Fifty years ago, on December 18, 1971, Pres. Richard M. Nixon signed into law a historic land settlement between Alaska Natives and the United States government. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), provided for a payment of approximately $1 billion to Alaska Natives and 44 million acres of land. For the first time in history, the United States settled a land dispute with indigenous Americans without resorting to warfare. 

Understanding ANCSA means delving into a bit of Alaska’s history as well as the government’s dealings with the first Americans.

The ownership of Alaska

Alaska has been inhabited for over 10,000 years by the Inupiat, Yupik, Athapascan, Unangan (Aleut), Suqpiaq, Tlingit, and Haida peoples. Every culture occupied vast spaces of land that were clearly defined and defended. They developed art, music, hunting technology, means of transportation, and religions and grew intimate with the lands that provided sustenance. Suddenly, in 1741, their futures were changed by the arrival of Russians, who claimed the 375 million acres under the Doctrine of Discovery enunciated by Pope Alexander VI in 1493. His Papal Bull stated that any lands “discovered” by Christian rulers that were inhabited by non-Christian heathens could be claimed and exploited for the benefit of the discovering countries. The Papal Bull was designed to ensure Spanish control of the New World Christopher Columbus had happened upon in 1492. This doctrine of discovery became the basis for America’s expansion from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

After 120 years of Russian presence in Alaska, the Russian American Company and the Russian government decided to sell their interests in Alaska to the United States. Russian fur traders had decimated the sea otter population, which provided their primary revenue, and Russia’s leaders realized Alaska could not be easily defended from British forces should the two rivals clash. They didn’t like the possibility of Britain owning their neighbor across the Bering Sea. The Treaty of Cession, negotiated by Russian diplomat Baron Eduard de Stoeckl and U.S. Secretary of State William Seward, was signed on March 30, 1867. For $7.2 million (the equivalent of about $120 million today), the United States acquired Russia’s claims to Alaska. But did the United States actually own Alaska? That became the issue consuming Alaskans between 1966 and 1971.

Land is the key to Alaska Native culture

Gray-haired Alaska Native man with beard wearing a vest speaking on microphone
Willie Iġġiaġruk Hensley, a champion of indigenous self-determination, speaks during the Elders and Youth Conference in 2019 at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks. Courtesy Tripp Crouse, KNBA

As an Inupiaq graduate student at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, I took a course in constitutional law taught by one of Alaska’s premier Supreme Court Justices—Jay Rabinowitz. It turned out to be the most important class in my university life, as I wrote my research paper on “Alaska Native Land Claims: The Primary Issue.” I researched the history of legal relationships between the American Indian tribes and the federal government, including the over 400 treaties—contracts that had the force of law and were recognized in our Constitution. I studied the Treaty of Cession of 1867, the Organic Act of 1884, the General Allotment Act of 1887, the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, and the Alaska Statehood Act of 1958. In the end, I decided, “Alaska Natives still own Alaska!” All we had to do was prove it.

Alaska Natives did not have treaties with the United States, as that practice ended in 1871. However, I learned that “aboriginal title,” or “Indian title,” had substance in our law—especially since that underlying title was not extinguished by any action of the Congress in any of the laws, including the statehood act.

Black and white photo of couple filleting fish on a table
Subsistence fishing is a building block of Alaska Native life. Having access to traditional locations for seasonal salmon runs and other subsistence activities means families can feed themselves and share with their communities. The passage of ANCSA ensured that tribes could continue to hunt and fish for food. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

While most of Alaska had already been claimed by the feds after purchase from Russia, under the statehood act, the State of Alaska was, over time, supposed to receive from the federal government more than 104 million acres of land, the aboriginal title to which had not been extinguished. I decided that any selections by the State that were sent to the Department of Interior for approval by the Secretary would result in a “taking,” and indigenous people would never retrieve the land, ever. I realized that Alaska Natives were in jeopardy of losing complete control of the lands we had occupied for millennia, and we had to stop the State selections in order to preserve our rights and then petition Congress for a resolution of the claims.

