Ted Stevens and the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act

The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, more commonly known as ANCSA, became law on December 18, 1971. This legislation settled the legal question of Native land claims within Alaska that had been left unaddressed both when the land was purchased by the United States from Russia in 1867, and again under the Alaska Statehood Act in 1958.

The Settlement eventually resulted in the following:

-The creation of twelve Regional Corporations within Alaska and a thirteenth comprised of Natives who are non-permanent residents of Alaska. This idea originated with the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN).

*The original twelve Corporations were granted land and monetary compensation
*The thirteenth Corporation was granted only monetary compensation

-Native Corporations and approximately 220 Native villages and Regional Corporations were granted title to 44 million acres of land
-Monetary compensation of $462,500,000 paid over an eleven-year period and an additional $500 million in mineral revenues

This legislation was a groundbreaking method for addressing Indigenous land claims and was the first and only of its kind in the United States. It sought to resolve the debate on Native land ownership in Alaska and allowed for the State to finish the land selections it was entitled to under the Alaska Statehood Act.

Senator Stevens was a relatively new member of the US Senate during the debates of ANCSA. He had been sworn in on December 24, 1968 and was immediately thrust into the land claims debate. In a 1991 Tundra Times reflection article, Stevens wrote:

ANCSA was my baptism of fire as a Senator from Alaska…. It didn’t occur to me that some Senators had the opportunity to ease into their jobs. Life in the Senate for me was fast-paced from the beginning…. With my experience working in the Department of the Interior and with the Statehood Act, and my faith in the determination and unity of purpose of Alaska’s Native people, I believed from the beginning that a settlement could be achieved…. My memories of the Congressional action as ANCSA took shape aren’t of a battle as much as they are of long hours of tough, hard negotiating, often two steps forward and one step back… (1)

Senator Ted Stevens, center, poses with from L-R, Morris Thompson (BIA), Eben Hopson (AFN), Stevens, John Borbridge (AFN) and Flore Lekanof (D of Interior) on the Capitol steps July 15, 1970, the day S. 1830, the first version of the Alaska Native Land Claims Bill passed in the Senate. (Subsequently, the House did not act on it.) Stevens Foundation photo.

Given his background, Stevens understood the importance of a settlement originating from, and supported by, Alaska’s Native people. To that end, he worked to ensure that Alaska Native leaders, including AFN representatives Don Wright; Emil Notti; Morris Thompson; Mary Jane Fate; Howard Rock; Alice Brown; Marlene Johnson; Brenda Itta; Lille McGarvey; Frances Degnan; and Willie Hensley, had a seat at the table.

Stevens joined countless other Alaskans involved in the governmental debate such as former governor and then-Secretary of the Interior Wally Hickel; then-Governor Bill Egan; Congressman Nick Begich; and Senator Mike Gravel.

The group was also supported by influential Washington Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, who ended up sponsoring one of the original ANCSA bills (S. 1830) alongside many other legislators including Stevens and Gravel.

Stevens supported the Settlement proposed by Native leaders, and worked to ensure it solved as many of the long-standing Aboriginal land claim issues as possible. He also supported its aspect of future economic development and self-sufficiency ideals for the Regional Corporations as a means to benefit their shareholders.

ANCSA was a compromise that took years to solidify as law, and amendments have been added numerous times over the past four decades. It is not foolproof, but Alaskans and their legislators have worked hard to address the issues that have arisen over the years and will continue to do so in the future.

For more information, please see:

Hensley, William L. Iggiagruk. Fifty Miles from Tomorrow: a Memoir of Alaska and the Real People. Sarah Crichton Books: 2010.

Jones, Richard S. Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 (Public Law 92-203): History and analysis together with subsequent amendments. Report No. 81-127 GOV. 1981-06-01. http://www.alaskool.org/PROJECTS/ANCSA/reports/rsjones1981/ANCSA_History71.htm

Landye, Bennett, Blumstein LLP. ANCSA Resource Center. https://lbblawyers.com/ancsa/

Stevens, Ted F. “ANCSA was my baptism of fire.” Tundra Times. A Scrapbook history: Alaska native claims settlement act. 1991. http://www.alaskool.org/projects/ancsa/ancsa_scrapbook/scr00002.htm (1)

Ted Stevens Foundation. ANCSA and the Agents of Change oral history project. https://tedstevensfoundation.org/ancsa-agents-change/