Ahtna Land Claims And Subsistence

Published April 2017

‘We became a different people’

Editor’s Note: This is the last in a series of historical sketches by Bill Simeone. You can contact Bill at wesimeone2@gmail.com.

By Bill Simeone

In the 1940s, the forced removal of Ahtna families at Dry Creek and the destruction of Gulkana village showed the Ahtna they had become strangers in their own land. In the years following World War II, the Ahtna organized and became politically active, joining the Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB) in 1954, forming Ahtna T’aene Nene’ in 1965 and, in 1972, both the Copper River Native Association (CRNA) and Ahtna, Inc.

Alaska Native land claims had simmered since long before statehood, but the Statehood Act of 1959 set in motion a process that would convey millions of acres to state ownership. For many Alaska Natives, this was an ominous threat that only increased their determination for a land settlement. Roy Ewan described the situation:

“All up and down the highway we saw non-Natives moving in, claiming 160-acre homesteads and taking all the best land. There were some who were good and conscientious and tried to respect the places where Natives picked berries and had campsites. Others just moved right in and took over, even though camp sites were clear evidence of past use.”

First land claim filed

John Billum Sr. filed the first Ahtna land claim with the Indian Claims Commission in 1951, but his claim was never acted upon. Ahtna T’Aene Nene was formed to implement an Ahtna claim, and discussions began about the possible boundaries using Billum’s earlier filing as a starting point.

In 1966, Walter Charley, Oscar Craig, Jack Larson, John Billum Jr., Roy Ewan, Harding Ewan and Markle Ewan attended the first meeting of the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN). At the meeting, AFN resolved to ask the Secretary of the Interior to impose a land freeze to stop state land selections until Native claims were resolved. The Secretary of the Interior imposed a land freeze at the end of the year halting state land selections and development of an oil pipeline that would carry North Slope crude oil across Ahtna territory to Valdez. The land freeze pushed Congress, the president, and the state to settle, and the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) was signed in December 1971.

Under ANCSA, the Ahtna were entitled to land and monetary compensation. These benefits accrued through business corporations formed along the boundaries of 12 regional Native associations listed in the settlement. CRNA was one of those 12 associations. The CRNA board became the interim board of Ahtna, Incorporated, which was formed in June 1972 with Robert Marshall as president.

ANCSA a two-edged sword

Looking back on ANCSA, Ahtna Elders have made various observations. Roy Ewan said ANCSA was not a land giveaway: “We base our claims on aboriginal right, aboriginal use of the land. Our claims are just like anybody who would put in a claim for insurance policy or something like that. I want that to be clear because this was not a gift from Congress or anything.”

Millie Buck found it hard to understand how ANCSA was a settlement for land the Ahtna had always thought was theirs and she said the transition from koht’aene to shareholders was difficult. “Really, it’s really hard. We’re not corporation people. And now we’re called ‘shareholders’ where we used to be ‘koht’aene,’ you know, ‘people.’ Now we’re ‘that’s a shareholder.’ I don’t like that word. I’d rather be called what we used to have before. I feel that ‘shareholder’ … is just cold – a cold word. ‘Koht’aene’ is much different; it means people. Somebody with real heart, you know a real person.”

Nick Jackson said ANCSA changed the people and he coined a term, “Cuc’uun tsezdlaen,” literally, “We became a different people.” He said, “We came from fish camp to wearing ties and whatever.”

Fighting for subsistence rights

Subsistence is the one outcome of ANCSA that disappoints Roy Ewan. He said, “We should have made it all part of the settlement. We were misled, I would say, by our congressional delegation and our governor at that time.”

ANCSA “extinguished” aboriginal hunting and fishing rights, but Congress directed the state and federal government to protect that right. Alaska Natives were successful in establishing a rural subsistence priority on federal lands as part of the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA). The state amended its subsistence law in 1982 to comply with ANILCA, but the Alaska State Supreme Court judged the law unconstitutional in 1990 and since 1992, the federal government has managed wildlife resources on all federal lands within
the state.

Rallying around Katie John

In 1983, Ahtna Elders Katie John and Doris Charles petitioned the Alaska Board of Fish to allow fishing at Batzulnetas, which the state had closed to fishing in 1964. When the Board refused, Katie and Doris filed suit. Eventually the state opened the fishery, but the two women said the regulations were too restrictive. In Katie’s eyes, fishing at Batzulnetas was part of the legacy she would leave

to her grandchildren. Ultimately, a federal court ruled in Katie and Doris’s favor.

The “Katie John case” became a rallying point for Alaska Native subsistence rights. Their victory forced fisheries managers to open a fishery at Batzulnetas and it pushed the federal government into assuming a more active role in the management of subsistence fisheries and expanded its jurisdiction to more than half of Alaska’s navigable waters.

Not ANCSA, ANILCA or federal management has fixed the problem of subsistence for the Ahtna. Thousands of non-Native people still flock to the Copper River Basin to hunt and fish. To protect their cultural identity, the Ahtna have filed lawsuits, participated in the public process instituted by the state and petitioned Congress. Finally, in 2016, the Ahtna Intertribal Resource Commission (AITRC) signed an agreement with the Secretary of the Interior to begin a demonstration project for cooperative management of fish and wildlife resources on federal lands in the Ahtna region. Under this agreement, AITRC can implement community harvest permits for the taking of wildlife species that the Ahtna have traditionally harvested in their own homeland.

In 1988, Pete Ewan explained why subsistence was so important.

“Well, first I say that I am going to talk about our subsistence, our Indian rights in Alaska, and in our village, and in every village in Copper River, from Chitina village to Mentasta. Our subsistence and our hunting, means it’s our lifetime use. We were raised up with what we have been doing now, hunting, we don’t start this now. Our subsistence is the main thing for us, what we have been using and we were raised up with, animals and all that stuff.”