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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Native Corporations

Air Date: Week of

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In the 1960s, to clear the way for the Trans-Alaskan Oil Pipeline, Congress gave Native Alaskans control of 10 percent of the state's land. Tribal members were required to form for-profit corporations and produce income by logging, mining and drilling. The dividends were welcome, but many tribal members say the corporations eroded their relationship to the land, and to each other. Guy Hand reports from Hoonah, Alaska.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. For decades, Alaskan natives struggled with the U.S. government over their aboriginal claims to Alaskan land. Then, in the 1960s, oil was discovered on the north slope. The route of their proposed pipeline to take the oil south ran through some tribal villages, so Congress stepped in with the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. The Act gave Alaskan natives nearly $1 billion and about 10% of the state's land. In exchange, tribes gave up claims to other property throughout Alaska, including the pipeline right-of-way. Many said the legislation would reconnect Native Alaskans to their land. But, as Guy Hand reports, some say just the opposite has happened.


HAND: Floyd Peterson runs a charter fishing business in Hoonah, a native village that looks across the water at what he calls "ten miles of disrespect."

PETERSON: As we leave the harbor you'll be able to see across Port Frederick and the ten-mile stretch of clear cut.

HAND: Such sights are common in southeast Alaska, where native people have turned to logging their own land.

PETERSON: You can see the logging roads, the scrap limbs and trees dumped over the sides of the logging roads.

HAND: All this logging is due to an unusual stipulation written into the Alaskan Native Claims Settlement Act. It required that natives form for-profit corporations. Those corporations actually own the lands the federal government promised native peoples. Tribal members became not landowners but shareholders. And, to hold onto their assets, their land, these new native corporations had to do what all corporations do: produce income, show profit, and grow. In the timber rich panhandle of Alaska where the Tlingit people live, that meant logging, and lots of it.

PETERSON: I'm afraid that some of my native relatives have picked up on the white man's way of doing business. It's getting to be a joke here. It's almost over with. The loggers can tell you, they're going to be out of work pretty soon, because the timber's gone. It isn't on account of the environmentalists, it's because the timber's about gone, exported to Japan. We had enough timber here to last forever, if it was managed right.

HAND: Floyd faces the realities of native logging every time he leaves Hoonah harbor.

PETERSON: This is disgraceful. It makes me sick. And I'm in the charter business. All my clients all have the same comments, "Who done this? Why?"

HAND: It's never easy for Floyd to tell him it was his own people. Floyd motors toward a freighter that native stevedores are loading with old growth, destined for Japan. Though there are restrictions on exporting unrefined wood cut on federal land, there are no such restrictions on native land. The ship is top-heavy with timber.

PETERSON: I don't know how many board feet are on there, but I'd estimate 5 million board feet of raw timber on there, and sometimes there's two of them in there at a time, loading: one anchored out and one tied up to the moorings here.

HAND: Native land has been logged faster, and with fewer restraints, than Alaska's federal land. Tim Bristol is executive director of the Alaska Coalition, a conservation organization.

BRISTOL: The size of the clear cuts is far larger than you find on national forest lands. They're contiguous. The roads are built to a lower standard, they have smaller buffers along salmon streams. It's all about making money and distributing dividends to shareholders as quickly as possible.


HAND: Keith Walker disagrees.

WALKER: There's been some real battles and some real criticisms of native corporations, but, on the whole, I think they've done pretty darn well.

HAND: Keith is driving one of the 250 miles of logging roads that the company he owns, White Stone Logging, has built near Hoonah. He says those roads are in fine shape, and that there are plenty of trees left in the forest. He thinks native corporations are good for native Alaska.

WALKER: There's been a lot of talent in the native communities that have been fertilized by the money that has come from their timber operations. We've got a Stanford graduate, an MIT graduate, and they're now getting on into the management of the corporations, they're getting onto the board of directors.

HAND: Keith is one of hundreds of skilled non-natives who've moved to places like Hoonah from the lower 48, to work for native corporations. Locals seldom had the logging experience. He's been cutting timber on native land since the corporations were formed.

WALKER: To me, the trees is a big carrot. You grow them, you thin them, you use them. There's plenty of places where trees are protected, they're in national parks and forests and wilderness areas and what have you. But the trees that are in native corporation land are in working forests, and they're supposed to be a crop, and they're supposed to generate revenue.

HAND: Keith drives into a sorting yard where raw logs are stacked and waiting to be loaded on an Asian bound freighter. Keith has no problem exporting American old growth to the Orient.

WALKER: We had an old guy out here one time, old Japanese guy, and he was come up to this big spruce log we had, and he was rubbing his hand up and down the front of it, you know? And he was telling me, he says, It's just like velvet. When you get people like that, it's really a pleasure to deal with them, because they just appreciate really fine wood.

HAND: Keith's perpetual poker face softens to a smile.

WALKER: And that's the thing. Up here in Alaska, you've got some of the finest wood in the world. You can look at the ends of these logs, any log here--look at that, I'll just pull up the one here. Okay. Can you see the rings in that log there?

