Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Ethnicity: Inuit, Tlingit, Haida, Alaska Athabaskan, Aleut, other tribal groupings
First language/s: English, Yupik, Inupiaq, Gwich’in, Aleut, Alutiiq, other local dialects
Religion/s: Christianity, Indigenous religions
The United States (US) Census in 2010 estimated the Alaskan Native population resident in Alaska to be roughly 138,300, comprising around 15 per cent of the state’s residents, and a significant segment of the rural population in particular. Indigenous peoples of Alaska include at least 20 language groups (some now spoken only by a handful of elders) and several hundred villages and tribal groups. Yup’ik and Inupiat are the largest communities, numbering 33,900 and 33,400 respectively in 2010. The second largest group are the Tlingit-Haida (26,100) followed by Alaska Athabaskan (22,500), Aleut (19,300) and Tsimschian (3,800). Other groups include the Alutiiq, Cup’ik and Eyak. Over half of Alaska Natives live in rural areas, though growing numbers are moving to urban areas, particularly Anchorage, in search of education and employment opportunities.
Before European contact, Inuit lived in extended family groups as semi-nomadic hunter-fisher-gatherers. Aleuts also hunted and trapped, but lived in more permanent, partly subterranean homes on the Aleutian Islands. Native groups further south had large permanent settlements and trade networks. The first Europeans to land in Alaska were Russian explorers, and the territory was occupied by the Russian Empire from 1741 until 1867, when it was sold to the US. The US imposed restrictions on indigenous Alaskans’ education, religious and voting rights similar to those experienced by Native Americans in more southerly states. Alaska became the 49th and largest US state in 1959. In 1966, the Alaska Federation of Natives was formed and filed land claims covering the entire state. Oil was discovered in Alaska in 1968, and in 1971 the US Congress passed the Alaskan Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). It extinguished indigenous titles and created for-profit corporations in each region to administer an award totalling US$962.5 million and covering 178,068 sq km. Corporate shares, which could not be sold until 1991, were granted exclusively to indigenous Alaskans born before December 1971.
The treatment of Alaskan indigenous peoples by European-descended Americans parallels the history of dispossession of other Indigenous communities in North America, with many of the same effects: dependency on government income transfers, poverty, educational failure, health problems, teenage suicide, poverty, language loss, alcoholism and violence. However, because of Alaska’s relative isolation and long territorial status, the principle of Native sovereignty is less well-entrenched there. The state government maintains that, historically, indigenous Alaskans have always been treated as individuals, not peoples. No treaties and only a few reservation lands exist.
Alaska Natives widely criticized the ANCSA for imposing a corporate structure over their traditional forms of governance. It provided only weak protection for indigenous title, leaving lands open to eventual corporate or government take-over, and gave no recognition to traditional subsistence hunting and fishing rights. In February 1988, Congress passed amendments to the Act that extended the stock sale restrictions and tax exemptions indefinitely, but allowed corporations to issue new stock to younger people and non-indigenous people. These amendments split the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN). Some members welcomed the amendments as a way to resolve the dispute and encourage economic development. Others objected that not enough had been done to safeguard traditional lifestyles and rights.
In 1980, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act set aside lands for national parks and wildlife refuges and recognized the priority of traditional uses of resources. But the Conservation Act is administered mostly by the state government, which leans towards commercial interests, and the situation has never been clarified. However, in October 1993 the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs quietly confirmed 225 Alaskan villages as recognized tribes. Several regional corporations have now transferred their lands to tribal governments to protect them against state appropriation. Ironically, indigenous Alaskans might ultimately achieve self-determination only by obtaining federal government support.
Indigenous Alaskans’ rights, like those of other circumpolar peoples, are closely linked to environmental concerns, particularly in connection with oil. Oil companies provide the large majority of the state revenue of Alaska, but oil drilling is highly disruptive to subsistence life. Thus, oil exploration is controversial both inside and outside Native communities. In 1988, in 1991 and again in 1995, Congress proposed opening the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development. President Bill Clinton considered vetoing the measure if it was passed by Congress in the 1996 budget. Oil spills, including the 11 million gallon Exxon-Valdez spill in 1989 and the up to 80 million gallon Russian spill in 1994, pollute the Arctic Sea and disrupt indigenous wildlife, culture and economies; in 1994, Native villagers were paid $20 million on top of Exxon’s 1991 US$1 billion settlement with Alaska, and litigation is ongoing. A 2001 survey of the shoreline of Prince William Sound found that the Exxon-Valdez spill had continuous low-level effects.
Other recurring environmental issues include anti-fur activism and whaling conservation efforts, which threaten Native livelihoods. The Inuit Circumpolar Conference’s alternative whaling commission has argued that Native hunting should not be included in the US quota, but should be protected as a separate category. In addition, dumping and international control failures make the Arctic Circle a ‘sink’ for greenhouse gases, chlorofluorocarbons, DDT, heavy metals, hydrocarbons, radio nucleotides and nuclear wastes. Greenhouse gases are altering the climate of the region, and toxins can accumulate in the bodies of Alaska Natives and other polar peoples, causing unknown health risks.
