Harriet Brouillette remembers sitting around the kitchen table as a child in the late 1960s and early 1970s trying to understand her parents’ discussions about the complicated topic of land claims.
At the time, Natives around the state, including the Chilkoot Indians of Haines, were focused on how they would be compensated for land that white settlers or the U.S. government had taken from them.
Her parents hoped that a fledgling idea of organizing as for-profit Native corporations would at least give Native communities some minimal compensation for the hundreds of thousands of acres of historic hunting, fishing, and berry-picking lands that had been overtaken by white settlers since the gold rush.
But when the landmark Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) was finally passed in 1971, Brouillette said her parents were devastated to find out that the people of Deishu had been left out, along with five other Southeast communities.
“There was never any sort of reason given,” said Brouillette, who is now the tribal administrator of the Chilkoot Indian Association.
Her parents fought for the next decade to amend ANCSA to allow the Chilkoot tribe to organize as a corporation and receive lands like other similar communities had been given. They failed. At the time, Brouillette was fresh out of college with two small boys.
“My mother just said ‘I give up, I can’t do this any more, it’s your turn,'” said Brouillette. “I really felt the weight that my ancestors have been carrying for generations trying to get some of our land back.”
Decades later, the 59-year-old grandmother of five still hasn’t succeeded, but she said the most recent effort to amend ANCSA has her more hopeful than ever.
“I think that this is the time,” said Brouillette. “I think we’re in a good place right now. We have support on both sides.”
Over the past two months, Alaska’s congressional delegation has reintroduced a bill that would give 23,000 acres of land to each of the five Southeast Alaska Native communities that were inexplicably left out of ANCSA.
Brouillette said she didn’t want to be disappointed again, but there are signs that this time around could be different.
Decades of missed opportunities
It remains unclear why the five “landless” communities – Tenakee Springs, Petersburg, Ketchikan, Gustavus and Haines – were excluded in the first place. A 1993 report by the Institute for Social and Economic Research in Anchorage commissioned by Congress concluded there was no reason in the congressional record for why the communities were left out.
Some have speculated that the communities may have been excluded from ANCSA because of backroom deals by timber lobbyists worried Native groups would lock up the land.
“We can only guess,” said Jaeleen Kookesh, policy and legal director for Sealaska who has been advocating for the amendment for 25 years.
About a quarter of Natives – more than 4,000 people – identified as residing in one of the five landless communities when ANCSA was passed. While they received benefits of Sealaska, they weren’t able to join a local village corporation.
That meant residents of Haines, known by the Chilkoot Indians as Deishu, were denied opportunities that its neighbors 20 miles away in Klukwan have had for decades.
Like regional corporations, village corporations have used their corporate earnings from the lands they received for things like scholarships, and cultural activities. They also hire members for internships and jobs.
“Klukwan members were able to go to school on scholarship, get dividends…and we weren’t,” said Brouillette.
Haines not only didn’t get a land conveyance, they were also denied land they had lent to missionaries for a school that was given without their consent to the U.S. military to build Fort Seward, Brouillette said. The episode remains controversial, and some tribal members are still working for resolution.
Brouillette and Kookesh said it’s about more than just the earnings.
“Native people throughout Alaska – and Southeast is no exception – they very much value ownership and authority over their lands,” Kookesh said. Land can be used for things like culture camps, or health treatment centers.
Brouillette said historic lands of the Chilkoots were already taken by the state, the Haines Borough, or by private landowners. That left them with some scattered plots in the Lower Lynn Canal, including along Berner’s Bay, the Endicott River, and along Icy Strait near Excursion Inlet, among others.
The maps of plots selected by the Chilkats of Haines shown in red. Map from Sen. Murkowski.
“We tried to choose lands that were as close as possible to our homelands,” said Brouillette, “Some were chosen for development, others were chosen to protect them.”
She said while the community wasn’t excluding the possibility of logging, the timber industry has been withering for decades. Industries like carbon credits are increasingly appealing.
“Being able to manage the way we want will have an economic benefit to our shareholders,” said Brouillette. “But by no means are we going to get rich.”
Efforts to amend
While ANCSA represented a landmark bill in how Alaska Natives were organized, it has changed over the years to address shortcomings of its original intent. It’s been amended more than 100 times. In all, Alaska’s congressional delegation has introduced seven bills that would allow the communities to organize and select land.
