Lands in Thomas Bay on the mainland near Petersburg are among the proposed selections for a new urban Native corporation. (Photo courtesy of Cindi Lagoudakis)

Petersburg’s borough assembly Wednesday heard strong support and some opposition to legislation that would grant land in Southeast Alaska to five new urban Native corporations. The bill would change the 50 year old Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act for shareholders of those new corporations in Petersburg, Wrangell, Haines, Tenakee and Ketchikan.

The work session in person and by videoconference had over 40 people attending, including staff for Alaska’s Congressional delegation. Senator Lisa Murkowski’s deputy legislative director Annie Hoefler said Alaska’s senators plan to reintroduce the bill soon. Congressman Don Young has already in the House.

“The reason we are holding these meetings this week is because Senator Murkowski did introduce legislation last fall,” Hoefler told the assembly. “There was a hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and there was a lot of feedback that was given that the communities had not had enough input. And so we redoubled our efforts and wanted to get ahead of that this time.”

The House version has not yet had a hearing. The work session was called as the Petersburg assembly decides whether or not to take a position on the bill. It would grant just over 23,000 acres each to new urban corporations in the five communities. Recent versions of the legislation include maps with proposed selections from the Tongass National Forest, and the bill has prompted some opposition.

The 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, known as ANCSA, granted corporation status and land to shareholders throughout the state but not to Natives in the five Southeast towns.

Petersburg resident Becky Knight quoted the words of Senator Lisa Murkowski and Congressman Don Young following passage of the 2014 Sealaska Lands Bill. That completed the land conveyance to the regional corporation under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

“’Four decades after the passage of ANCSA it is well past time for Sealaska to receive their full land entitlement, which will enable the federal government to complete its statutory obligation under ANCSA to the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people of Southeast Alaska.’” Knight read. “These statements are in direct contradiction to their current effort to corporatize and further colonize the Tongass,” she said. “Words do matter and in this case clearly Senator Murkowski and Representative Young assured the American people that Alaska Native claims were final.”

Others questioned the loss of deer and fish habitat if new urban corporations decided to log or otherwise develop those lands. However other speakers were overwhelmingly in favor of passing the legislation and righting a wrong that they said stretches well beyond 50 years. Joleen Wheeland of Juneau took issue with those who are concerned with how the land may be used by a new corporation.

“That’s a concern for me because this is a public hearing that we’re attending right now and believe me when the villages of Kake and Angoon were bombed there were no public hearings,” Wheeland said. “When the Native village on Douglas Island was burned with everyone’s possessions in it, there were no public hearings. So it really aggravates me to hear people, and I don’t care what jobs you had what degrees you had, this land is for Native people.”

The potential shareholders in the five communities have tried before with legislation and have called themselves the “Landless Natives” for years. The group is now called Alaska Natives Without Land. The effort is supported by the regional corporation Sealaska, which would receive subsurface or mineral rights to the parcels. The group has provided answers to a long list of questions already posed by the Petersburg assembly.

Nicole Hallingstad is on the Sealaska board and is granddaughter of the later Native civil rights leader Amy Hallingstad of Petersburg.

“So this legislation addresses the fact there are five communities that were left out,” Hallingstad said. “It’s not the same as Sealaska’s final entitlement. And Congress has already recognized that there are lands in Alaska that have been overlooked in allocation.”

Alaska Native Sisterhood camp 16 president Barbara Erickson had her own questions for the Petersburg borough. She attended the Zoom call with a photo of Sandy Beach Park in her background.

“My question is why is this building behind in this picture on Sandy Beach now a Parks and Rec property? “Erickson asked. “We have the dating on that fish trap. That was our fishing area. How did Petersburg borough get hold of this land? And also our totem poles were put on the Forest Service land because it is federal and we did not have our own land to put them on. Why is that?

Multiple people spoke in favor of the legislation, from Petersburg and elsewhere, some of them would be shareholders of a new urban corporation.

“I keep asking myself why should we have to make those compromises,” said Christina Sakamoto of Petersburg. “It’s our land! Our ancestors land! It’s our right. I want to see my grandchildren be able to hunt, harvest and live on the lands of their ancestors. I want to see this bill to finally become a reality. This is long overdue. Our mothers, fathers, grandparents fought for this.”

Others said new urban corporations would bolster the economies of the five communities.

Petersburg’s assembly continued to raise questions and share concerns they’ve heard. Mayor Mark Jensen echoed concerns about public access on corporation land, despite language in the bill that provides for that access with some exceptions.

“This is the language that I have a hard time supporting, ‘any reasonable restrictions that may be imposed by the urban corporation on the public use of the land.’” Jensen said. “I’ve seen it in, on other corporation owned land, where there’s no trespassing signs and I would hope if this legislation goes through that that is not the case.”

The latest version of the bill has left out U.S. Forest Service recreation cabins from the proposed selections.

The assembly took no action on an official position on the bill at their June 7 meeting but may take that up at a later date.