Outdoor log cabin exhibit at Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center.

An Expedition through the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act

Grab your ticket… Board the plane…
And get ready to embark on an expedition unlike any other!

Buckle up and get ready for take off!

Today, we will depart the present, flying back in time to explore Alaska from its populated beginnings long, long ago. Continuing through time, watch as colonization disrupts Indigenous ways of life on the land, and find out what events led to the enactment of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 (ANCSA).

This landmark legislation, totally distinct from the reservation system of the Lower 48, was crafted and driven by Alaska Native leaders. This act of self-determination has also been called an experiment in capitalism. It influenced the trajectory of the state of Alaska and all of its peoples when it extinguished aboriginal title in exchange for dollars and land ownership structured through corporations.

Once you have explored the timeline, use the map below it to discover the twelve regions of Alaska served by ANCSA’s Alaska Native Corporations (ANCs).

All the Way Back…

Time Immemorial: A point of time in the past that was so long ago that people have no knowledge or memory of it.

For thousands upon thousands of years the Indigenous people of Alaska have been the caretakers of this land. Alaska Natives have a strong spiritual and survival connection to it and all across it. There are tribes and villages spread throughout the entire state, to include the Iñupiat in the North, the Yupiit in the West, Athabascans in the Interior, Tlingit and Haida in the South, and Unangan on the Aleutian Islands. Each of these groups have a unique and ancestral connection to their homelands and generations of experience and knowledge that has helped them to learn how to best manage, utilize, and care for their land and people. 

This tie to the land is the basis for all future claims to the area and its protection from outsiders.

Russian Colonization

It is July 1741 when the Russian expedition led by Vitus Bering arrives in Alaska. Russian hunters will soon follow, seeking profit in the fur trade. These groups will exploit the Aleut people cruelly as they hunt entire populations of animals to near extinction. In 1784 Russia’s first permanent settlement, the Three Saints Bay colony, is founded on Kodiak Island to protect Russian claims to hunting territory against Spanish, French and British interests. Russian fur trapping and trade will continue to press into the mainland of Alaska. But in the late 1700s, Russian fur expansion will decline rapidly as the country is on the brink of bankruptcy and Alaska is seen as an unprotectable and unprofitable colony.

Russia Sells Alaska to the United States

As Russian expansion efforts go bust in the Americas, Russia seeks a way to sell the unprofitable territory of Alaska. U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward, a proponent of territorial expansion, is interested in purchasing the large landmass. With the signing of the Treaty of Cession in 1867 the U.S. purchases Alaska for $7.2 million, or about two cents per acre.  

While the purchase is heavily criticized by Congress, it is the first federal document and policy to mention Alaska Natives. They are made subject to U.S. laws, but not given U.S. citizenship. Similar to federal polices placed on Native Americans of the continental United States, all matters pertaining to the Alaska Natives are subject to the government who assumes responsibility in decisions about land, resources, and the general welfare of the Native population. Natives are not consulted over this shifting of hands even though, according to Russian policy, the indigenous people retain claim to their lands since they have not lost it by war or treaty. 

Native Land Claims

It is 1884, and The Organic Act is the first policy document to set the stage for Alaska Native land claims. It is mainly created to transition Alaska from a militarily ruled district to a very limited form of civilian government, but also addresses land issues, such as mining and mineral privileges, as well “Indian” occupation of the land.  

“Indians or other persons in said district shall not be disturbed in the possession of any lands actually in their use or occupation or now claimed by them, but the terms under which such persons may acquire title to such lands is reserved for future legislation by Congress.” 

The interpretation of this paragraph of the Organic Act will be the subject of many judicial hearings and a main basis for the creation of ANCSA – the “future legislation.”  The Act will allow prospectors and missionaries to obtain land, but will not give Alaska Natives the legal right to protect or claim their land, since they still are not considered citizens.  

Floods of Settlers
(The 20th Century)

Following the Organic Act at the turn of the century, white settlers flood into Alaska attempting to carve their piece out of the developing gold, fur, and fish wealth and industries of the area. It is during this time that Alaska Natives become a minority population, with further encroachment on their traditional lands and no legal means to protect their lands and way of life.  

Alaska Natives begin to organize to address this crisis. They seek to find legislative ways to address Native voting rights, so the Native people can finally have a say in the use and ownership of Alaska land. Two key organizations are the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Alaska Native Sisterhood. ANB/ANS will strive to gain for Natives the same citizenship and land rights as non-Natives. 