Since the 1987 split over the ANCSA amendments, the United Tribes of Alaska and the Alaska Native Coalition have joined the AFN and Alaska Inter-Tribal Council in representing Alaska Native interests, along with tribal and village governments. In 1977, Inuit from Alaska, Greenland and Canada created a common forum in the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC), which meets yearly and in 1983 gained non-governmental organization status at the United Nations. Inuit of the former Soviet Union joined the ICC in 1993. There is also an initiative, led by Canada, for an Arctic Council with indigenous and governmental representatives from the seven countries on the Arctic Circle: Canada, the US, Russia, Norway, Finland, Iceland and Denmark. The Council would extend and enforce the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy, which was adopted in 1991 but is not yet a legally binding treaty.
With the increased attention being paid to the Native American vote in the November 2008 federal election, questions were raised regarding whether Native Americans – especially those who are more proficient in their tribal languages than English – were being given sufficient resources to understand ballots and other election materials. Four tribal communities in the Bethel Alaska region took the issue to the Alaska US District Court arguing that state and local election officials have failed to provide them with effective oral language assistance and voting materials in their traditional Yup’ik language. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Native American Rights Fund which represented the plaintiffs pointed out that apart from two poorly translated radio ads in 2006, no other election information has been provided in the Yup’ik language even though funds have long been available under the Help America Vote Act to address such shortcomings.
A motion filed in May 2008 argued that election officials have violated provisions of the Voting Rights Act which mandates that if more than 5 per cent of the voting age population in a certain jurisdiction are members of a single language minority and have limited proficiency in English, that jurisdiction has a responsibility to provide oral and written assistance in the minority language. In June 2008 a panel of federal judges ordered the state to provide various forms of voter assistance – especially language – to Yup’ik language voters.
Citing years of State neglect, for the 2008 elections the state was ordered to provide trained poll workers bilingual in English and Yup’ik; sample ballots in written Yup’ik; a written Yup’ik glossary of election terms; consultation with local indigenous communities to ensure the accuracy of Yup’ik translations; a Yup’ik language coordinator; and pre-election and post-election reports to the court to track the State’s efforts. Additionally, both the state and federal courts struck down the governor’s policy of refusing to recognize the sovereign authority of Alaska Native peoples to address key issues including those involving Alaska Native children.
The issue of native voting rights in Alaska was particularly significant in light of the Republican party’s choice of Sarah Palin the female governor of Alaska to run as Vice president in the November 2008 US presidential elections. Indigenous rights activists had consistently criticized Palin’s record on granting fundamental rights to Alaska Native peoples especially regarding voting sovereignty and lifestyle rights.
There have been some improvements in recent years since Bill Walker took office as Governor in 2014. Walker has undertaken a number of progressive measures around indigenous peoples’ rights, including the passing of a bill in June 2017 establishing an annual Indigenous Peoples Day in Alaska and establishing the Governor’s Tribal Advisory Council to promote cooperation between the state government and the indigenous population. Following a 2013 court order that found Alaska in violation of the Voting Rights Act for its failure to provide adequate election materials in Alaska Native languages, steps have been taken to expand access for indigenous voters – though communities have highlighted continued shortfalls in the availability and quality of information.
The history of marginalization experienced by Alaska Natives is reflected in the continued marginalization that they, along with other indigenous communities across the US, continue to experience to this day: in 2016, for instance, 26.2 per cent of American Indian and Alaska Natives (AIAN) were living in poverty, the highest rate of any ethnic group and almost double the nationwide average of 14 per cent.
While, in some respects, the situation of Alaska Natives has improved and many more now have jobs, higher incomes, better education, health care and living conditions than before, they remain several times more likely than other Alaskans to be poor and out of work. Alaska Natives experience some of the highest rates of accidental deaths, suicides, alcoholism, homicides, fetal alcohol syndrome and domestic violence in the United States. Disproportionate numbers of Alaska Natives, mostly young men, are incarcerated; while making up around 15 per cent of Alaska’s residents, they represent around 36 per cent of its prison population.
Alaska’s indigenous children are still not obtaining adequate education, and Alaska Natives remain on the economic fringes of one of the richest states, per capita, in the US. Furthermore, the validity of the Alaska Native cultural perspective continues to be ignored, and traditional ways of life and native languages are gradually disappearing as tribe elders are passing away.
Meanwhile, climate change represents a critical threat to many Alaska Native communities and their unique cultures. Alaska Native villages are often built on permafrost, and as temperatures rise, the permafrost is melting leading to buildings collapsing. Other threats include coastal and river erosion, loss of sea ice and sea level rise. The Yup’ik village of Newtok became the first to secure federal funding in 2018 to help it relocate. The US$15 million that was set aside is a small fraction of the approximately US$100 that the relocation process will require, but it represented vital seed money for the process to commence. Newtok has already lost key infrastructure because of melting permafrost and erosion.
Minorities and indigenous peoples in