

“Environmental conservation groups have opposed us fearing that we would log and clearcut in the Tongass National Forest, but they’re now seeing it more properly as a social justice issue and righting an inequity that goes back to the very days of when Alaska became a territory of the United States,” Rinehart said.

The reasons for the communities being left out of the 1971 settlement act are unclear. A report by University of Alaska Anchorage’s Institute of Social and Economic Research in the mid-1990s found no clear reason why the communities were excluded.

The bill has been referred to the Senate and House committees for hearings.

This article was originally published by ICT, an independent, nonprofit, multimedia news enterprise. ICT covers Indigenous peoples.


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