Shortly after it was passed, leaders from the five “landless” communities started lobbying for an amendment to the bill.
Early attempts at an amendment failed because of powerful timber lobbyists who had concessions to log parcels of the Tongass.
As the timber industry has declined in Southeast Alaska, a new opponent arose: conservation groups. They worried giving land to Native corporations could mean more logging in the Tongass, which is estimated to hold about 40% of all carbon in national forests. “It’s funny how in the years since that, the story has changed to be ‘we don’t want you to have this because you’ll just log it,'” said Brouillette.
But even opposition from conservation groups has taken a stark turn in recent years. The Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society – two national environmental groups with budgets in the tens of millions of dollars – dropped their opposition to the bill in 2022 as they reckoned with histories of disenfranchisement of Native people.
“Our defense of the Tongass continues, and at the same time, we must right the injustices that certain Native communities in Southeast Alaska have faced,” the Wilderness Society 2022 statement reads.
Both groups say they are now neutral on the issue of land conveyances to the five landless communities.
“Some of the conservation interests have certainly come along to recognizing the inequities of how native people have been treated and even acknowledged their own mistreatment of native communities,” said Jaeleen Kookesh, policy and legal director for Sealaska who has been advocating for the amendment for 25 years. “That certainly helps in our effort.”
Brouillette said local environmental opposition has also softened. She pointed to the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council’s about-face on the topic a few years ago. She called a statement last year from the group “the most moving testimony we’ve had in support of our legislation.”
Meanwhile, the five landless communities have become more organized thanks to a $500,000 grant by Sealaska in 2019, the regional corporation for Southeast. The communities formed an advocacy group called Alaska Natives Without Land. Members have made repeated trips to Washington D.C. to meet with Alaska’s congressional delegation and other members of congress.
Brouillette said recent meetings have shown positive signs. They said they’ve seen some people’s positions soften – like Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona who has been worried about transferring public land to private hands. Brouillette said he was “very open” during a 30-minute meeting, though she wasn’t sure he was convinced.
“He said he had a better understanding,” she said. “He didn’t like the idea of it being a corporation. But unfortunately the corporations were what was set up in the 70s and now we don’t have a choice.”
Unlike Lower 48 tribes, Alaska’s corporate Native structure means they are the only real way for Native communities to own land, except in rare cases.
Kookesh she’d also sensed a sea change in how members of Congress were reacting. She said the “land back” movement, a loose campaign to return historically Native land to Natives groups, has had an effect on members of congress.
“We’ve had some good meetings with members that in the past have not wanted any land to come out of public ownership,” said Kookesh.
Alaska’s newest representative, Mary Peltola, has also put new energy into the bill, for which her predecessor Don Young had advocated for years. Peltola, a Democrat, struck up a friendship with Rep. Pete Stauber, a Republican from Minnesota, and got him to cosponsor the bill, according to her spokesperson Sam Erickson.
Despite encouraging signs, the bill still faces challenges. Foremost might be the bureaucracy of a divided U.S. Congress. Erickson said getting the bill to the House floor for a vote will be a challenge.
“There’s always stiff competition to making it to the floor. There’s so many (bills) introduced and only so many can make it,” he said.
Brouillette and Kookesh acknowledged they still hear opposition from people worried about what the land conveyance would mean for public access to Tongass. Sen. Lisa Murkowksi acknowledged the challenge in a 2022 interview with KSTK, the public radio station in Wrangell. Murkowski and Sen. Dan Sullivan introduced a bill in the Senate in June.
“It’s hard,” Murkowski said, “because every acre in the Tongass is already committed or loved in some way.”
Even some residents of Southeast are wary. The Petersburg Assembly narrowly voted to send a letter opposing the conveyance over worries about the effects on federally-sponsored infrastructure projects, among other things.
Still, proponents are more committed than ever though to push the bill through.
“I feel more confident than ever,” said Kookesh.
For Brouillette, getting the bill through would be a final weight off her shoulders from generations who have worked on the issue.
“So many of our parents died not being able to get a land claims settlement,” said Brouillette, “Some people say ‘you lost the war’; that is absolutely not the truth.”