December 18, 1971 – Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act Signed Into Law

When the United States acquired the territory of Alaska in 1867, the treaty conveyed title to all public lands not held as “individual property.” As explained in a summary of the background of Alaskan native land claims issues, House Report No. 92-523, dated September 28, 1971:

The lands used by the ‘uncivilized’ tribes were not regarded as individual property, and the treaty provided that those tribes would be subject to such laws and regulations as the United States might from time to time adopt with respect to aboriginal tribes.”

In the Organic Act for Alaska of May 17, 1884, 23 Stat. 24 Congress provided that Natives “should not be disturbed in the possession of any lands actually in their use or occupation or then claimed by them, but that the terms under which such persons could acquire title to such lands were reserved for future legislation by Congress.”

25 Largest Tribal Groupings Among American Indians and Alaska Natives

25 Largest Tribal Groupings Among American Indians and Alaska Natives

House Report No. 92-523 stated:

The Committee found no principle in law or history, or in simple fairness, which provides clear guidance as to where the line should be drawn for the purpose of confirming or denying title to public lands in Alaska to the Alaskan Natives. The lands are public lands of the United States. The Natives have a claim to some of the lands. They ask that their claim be settled by conveying to them title to some of the lands, and by paying them for the extinguishment of their claim to the balance.

As a matter of equity, there are two additional factors that must be considered. When the State of Alaska was admitted into the Union in 1958, the new State was authorized to select and obtain title to more than 103,000,000 acres of the public lands. These lands were regarded as essential to the economic viability of the State. The conflicting interests of the Natives and the State in the selection of these lands need to be reconciled. The discovery of oil on the North Slope intensified this conflict. A second factor is the interest of all of the people of the Nation in the wise use of the public lands. This involves a judgment about how much of the public lands in Alaska should be transferred to private ownership, and how much should be retained in the public domain.”

Prior to the Native Claims Settlement Act, Congress had not acted on titles claimed by Alaskan natives. Moreover, as a history of this act reports, laws enacted regarding Indian lands were at first considered not to be applicable to Alaska Natives.:

This view was upheld in numerous opinions rendered by the courts, the Attorney General and the Department of the Interior during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. . . . This concept of the Alaska natives’ Federal status was gradually revised, however, so that by 1932 the Interior Department declared the Alaska natives to have the same status as Indians in the rest of the United States and thus to be entitled to the benefit of and . . . subject to the general laws and regulations governing the Indians of the United States to the same extent as are the Indian tribes within the territorial limits of the United States.”

The Alaska Statehood Act basically kept the situation regarding aboriginal claims in status quo.

On this day in history, Public Law 92-203, the “Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act,” (ANCSA) was signed into law by President Nixon. The law,the largest land claims settlement in U.S. history, was enacted by Congress to settle the claims of Alaska’s native Indian Aleut and Eskimo population to aboriginal title to the land they occupied for generations. By this act, Alaska Natives gained title to 44 million acres of historically used land in Alaska. The U.S. government paid $962.5 million in “compensation” so that Natives would not claim any title to the remaining land in the state. (Natives would be paid $462,500,000 over an eleven-year period from funds in the United States Treasury, an additional $500,000,000 from mineral revenues received from lands in Alaska, and from the remaining Federal lands in Alaska, other than Naval Petroleum Reserve Numbered 4.) Funds were assigned to 12 Native regional corporations and over 200 local village corporations. A 13th regional corporation headquartered in Seattle was later created for Alaska Natives who no longer resided in Alaska.


Furthermore, the act allowed for reserving easements on lands which will be conveyed to Alaska Native Village and Regional Corporations in order to allow public access to public land and water. Federal Regulations, 43 CFR 2650.4-7, provide guidelines to be used in reserving easements in conveyance documents.

As of 2013, some 14.3% of Alaska’s population identified as American Indian and Alaska Native, alone or in combination, the highest share for this race group of any state.

You can read the entire text of the act and legislative history here.


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