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Village Journey THE REPORT OF THE ALASKA NATIVE REVIEW COMMISSION by Thomas R. Berger (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $16.95; 198 pp., illustrated)

February 02, 1986|Bill Miles | Miles is a former member of the Alaska House of Representatives and an 18-year resident of Alaska. and

Since Alaska became the 49th state of the union in 1949, Alaskan natives have struggled to retain control over their lands, their traditional subsistence hunting and fishing rights and a certain amount of their independence from a society dominated by non-natives. In 1983, Canadian Thomas Berger, a former British Columbia Supreme Court justice and noted advocate of native rights, was hired to tell the story of the Alaskan natives and to head the Alaska Native Review Commission. "Village Journey" was prepared after he visited 60 of the 200 Alaskan villages.

The book details what native Alaskans told Berger of their fears, their struggles and their apprehensions about laws passed by Congress, most notably the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971, and the potential loss of their land and subsistence life style.

ANCSA created Native Corporations and gave each native 100 shares of corporate stock, depending on the individual's home. In all, the act bestowed 44 million acres of land and $962.5 million in cash to the corporations with attendant prohibitions against sale of the stock through 1991. Hence, Congress mandated that the land--the epicenter of the brewing storm--would remain exclusively under native control until 1991. After 1991, the natives are free to sell the stock, thereby possibly losing control of their land through the failure of some of the debt-laden corporations, taxation and/or corporate takeover.

To avoid loss of the land, Berger makes several key recommendations including:

--The "establishment of regional tribal organizations";

--"The transfer of land by village corporations to tribal governments without regard for dissenters' rights";

--The assertion of "Native Sovereignty" by the tribal governments;

--The description of the subject lands as "Indian Country or, as the case may be, Eskimo Country or Aleut Country";

--"Exclusive jurisdiction over fish and wildlife on Native lands";

--"On federal and state lands (90% of Alaska's land area), Native governments in partnership with state and federal governments should exercise jurisdiction on all hunting, trapping and gathering lands used by tribal members."

In short, Berger argues that the natives are likely to lose their land unless tribal governments are formed to receive the land from the corporations, many of which have financial problems. Once in the hands of the tribal governments, natives can exercise sovereignty granted under federal law, thereby always retaining the land. With the land in native hands in perpetuity, the subsistence life style would be assured, and the native corporations could go about their business as usual.

Berger has told the story of the Alaska village native well, creating a compilation of graphic quotations from the witnesses that portray their fears. In a most readable fashion, he has laced the report with historical perspectives dealing with similar situations of aboriginal peoples around the world. He has drawn deeply from his legal background as a highly regarded Canadian jurist and as a native rights advocate . . . merging that background with a thorough research job and a concise journalistic style to put into print exactly what the legislation "has meant to the villagers themselves." He has shown through history lessons and the words of today's Alaskan natives that they see the retention and the control of their land as the single most important aspect of their future as they foresee that future.

However, the recommendations in "Village Journey" may be raising false hopes for the natives. To suggest, for example, that a single tribal government can exert exclusive control over all the fish and game passing through its area without regard to its neighbors' wishes, or state and federal government conservation officials, is to suggest that legislators and bureaucrats abdicate their responsibilities to sound wildlife-management principles.

Additionally, "Village Journey" fails to credit adequately existing native leaders for the strides they have made in the past decade. Berger erroneously slights the native leadership when he says: "These Native villagers, although they have no visible means of influencing the powerful, are nevertheless insisting on their sovereign rights." In fact, the native lobby in Washington and the native legislators in Juneau (Alaska's capital city) are among the most capable in both locations.

"Village Journey" should be read by those interested in the rights of aboriginal peoples . . . but it should be read as only one volume in a series of reports on a difficult issue. There are still 400,000 other Alaskans to be heard from, as well as the Congress.

To further complicate the problems, the Alaska Supreme Court struck down in February of last year subsistence hunting and fishing regulations, and no new program was put into statute. Subsequently, the U.S. Department of the Interior notified Alaska Gov. Bill Sheffield recently (just days after a preliminary copy of "Village Journey" was released) that the "state subsistence program is no longer in compliance" with federal law. If compliance with federal law is not reached by June 1, the federal government will take over management of fish and game resources on federal lands.

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