For much of the year the jet stream brings one rain system after another to Southeast Alaska, feeding the largest temperate rainforest in the world, the Tongass, ancestral home of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian Nations. Sitka Spruce trees shoot up 300 feet like skyscrapers above a diverse ecosystem of plant and animal life. For thousands of years the Native people lived in harmony with the forest, honoring and respecting it.
Then one day the Natives began mowing it down. During the 1980s the Natives clear-cut thousands of acres of old-growth rainforest in the Tongass, leaving behind only a hideous desert of stumps.
This was the result of an experiment in social engineering called the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act or ANCSA. Now Alaska Natives in five communities who were left out of the original 1971 settlement are petitioning Congress to include them. And at least one Tlingit elder is speaking out against it.
“I oppose S.872 as it is written. Our true ?ingit people want culture and language. We oppose corporations. They are profit-making corporations and have nothing to do with traditional cultural values.”
John Martin Sr. (Keihe?ena?k’w) is a Tlingit elder from Tenakee, one of the five “landless” communities included in S.872, the Unrecognized Southeast Alaska Native Communities Recognition and Compensation Act. If passed, the bill would establish five Native corporations for the communities of Haines, Ketchikan, Petersburg, Tenakee and Wrangell, all of which, for unclear reasons, were originally left out of ANCSA. Each of the Native corporations created by the Landless Bill would receive 23,040 acres of commercial timberland to own and manage.
But John Martin feels corporations damage both Native culture and land. Martin, Clan Leader of the T’akdeintaan Raven/Sockeye House, is one of the last remaining fluent speakers of traditional high-level Tlingit. Last fall he wrote to members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee after they began holding hearings about the Landless Bill.
“The future of our traditional culture depends on safeguarding the integrity of the indigenous habitat that remain. This Senate bill, as it is written, will convey indigenous habitat to a short-term, profit-driven corporation, the antithesis of traditional culture.”
Signed into law by Richard Nixon in 1971, ANCSA awarded 44 million acres of land and nearly a billion dollars to Alaska Natives. But the money and land were given to newly formed Native corporations. Tribal members got shares in these for-profit companies. The idea was for the Native corporations to regularly pay dividends to Native shareholders, increasing the economic well-being of the people.
The disadvantages of the corporate system soon became evident as the pressure to pay dividends forced Native executives to clear-cut much of the timberland they’d been given. During the 1980s, nearly 100,000 acres of old-growth rainforest were clear-cut. Many of the worst hit areas were close to the town of Hoonah, near where John Martin grew up.
“Our clans occupied and utilized all of the traditional lands in the Tenakee, Hoonah and Angoon area until we were forced to move to Hoonah to enable the children to attend the Hoonah Territorial School. My parents had a place to live and a beautiful garden that provided our family with fresh vegetables for the dinner table. We had access to all species of fish in the waters of Tenakee Inlet and nearby.”
But traditional subsistence activities like these were not the goal of ANCSA. Profit and dividends through resource extraction were. Martin saw this firsthand. Although the clear-cut areas were hidden from the cruise ships to keep from affecting tourism, the Natives knew they were there.
This hidden logging damage paralleled hidden cultural damage. In a 2014 article called “Alaska Native Corporations and the Twice Marginalized Citizen” (Critique: Journal of Socialist Theory, Volume 42, Issue 2), author Zachary Hozid points out how the corporate system encourages class separation among Native people.
“It is my argument here that these organizations are run by, and primarily produce benefits for, upper and middle class Alaskan Natives, and as such exacerbate the marginalization experienced by Alaskan Natives in lower socioeconomic classes. Members of the elite class of Natives hold the top positions in these organizations; they also use these organizations, intentionally or not, to further promote their own ideologies and goals.”
In his book, Against Culture: Development, Politics, and Religion in Indian Alaska (University of Nebraska Press, 2001), anthropologist Kirk Dombrowski suggests the increased class separations created by ANCSA’s corporate system drove poorer Natives away from their culture and into Pentecostal church membership.
“…the roots of Pentecostalism’s appeal grow in the increasing internal differentiation that has accompanied the most recent wave of colonial expansion in the region—ANCSA. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 has laid the foundation for new forms of local economic and political stratification in every village.”
In other words, in the corporate system created by ANCSA, Natives who are well-educated and more affluent benefit the most, while poorer, less-advantaged Natives suffer not only from marginalization due to their race, but also marginalization within their own people, driving many away from a beautiful culture that could benefit them.
The corporate system is based on profit only and worsens class differences between higher and lower income groups. The ancient, traditional clan system, however, although not perfect, is based on community-building. One system separates, the other unites.
John Martin would like the Landless Bill to be rewritten so the land received would be used for a cultural center in Tenakee, but this is unlikely. The Landless Bill has been in the works since the 1980s and will most likely pass as written. Knowing this, Martin’s impassioned plea to the Senate seems especially poignant.
“Tenakee is the last Tlingit village in Southeast Alaska that is not corrupted by corporations. Please help us keep it that way! Don’t let the corporation steal our ?ingit land!”