HAND: Not very well.

WALKER: That's because it's probably about 400 years old and it's just fine, fine grain. When you cut it up the wood is strong, it's durable, and when you cut the right grain, it's just beautiful.

HAND: But critics say this controversy isn't just about timber. It's also about native communities and what the Alaskan Native Claim Settlement Act did to them. Tlingit grandmother, Wanda Culp.

CULP: With the corporation becoming involved in speaking on the villages' behalf, they have effectively taken our tongues away.

HAND: Traditional tribal leaders were often pushed aside. Management positions were filled with corporate-savvy non-natives and tribal members eager to embrace this new way of life. Those unwilling to follow along found themselves isolated in their own communities.

CULP: It's impacted every facet of village life. Now, it's so different. We don't look at each other with the Tlingit respect that our grandparents had for each other. We don't look at each other and say, "Oh, there is my Raven relative." We don't do that. We look at each other with suspicion.

HAND: The trees began to fall before most natives knew what was happening or why. Wanda remembers taking a drive, nearly two decades ago, to a favorite mountaintop near the village of Hoonah.

CULP: And it's a very beautiful site. You could get up there and you could look all across Icy Straits, to Excursion Inlet. So, when the logging began and I had driven with some friends of mine up to the top and ran into an elder grandmother who's the same clan as I am, which is Teikweidee, Brown Bear clan. And her hand was clutched to her heart and there was tears brimming over her eyes.

HAND: The elder was stunned by the sight of a forest full of holes. So was Wanda.

CULP: And it began by hurting us, emotionally. Because, like all of the indigenous peoples of the world, we are tied to the land and the earth and the water and the air. So to see something like that coming in and happening right above our heads was a major shock.

HAND: Sealaska Corporation, based here in Juneau, is the native corporation cutting the timber around Hoonah. It's well-appointed headquarters seem a universe away from village life.


HAND: But even in these modern corporate surroundings, Ross Soboleff greets me in the traditional native way.

SOBOLEFF: When we introduce ourselves, we talk about our membership in our tribe, and so my Tlingit name is Eech Te' and my Heida name is Staast. And I'm the assistant to the president of Sealaska Corporation. I'm also the vice president in corporate communications.

HAND: Ross has been with Sealaska for eighteen years.

SOBOLEFF: It's something that I've worked in most of my life, and I just play the hand that I'm dealt, and we try to make the best of the opportunities that it created for our native people.

HAND: Ross says that Sealaska Corporation is the largest private employer in the region. It offers jobs and dividend checks to poor communities that have had to live with too little for too long.

SOBOLEFF: Suddenly, native people were not on the periphery of the economy anymore, which is where we have been for one to two hundred years. But we, in fact, moved into being participants in the economy.

HAND: According to Ross, with political influence and a much-needed infusion of cash, the native community is again taking pride in its own history.


HAND: Native corporations have set up foundations that sponsor cultural studies and tribal gatherings like this one, called "Celebration," a popular biennial event put on by Sealaska Corporation.

TRIBAL LEADER: The container of wisdom have been opened. Our grandparents are among us right now. Our ancestors are here.

HAND: Ross says that when he was a kid, before ANSCA, these kinds of cultural opportunities just weren't there.

SOBOLEFF: When you go around this region now, you'll see totems, you'll hear native people on ferry boats talking about native culture, and that resurgence, that interest in native culture, is due in large part to native corporations. It's likely if you saw a totem pole on your trip here, it's very likely, if it's contemporary, that we contributed the log to the artists to make that.


LANKARD: We don't have to strip mine, or oil drill, or sell our mother in order to create monies to be able to restore a culture.

HAND: Dune Lankard, of the Eyak tribe, is rowing a raft down Alaska's Copper River.

LANKARD: My Eyak name is Jamachakih, which means the little bird that screams really loud and won't shut up, and I have no intention of shutting up.

HAND: Dune is a vocal opponent of the native corporations.

LANKARD: The way that the whole Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was designed, the way that it was set up, the way that it was implemented, was to basically take people away from the land and their relationship, erase their relationship with the land.

HAND: Dune ties the future of native Alaskans not to corporate power, but to the preservation of wild places.

LANKARD: Yeah, you can spend a lot of time in these cultural centers learning a lot of things and having some really good lectures on who you used to be. But the thing is, is you got to remember who you are today, and get out here and live in these places and be a part of it. Because this is what the children need. The only way you're going to pass on your true self and your culture is to be able to teach these young Indian kids what it's really like to be out in the wild. And that is how you're going to have culture restoration and a connection to the land.


HAND: What strikes me, as I spend time in native villages like Hoonah, is the lack of outward anger. Loggers and critics wave at each other as they pass on local roads. They seem to understand that the villains, if there are any, aren't one another. This is a conflict much bigger than people. It's a clash as vast as world views, a clash between cultures. A clash that, at least in the clearcuts near Hoonah, is already over. For Living on Earth, I'm Guy Hand, in Hoonah, Alaska.



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