Citizenship comes in drips and drabs. The Alaska Territorial Legislature extends Alaska Citizenship to Alaska Native people – sort of – with the “Native Citizenship Act” in 1915. This legislation requires Alaska Natives to apply for citizenship, and in the process they must “sever all tribal relationships, a total abandonment of any tribal customs or relationships.” To prove they have done so, they must produce a certificate signed by “at least five white citizens” confirming that they have abandoned their Native way of life.

Efforts by early Native organizations contribute to the 1924 passage of the Indian Citizenship Act, signed by US President Calvin Coolidge in 1924. This act grants U.S. citizenship to indigenous people born within the United States and its territories, and is a step forward towards Alaska Natives gaining voting rights and ability to own and claim land.  

World War II

Alaska sees a boom in industry and development during WWII. Since Alaska is a critical strategic military location during the war, the state is supplied heavily and requires roads and construction to support the military bases here.

This creates a new encroachment on Alaska Native lands, both with increased populations of non-Natives and development of the land. In the aftermath of the second World War many military men will remain in Alaska, trying to make their living here and creating even more conflict over Native land claims.  

The Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945

The first state or territorial anti-discrimination law enacted in the United States, the Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945 is a result of early Alaska Native activism against segregation and disenfranchisement of Natives in Alaska, where Natives had been regularly denied access to businesses, public areas like swimming pools and playgrounds, and even public schools. The Nelson Act of 1905 had created two separate educational systems. Later, children of mixed heritage gained the right to a public education but it was at the price of abandoning their Native culture.

Members of the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Alaska Native Sisterhood stage boycotts and lobby the territorial government. Vice president of the Alaska Native Sisterhood Elizabeth Peratrovich (Tlingit), and her husband Roy Peratrovich (Tlingit), president of the Alaska Native Brotherhood, write to Ernest Gruening, the governor of Alaska, in 1941 and argue that segregation was “very Un-American.” Elizabeth Peratrovich and her husband Roy Peratrovich will work tirelessly to lobby the territorial government to pass an Anti-Discrimination Act. In 1945, representing the Alaska Native Brotherhood/Sisterhood, they bring a new draft of an anti-discrimination bill before the Alaska Senate. This is when Elizabeth, last to testify, utters words that will resonate in Alaska’s consciousness for years beyond her death: in her speech calling for equal treatment for Indigenous peoples she responds to Juneau territorial senator Allen Shattuck who has asked, “Who are these people, barely out of savagery, who want to associate with us whites, with 5,000 years of recorded civilization behind us?” Elizabeth responded:

I would not have expected that I, who am barely out of savagery, would have to remind gentlemen with five thousand years of recorded civilization behind them, of our Bill of Rights.

The Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945 was signed into law on February 16, 1945 – but Alaska Natives still do not have legal title to their traditional lands.

The New State of Alaska

Alaska wins statehood in 1959, causing significant changes in government and the land claims discussion in the newly formed state. One of the main challenges for the state will be finding a source of operating funds to sustain itself. The federal government believes that will come from the land, so Congress allocates the state 104 million-acres, roughly a third of the land in the state, for the Alaska government to sell or develop for profit. Furthermore, the state plans two enormous and highly controversial development projects: the Rampart Dam and Project Chariot.

Of the 104 million-acres the state chooses, much of the land is traditionally used and occupied by Natives, contrary to the provision included in the Alaska Statehood Act. This brings new focus to the unresolved issue of Alaska Native land claims. Alaska Natives are still without title to the land or legal avenue to enforce the state to respect that provision.  

Coming Together: the Alaska Federation of Natives

Alaska Natives are forming organizations to address the immediate threat posed by the Alaska Statehood Act. It is very difficult for the organizations to collaborate due to the expansive regions and isolation of many Native settlements. A solution to this problem comes with Howard Rock’s creation of the Tundra Times. This newspaper is primarily created to share information within the Native community, specifically related to reporting policies and goals of Native organizations related to land claims.  

The Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) now springs from the necessity to bring Alaska Natives together across all regions of the state so that together they can decide how to protect their claims to the land and reach a settlement with the government, with the common goal of protecting traditional lands and the identity of Alaska’s indigenous people. AFN will help unify Native voices on the land claims issues, which were previously being discussed by white men in Congress thousands of miles away with no Native input and little if any real understanding of the issue at hand.  

One of the first tasks AFN will take on will be to call on Secretary of the Interior Udall to halt all state land selections until Alaska Native land claims are settled. Secretary Udall will then impose a land freeze, preventing state and federal government agencies, as well as oil companies, from any further development or acquisition of Alaskan land, and forcing all groups to focus on land claims.  