It was easier said than done. By 1966 (the year I was elected to the Alaska State House), Alaska Natives had suffered through many epidemics of influenza, tuberculosis, measles, chicken pox, and diphtheria; we had survived warfare, slavery, and starvation during the Russian colonial period. Tens of thousands of bowhead whales had been hunted by New England whalers in the 1800s for oil and baleen—causing distress and hunger among the arctic villages that depended on them for their survival. And as citizens of the United States, we could not vote until 1924, and even then, only if we could read and speak English. In the meantime, salmon streams that were the mainstay of many tribes came under control of the canned salmon industry based in Seattle.

black and white photo of children lined up in front of wooden building
Decade after decade, indigenous Alaskans were subjected to “re-education” campaigns and assimilation attempts by various newcomers to their regions. Today, Alaska embraces its diversity, and because of ANCSA, Alaska Native groups have found much success in sustaining their unique cultures. This photo from about 1894 shows Tsimshian children in Western dress posed on the steps of a building, possibly their school, at Metlakatla in southeast Alaska. Several men, likely their teachers, pose with them. Credit: Frank La Roche, Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

With over 200 villages scattered throughout Alaska’s approximately 600,000 square miles, Alaska Natives in the 1960s were still primarily living as we had done for thousands of years—catching fish, walrus and seals, ducks and geese, belugas and whales, caribou, and fur bearing animals. Native women were still making winter gear essential to our way of life in the icy wilderness. Most villages had no electricity, people had to haul water from streams or wells, and some still lived in homes made of sod and moved into tents in the summertime. In 1966, we did not live in a world of private property, budgets, surveys, liens, mortgages, loans, interest, and insurance. We lived in our own languages and cultures rich in music, art, dance, stories, ceremonies, clans, myths, extended families; we still moved with the seasons. Despite the government and missionaries working for several generations to eliminate our unique cultures, much had survived. The key to our cultural survival was our land, and we knew it. Now it was about to be taken from us.

The fight for ANCSA

We organized the Alaska Federation of Natives in October of 1966, and it became the primary force that took on the challenge of protecting our ancestral homelands. With the help of Sec. of Interior Stewart Udall, we were able to secure a “land freeze” that stopped the State land selections and helped bring the issue to a head. Also, billions of barrels of oil were found on Inuit territory on the north slope of Alaska in 1968 at a time when the United States desperately needed oil that was not controlled by the unstable Middle East. That oil needed to go to market, and the only rational way to get it there was to build a giant 800-mile pipeline to the Gulf of Alaska.

Image of Trans Alaska pipeline front directly above, as pipeline wends into the distance
Prior to construction of the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline that carries crude 800 miles from Prudhoe Bay on Alaska’s North Slope to the tidewater town of Valdez, where it’s then transported by tanker to market, land claims by Alaska Native groups had languished in the legal system. With the prospect of new—and considerable—revenue in their sights, state and federal government, spurred on by the oil industry, was finally motivated to hammer out a land claims deal with Alaska’s tribes. The complex negotiations among many stakeholders eventually led to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971. Six years later, the first oil flowed through the pipeline. Courtesy The MILEPOST

Alaska was in desperate financial shape in 1966, as the population was only 225,000, there was little industry, and it couldn’t afford its modest government. As a solution, Alaskan politicians and Congress planned to take Alaska Native lands with no compensation and then lease or sell the land. Alaska was also to receive 90 percent of the revenue from federal lands. The land freeze threatened both the land selections and the revenue. 

The key was to get the State of Alaska to be supportive of congressional legislation to resolve the issue; that was no easy task. Many urban Alaskan politicians were paranoid about Alaska Natives having our own tribal governments over which the State had no control, and they were not supportive of having “Indian reservations”—trust lands that were protected by the Secretary of Interior through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Eisenhower administration had sought to terminate the special relationship between the Indian tribes and the federal government. Reservations were frowned upon.

Gov. Walter J. Hickel was the first governor to face the issue of Native land claims. His initial approach was to do everything possible to eliminate the land freeze because it was causing a reduction in revenue from the federal government, and it stopped the land selections, which were going to be the lifeblood of the new state. Governor Hickel tried everything in his power both politically and legally to stop the land freeze, but he was unsuccessful. The Alaska Federation of Natives dug in and began to build a national constituency to support the land claims settlement despite having virtually no funds, no depth of legal and political knowledge, or any experience with the media.

Close up on hands hauling fish trapped in a net into a boat
Two issues left unresolved by ANCSA—protection for subsistence activities and conservation of public lands—laid the foundation for the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) in 1980. That legislation, besides creating numerous national parks, wildlife refuges, and other public lands, allowed rural residents access to public lands for subsistence purposes. In this image, locals catch salmon at a summer fish camp in Lake Clark National Park. Courtesy NPS

Without telephones or other means of communication, we were not able to develop a set of common talking points; we each did the best we could making inroads: appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and Good Morning America, editorials in The Washington Post and The New York Times, and speeches to the National Council of Churches as well as courting the National Congress of American Indians, the Association on American Indian Affairs, and the Indian Rights Association. As a legislator, I even made a speech in France at an arctic-focused conference seeking international support. 

A settlement began to take shape when Governor Hickel committed to the Land Claims Task Force, which I chaired, that endorsed a 40-million-acre conveyance to Alaska Natives and advocated for a state royalty that would eventually pay for $500 million of the nearly $1 billion that emerged in the final legislation. 

