At first glance, Metlakatla looks like many other villages in Southeast Alaska: coastline cut by glaciers, dense temperate rainforests, dramatic mountains as a backdrop. But the locals know it best – there is something distinctly different about the place. Spend enough time there and you will notice it too. The Indian community of Metlakatla is the only Federal Reserve in Alaska and is not part of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
“It’s not just a feeling or a perception. ANSAA is a fundamentally different system from a reservation system, ”said Gavin Hudson, Tsimshian, who is Metlakatla’s field representative in the Indian Affairs Office and who was previously part of the Metlakatla Tribal Council. “And these differences are reflected in the way a community sees itself.”
Fifty years ago, the community of 1,400 inhabitants was caught in the sights of a monumental decision: should they retain their reserve status or should they join other natives of Alaska as part of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act?
If they had chosen to participate in the ANCSA system, they would have received significant remuneration and the means to create a village corporation and a regional corporation. They would also have obtained a significant part of the surrounding area. However, the way they could have interacted with these lands would have changed – their reserve status would have been revoked and they would have had to go through the corporations to manage the lands, not their own tribal government.
In some ways, the island city was already different from many other native Alaskan communities, which also made their land claim options unique. Metlakatla was born in 1887, when Anglican missionary William Duncan led a group of 826 Tsimshians from British Columbia to found a new colony in Alaska. Congress officially created it as the Metlakatla Indian community, Annette Islands reserve in 1891.
There were only a handful of other federal reserves in the state before ANSAA. As described by the Alaska Native Federation, there was an eclectic mix of native groups at the time, including tribal organizations, regional nonprofits, individual village tribes, native groups. urban and tribes that had federal reserves, such as Metlakatla. Over 200 village tribes did not have federally recognized reserves and therefore had no relief option beyond ANCSA. If the indigenous claims had not been dealt with, they would probably have lost all of their land. In contrast, tribes with federal reserves could still have retained their reserve lands if they had not joined ANSCA. In the end, all of the other communities with a reservation except Metlakatla chose the ANCSA terms.
It was not an easy decision for the tribe to make, Hudson said. Her father recalled a time of intense debate, which even divided some families who could not get along. Ultimately, it was a community-wide vote, which brought about the momentum today: Alaska’s only reservation.
“Our council at the time refused to participate in [ANCSA] because they wanted to retain their sovereignty and make their own decisions about what to do with the reserve lands and waters – and that was priceless, ”he said.
The pressure to choose ANCSA would have been intense, according to Charles Wilkinson, professor of law emeritus at the University of Colorado. Wilkinson specializes in public land law and federal Indian politics, and has conducted extensive research on the history of the western United States. From the perspective of its historian, Metlakatla’s decision stands out.
“The truth is there was huge pressure to end. It was a huge decision, and it was difficult. You really had to want it,” Wilkinson said.
Metlakatla was not the only tribe to face these options.
About 20 years earlier, the Klamath tribe of Oregon also had a choice to end their reserve status. Termination would remove their federal services and land ownership, in exchange for monetary payment. As in Metlakatla, the debate in the Klamath community was very controversial. Some wanted to accept the deal, others believed they should retain their tribal sovereignty. Outside forces only escalated the pressure – the federal government and the forest industry put heavy pressure on Klamath to agree to the terms.
The motivations behind the lobbying were clear. At the time, Klamath managed one of Oregon’s largest ponderosa pine forests and was one of the wealthiest tribes in the country. The logging industry wanted to access these lands, but could not do so as long as Klamath’s sovereign status remained.
“It was resource lands that characterized most of the suppressed tribes,” Wilkinson said. In Metlakatla’s case, it was the oil industry that sought a quick settlement. For Klamath, it is the loggers who move the deal forward. Different resources, but the same idea.
In 1954, the Klamath Termination Act formally ended tribal surveillance of the area after a majority of the community accepted the new arrangement. Years later, the tribe’s sovereign status was restored, but its original land base was never restored.