AFN will then begin the process of quantifying data regarding the scope of Alaska Native land claims. The organization will call on elders from across the regions to draw on traditional land use boundaries, including villages and hunting grounds, so there can be an accurate estimate of the amount of land Alaska Natives will have claim to. Once this is determined, they can decide how to go about reaching a fair settlement with the government.   

The Passing of ANCSA

As we arrive in 1971, big changes are coming to the people of Alaska.

Development of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) actually began in 1961. This ten-year effort by Natives to preserve and protect their land rights involved deciding how to best convey Native lands to Native people. Reservations had been the main federal policy in place to grant indigenous land rights in the continental US, but that system was regarded as a massive failure for both the people and for the federal government. A new idea to convey land to Alaska Natives was to do it through corporations. 

Because land was the primary basis for wealth in Alaska, having a business structure to safeguard and profit from those lands became a popular solution to the question of how to convey the land rights. This would, the logic went, give Alaska Natives a path to participate and gain leverage in the U.S. system and society. Leaders of Native organizations including AFN began making trips to Washington D.C. to lobby congressmen to pass ANCSA. And although they spoke to every single congressman, regardless of political party or prejudgments, they did not receive reciprocal treatment when the legislators made changes and amendments without Alaska Native input and passed the Act in 1971. 

The Act passes, and the final settlement grants Alaska Natives 44 million acres which they had selected and to which they will hold legal title. This amounts to Native ownership of 11% of Alaska land, while the state and federal governments continue to hold the other 88%. Native Alaskans will also receive $962.5 million as payment for lands they claimed but were not granted. The land and money will be divided among the 12 regional corporations and 200 village corporations created by ANSCA.

The two different types of corporations – village and regional – are given different rights to the land. Village corporations will have surface rights, but regional corporations gain subsurface rights, such as minerals and oil. Attempting to make the corporations equitable across the state, ANCSA includes provisions requiring redistribution across the corporations of profits gained from those mineral rights.

MORRIS THOMPSON plays a huge role in ANCSA’s beginnings.
Click his photo below to learn more about this compassionate leader and role model hailing from Doyon, Inc.

This beaded framed image of Morris Thompson is on display in the One Voice Makes a Difference exhibit. Beadwork by artist Lois P. Williams.

ANCSA Amendments

As time passed, some things did not work out as well as originally planned – and it turned out that there were some “unforseens.” It was determined every now and then that changes needed to be made to the Act.

Here we are in February 1988 when Public Law 100-241 was published to amend ANCSA. Among other things, this amendment provided certain options for the continued ownership of lands and corporate shares received to Alaska Natives.

Changes to the law can take a lot of time and hard work trying to ensure that everyone’s thoughts on the subject are heard and that the best decision for everyone involved is made. While the amendment that is being passed here is called the Amendment of 1987, it was not actually passed until 1988.

Click on the Amendment of 1987 below to see what such amendments look like.

Public Law 100-241, February 3, 1988. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Protecting Land Claims and Building Corporations

ANCSA was the largest land settlement act in U.S. history, and some major issues resulted in its wake. For example, the Haida and Bering Strait corporations both experienced extreme financial hardship within twenty years of enactment due to accidental mismanagement of the funds and land. Once this happens to a corporation, there is no fallback plan to protect indigenous land claims, so their land would be auctioned off. This makes Alaska Native land rights entirely dependent on the success of the corporation.

Today, it is the top priority for Native corporations to make profit, so they can maintain the rights to their lands and ensure shareholders get the largest dividends possible. Many corporations began developing investments in their local communities but have since expanded business ventures all over the U.S. and the world, with the goal to provide as much for their people as possible. Native corporations function differently than others because at the core of the corporations are Native values which guide who, where, and how to invest. With shareholders as the most important aspect of the Native corporations, hiring shareholders to work on projects remains at the forefront for corporation goals.   

2021 is the fiftieth anniversary of ANCSA. Learn more from other resources, including the ANCSA Regional Association’s “ANCSA at 50” page.

Now that you have learned about ANCSA, let’s visit the twelve corporate regions that ANCSA helped to create. Here you will discover some of the Native cultures that have flourished in these regions, and see examples of the sophisticated art and technology of each region’s people.

Select a region on the map below to begin your journey.

Big thanks to Johns Hopkins University’s Museum Studies program, and to intern Meghan West, JHU alumna based out of Williamsburg, VA, for their huge contribution to this online exhibit.