Black and white image of Alaskans around a desk
Many Alaskans traveled to Washington, D.C., for congressional hearings on ANCSA in the late 1960s. Standing from left are George Cardner, Roger Connor, Emil Notti, Flore Lekanof, Cliff Groh, Barry Jackson, congressional secretary Thoda Forslund, and Morris Thompson. Seated are Alaska State Rep. Willie Hensley, Alaska U.S. Rep. Howard Pollock, and Laura Bergt. Credit: Anchorage Daily News archive, Anchorage Times photo

The other recommendation by the task force was a willingness to consider suggesting something different than a tribal government as the managing vehicle for any lands and funds coming to Alaska Natives, and that any lands would be fee simple and not held in trust. That was a unique feature in contrast to Indian reservations—which are not owned by the tribe but held in trusteeship for them by the federal government. The unconventional entity turned out to be the corporation—a completely new idea that helped pave the way for Native village and regional control of the lands and assets. That was a hard-won victory, as Congressional plans would have had a federal presence overseeing our lands and funds.

The years between 1966 and 1971 were frenetic as Alaska Natives fought hard to convince the state and federal legislators that it was time to treat us with fairness and equity after a century of waiting for a definition of our land rights. With the help of President Nixon, Alaska’s Congressional delegation—Sen. Ted Stevens, Sen. Mike Gravel, and Rep. Nick Begich—and the willingness of the oil industry to support the legislation, the historic bill became law in December of 1971.

Making ANCSA work

Alaska Natives had no history of modern-day business or commercial experience, but we took on the challenge of trying to make the settlement work. The act created 12 regional corporations owned and controlled through indigenous shareholders as well as about 200 village corporations that shared in the nearly $1 billion settlement. We promptly incorporated, had director elections, installed management, enrolled shareholders, selected land based mainly on traditional homelands, and began to make investments. 

Now, Alaska Native corporations (ANCs) are an integral part of Alaska’s economy. In a recent survey of the top 49 companies in Alaska, based on revenue, 24 were ANCs. They have more than 138,000 shareholders, who have received a total of about $3 billion in dividends since inception. The companies actively support education by providing over 54,000 scholarships to shareholders totaling more than $100 million through educational and cultural foundations. Virtually all the corporations provide work experience through internship programs in a wide range of business and governmental positions. Alaska Natives are now engaged in myriad industries—mining, fisheries, tourism, engineering and construction, oil and gas, insurance, aerospace logistical support, real estate, environmental remediation, food service, and the list goes on.

Many of the ANCs operate on a global scale through contracts with the federal government under the Small Business Administration’s 8(a) program that allows them to negotiate contracts with federal departments.

Prior to ANCSA, Alaska Natives were essentially hunters, gatherers, and fishers and almost always owed money to the local trader or fish cannery for essentials like boats, nets, ammunition, coffee, gasoline, beans, rice, tobacco, and boots. Today, ANCs not only employ Native people, but tens of thousands of other Alaskans and even residents in the Lower 48. The corporations have also invigorated unique cultures by supporting language programs, spirit camps, and the arts, as well as by preserving cultural artifacts. They have also fought to ensure that Native peoples are allowed to continue seeking traditional food sources used for thousands of years and that are a key element of culture.

As a result of the passage of ANCSA 50 years ago, Alaska Natives probably know more about the workings of the corporate world than most Americans. We go to annual meetings, read the annual reports, select directors who install management, review and approve budgets, keep a finger on the pulse of the economy, and try to plan for the future. We have worked to put a human face on the corporation and use it as a tool for improving lives and providing opportunity. 

In the beginning of the struggle for land, we had no idea that we’d inherit corporations. But we knew we were unlikely to get the land without some concessions, as that’s the reality of politics. We fought hard for what we got, and thankfully, our state and country responded; we’ve tried to make the most of it. The good news is that if Secretary Seward had not made the deal in 1867, we certainly would not have 44 million acres of land and the capital to build capacity to hire our people, pay dividends, and take care of the elderly and the young. It’s not perfect, but it has helped Alaska Natives to rise economically, politically, and culturally.


Willie Hensley, whose Inupiaq name is Iggiagruk, is originally from Kotzebue and has held many leadership roles. He was a founder of the Alaska Federation of Natives and served the organization in many capacities. Early in his career, Hensley represented his home region in the Alaska State House and then Senate and was instrumental in the creation of ANCSA. At NANA Regional Corporation, he worked his way up to president. He is retired from Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, and currently teaches at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Hensley is also chairman of the board of the First Alaskans Institute.

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