Alaska Natives and Marine Cultural Heritage Zones

by George Pletnikoff

August 9, 2007

Alaska Natives and Marine Cultural Heritage Zones

Alaska’s First Peoples are facing many challenges. Resources, both for economic and subsistence needs, are reaching critical mass. More and more people want a similar lifestyle we have cherished for thousands of years in our homeland. Businesses, charter boats, commercial fishers and others dependent upon those ventures are demanding rights to resources. Families are struggling to find enough fish to not only feed themselves, but to also make ends meet economically. Sadly, both the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea are forced into a system not ever experienced by their calm. Global competition, climate changes and food competitions are damaging what we all consider "ecosystems in beauty." For our people, this must mean we take a very close look at our needs. This must mean we become critical of how these finite resources are being divided by foreign powers, economic powers, challenging our traditional knowledge and ways. This means we must assert our beliefs and inalienable rights to what has proven to be our lifeline for generations: we must demand marine cultural heritage zones!

Much has been written and discussed, debated and analyzed, regarding the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 and the subsequent amendments. And as of this date, August 7, 2007, much more is being questioned. Amongst the issues being debated is the historic use and dependence upon ocean resources. These resources; salmon, pollock, halibut, sable fish, crab and many species of rock and flat fish are being divided up between foreign multi-national corporations and their counterparts in the United States. No recognition of any rights, other than a small amount of resources to Community Development Quota (CDQ) Organizations in villages of the Bering Sea, is being considered. These organizations are not for profit companies primarily forced to use any income on "fishery related" activities. Some organizations are creatively incorporating for-profits to continue building empires with very little given to the village needs. Yet, given the limitations of the Bering Sea/Gulf of Alaska (BSGA) ecosystem, concern for the livelihood and sustainability of subsistence resources for the villages is being ignored. Taking a few sections related to the intent of Congress during the passage of ANCSA, "…efforts to address serious health and welfare problems…" have yet to be met, especially when the foods upon which the people depend for survival is quickly vanishing as competition for the fishing industry continues to challenge the health of the BSGA ecosystems and habitat.

If we look closely at the materials written, both pro and con, on the ANCSA, we will see that much has been done to fulfill the intent of Congress and the then agreed upon settlement with Alaska Native Peoples, and that much has yet to be done. Given that Congress directed the people in Alaska’s villages to select only certain lands, lands which had very little economic value since most of the lands that had natural resources had already been selected or owned by someone else, and lands based upon "cultural and traditional values." For most of the villages located on the BSGA, other than a few who had timber rights due to their selections, land was of very little value. As my friend and noted anthropologist Dr. Rick Knecht said: ",,,land for your people was only a place to build a home and sleep. The rest of the time, your people spent out on the ocean, hunting and gathering." And so, land, although to many very important, for our people and in the region of Alaska we chose to live, it had very little or no cultural, social or economic value.

Pub. L. 100-241, Sec. 2, Feb. 3, 1988, 101 Stat. 1788, provided that: ”The Congress finds and declares that

”(1) the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (this chapter) was enacted in 1971 to achieve a fair and just settlement of all aboriginal land and hunting and fishing claims by Natives and Native groups of Alaska with maximum participation by Natives in decisions affecting their rights and property; (emph: added).

”(2) the settlement enabled Natives to participate in the subsequent expansion of Alaska’s economy, encouraged efforts to address serious health and welfare problems in Native villages, and sparked a resurgence of interest in the cultural heritage of the Native peoples of Alaska;


The land conveyed under ANCSA was 44 million acres, which was a little more than 10 percent of the entire state. It sounds like a tremendous amount of land, especially when compared to treaties the United States made earlier with American Indians. When viewed as what was granted to the people who had a valid claim to the entire state, however, the settlement seems relatively small.

Of the 44 million acres, 22 million acres of surface estate went to village corporations on a formula based on population – not per capita. This land was generally located around the village itself and consisted of prime subsistence areas. (emph. added).

A final note: The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act is a very complex document that has inspired people over the last three decades to write thousands of pages about it. The act has been praised, and it has been roundly criticized. But what’s really important to keep in mind when discussing ANCSA is that it is a document that was developed for a group of human beings who had a very real claim to their ancestral home in Alaska. Their connection to the land is a spiritual one that transcends complex regulatory schemes. And yet for many, their tie to the land today is a law passed by Congress on December 18, 1971.

By: Alexandra J. McClanahan, CIRI Historian

As one can see readily, and as some have touted the value of land, for many Alaska’s first peoples, land is and was important. However, because of the restrictions placed upon what lands were available for selections under the ANCSA, the final result of the landmark legislation handed down by the US Congress may have created more problems than it was supposed to solve for Alaska’s first peoples. After all, the reason for the ANCSA was so the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline could be built. So in the end, Congress passed the ANCSA for the oil industry! And now I am afraid, the same is being done for the multinational, huge multibillion dollar fishing industry with nary a concern for the coastal peoples of Alaska, with our fishery resources. 


As the global economy and the resources which are dependent to keep the economy thriving dwindle; and as the competition for these resources reach their "peak," the same is going to be said about the oceans. However, in the case of Alaska’s first peoples, it is true for the coastal peoples, the ocean was, has and always been the source of life! It is from the ocean that the cultures grew, families survived and our foods came. In Native American folklore, and traditional understandings, the ocean is the bloodline of Mother Earth. Without the oceans, Mother Earth cannot survive, will not survive. This is why there is the need to establish marine cultural heritage zones in order that the ocean can be protected and the resources coastal peoples depend are cared for. I am not sure, but when I read in the first paragraph above, "…fishing claims by Natives and Native groups of Alaska…" may only be referring to salmon and not the other species of fish coastal peoples depend upon.

From all the information we are able to put together about the management of BSGA commercial fisheries by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC), the subsequent closures of three of the four pollock fishery areas of Shelikof Strait, Bogoslov and Aleutian Islands; massive millions of metric tons of bycatch, a good argument can be made concerning the "wanton waste" issues, which is against all laws, man-made and otherwise; and total mismanagement of both the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea, we cannot wait any longer for some future date to make our argument for protections of our foods. We cannot rest on possible scientific corrections and solutions to ensure our continued survival. We must not become complacent into thinking that solutions for our challenges can come from somewhere, someone; because to repeat history that has taken away our sovereignty, is fatal to our people. We must realize that land, without water, is dead. We must make the argument that most, if not all, of the waters in the Gulf of Alaska/Bering Sea must be a marine cultural heritage zone. Ecosystems are interconnected, interrelated. Without this part, another part of the ecosystem will fail. If we are to survive, we must demand that it is truly the oceans that are the bloodline of our Mother Earth. She must survive.




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