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Landless communities advocate for action at Tlingit and Haida’s Tribal Assembly

Petersburg seen from the air in February 2014. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska News)
Petersburg seen from the air in February 2014. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska News)

Five communities in Southeast Alaska were left out of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act: Ketchikan; Wrangell; Petersburg; Haines and Tenakee Springs, and it’s left more than 4,000 Native people in the region without land.

Getting land to these communities was a big theme during the 87th Tribal Assembly meeting of the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska this week.

Cecelia Tavoliero is from Petersburg and part of the organization Alaska Natives Without Land. She said getting Native land into Native ownership is a win for all Native people. And the land back movement has helped the cause.

“Land back has highlighted important issues like ours and has helped us build awareness, and even support, from among groups historically opposed to a land solution,” Tavoliero said.

The controversy is around the land selections landless communities have made. The communities want to get land as close to home as possible, but selections are limited and people in neighboring communities — and groups outside of Alaska — have doubts about some of the selections.

But Tlingit and Haida citizens want progress to be made. Delegates repeatedly brought the issue up with the tribe and with Sealaska, the regional Native corporation.

Delegate Joe Williams Jr. of Saxman urged the tribe and the corporation to make this the year that the landless people get their land.

“As the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971 was made history, we once again need to make history for our very own people,” Williams said.

Jaeleen Kookesh is a vice president at Sealaska. She said that this issue has been a top priority for Sealaska and that the lack of success isn’t from a lack of trying.

She has met with legislators and groups concerned with the land selections. She said that they need the help of tribal citizens in key states that have representatives in the Natural Resources Committees in the House and Senate. Especially Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington and Representative Raúl Grijalva of Arizona.

“Mainly because they want to protect the Tongass and keep those lands in public ownership as opposed to Native ownership,” Kookesh said.

And she hopes that whoever gets elected to Alaska’s Congressional seat in the House understands the landless issue and continues to be an advocate in D.C. as late Congressman Don Young was.

Alaska’s congressional delegation has been working on the issue for years, and there are currently bills in the House and Senate. Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan spoke about their continued commitment to the issue in their addresses to the Tribal Assembly.

Getting land to the five communities will require an amendment to ANCSA, a law that has been amended over 100 times.