Both Metlakatla and Klamath were part of a larger trend towards tribal termination common at this time, although in some cases it was only years later that the termination aspect of a policy became clear.
“I don’t think Metlakatla thought it was a dismissal at the time, but I think they recognized that they had special hunting and fishing rights and thought it was really important to get that out of the way, ”Wilkinson said.
Even with this recognition, some aspects of the outcome would still have been left to chance. Tribal sovereignty, in the legal sense, was different 50 years ago. The Office of Indian Affairs was often the primary governing power, rather than a tribe’s own government. There were also less legal protections for hunting and fishing rights.
“There was also nothing to make you think sovereignty was a very good option,” Wilkinson said.
This dynamic led many Alaska Natives to distrust an unproductive fiduciary relationship with the federal government. From this perspective, ANSAA represented an opportunity for self-determination and greater autonomy over their countries of origin. Ideally, this definition of land would include fishing and hunting rights.
“When they said land, they meant more than what US law means when it says land. In American law, if you have land, you have certain things, but there are many other rights that you do not have, ”he said.
The ambiguous legal future of land, sovereignty and subsistence rights would have made any termination decisions at the time more murky. Tribal sovereignty and land rights have evolved since the 1970s, and the number of lawyers specializing in this area has increased dramatically. But at the time, it would have been a good bet that their idea of the future would come true.
According to Hudson, the risk has paid off.
“I would be confident to say that most of us at Metlakatla still think it was the right decision to keep the reservation,” he said.
Today, the island reserve has a thriving fishing and tourism industry, with several cultural programs and Tsimshian museums open to visitors and locals.
Like other villages in the state, they still face a set of rural barriers unique to Alaska. Climate change has strained the local economy, salmon runs have been lower, and high food, energy and internet costs can weigh on households.
Where they differ from other Native Alaskan villages is in management. The Indian community of Metlakatla has authority over its fisheries, forests and legal system, while most other communities in Alaska must also coordinate with the state government.
The configuration makes Metlakatla similar to neighboring Lower 48 tribes. In fact, their community is part of the Northwest Department of the Bureau of Indian Affairs rather than the Department of Alaska, like the rest of the state’s native communities.
“In general, I think we have more in common with the tribes of the Northwestern region in terms of governance, governance, mineral and forest management, fisheries and hatcheries,” said Hudson.
It also created a slight disconnect between Metlakatla and other Native Alaskan communities. While many villages in Alaska face the same challenges of climate change and rural development, the mechanisms they can use and the institutions they must go through are different. These contrasts are reflected in political considerations. When Hudson spends time with Alaskan natives from other regions at the Alaska Native Federation each year, he is regularly surprised at how little he relates to conversations about community plans and dynamics. current.
Despite the contrasts, Hudson is always happy to hear about the successes of regional corporations. It also recognizes that there are some beneficial aspects of ANCSA, such as additional economic development opportunities or additional funds for heritage centers and cultural initiatives. However, it is like comparing apples to oranges – the two systems are so independent in his mind that it is difficult for him to imagine what life would be like in Metlakatla if they had chosen ANCSA instead.
“Having a reservation… it goes to the very heart of who we are,” he said.
Travel elsewhere in Alaska, and you might hear the reverse of that claim, with reservations seeming like an alien concept to those who grew up as part of ANSAA.
Governance distinctions aside, Hudson believes there are more parallels between Alaskan Native communities than there are differences. He hopes that in the years to come, the Southeast region and Alaska’s native people statewide will find ways to cooperate more outside of their existing institutions.
“Even if there are undeniable differences. We still have friends and relatives all over Alaska, ”he said. “We are still native to Alaska. And we still stand in solidarity with our Indigenous brothers and sisters across the state. “
This story is part of a reporting collaboration between Alaska Public Media, Indian Country Today and Anchorage Daily News on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Funding for the ANCSA project was provided by the Alaska Center of Excellence for Journalism. Read more stories from the series.