Alaska Statehood and build up to Alaska Native Land Claims

Alaska went from being a District (1867 – 1912), to a Territory (1912 – 1959), to becoming a State in 1959. Alaska Statehood brought very significant changes to governance and land ownership patterns in Alaska. 

With Statehood, city councils were formed in many Native communities, shifting power away from the village councils which had served as the local governments in rural Alaska. Federal commissioners and marshals were replaced with state lay judges or magistrates who were appointed by the Alaska Court System. In the villages where magistrates were stationed, the role of the village councils in dispute resolution was greatly reduced. The single judge system was much more formal, and lacked the consensus approach taken by the village councils. Sadie Brower Neakok from Point Barrow was one of the more successful magistrates, who worked hard to make the magistrate system work for her people. Her story is well told in Sadie Brower Neakok: An Inupiaq Woman published by the University of Washington Press. 

The Alaska Statehood Act authorized the new State to select over 100 million acres of land from the “vacant, unappropriated, unreserved” public land in Alaska, but it also included provisions recognizing property and right to title of land and resources “which may be held by any Indians, Eskimos, or Aleuts.” The State began its land selections, often selecting some of the most prime land around villages and on hunting and fishing areas. About this time two projects with enormous impact on Alaska lands were proposed: The construction of the Rampart dam on the Yukon River that would have flooded many villages and created a lake the size of Lake Erie, and Project Chariot which was a plan to detonate 5 atomic bombs at Point Hope to create an artificial boat harbor. 

Alaska Native people were very alarmed by these events as their aboriginal land claims were not yet settled. They protested and organized to fight for their land claims, filing administrative protests to state land transfers, petitions to establish reservations, and lawsuits. In 1966 the Alaska Federation of Natives was formed to achieve the passage of a fair settlement. That same year, Secretary of Interior Stewart Udall imposed a freeze on issuing patents or federal approval of any state land selections on all lands in Alaska until Native land claims were resolved. The discovery of North America’s largest oil field at Prudhoe Bay in 1967 became the ramrod for settling the Alaska Native land claims in order to build the trans-Alaska pipeline. The land claims needed to be settled and the land freeze lifted before the oil could flow.