In October 1966, more than 400 Alaska Natives representing 17 Native organizations gathered for a three-day conference to address Alaska Native aboriginal land rights. A statewide organization was formed, with non-profit articles of incorporation for The Alaska Federation of Natives signed in early 1967. For its first five years, AFN worked primarily to achieve passage of a just and fair land settlement. On December 18, 1971 the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) was signed into law.
In the early and mid 1970’s, AFN provided technical assistance to help Alaska Natives implement ANCSA and set up the corporations mandated by the Act. Since then, AFN has evolved to meet the changing needs of Alaska Natives and to respond to new challenges as they emerge, working to address and protect Native interests at the state and federal levels.
AFN was instrumental in the development and passage of federal laws including the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980, and the 1987 Amendments to ANCSA (the “1991 legislation”). At the state level, AFN plays an active role in the legislative process, promoting laws, policies and programs in areas such as health, education, resource development, labor and government. In the late 1980’s, AFN turned its attention to social, tribal and economic issues.
Prior to the formation of AFN, various Native groups lobbied for rights to their aboriginal lands. Immediately following the sale of Alaska to the United States, the Tlingit Indians of Southeast Alaska protested the sale, arguing that they were the owners of the land they occupied. In 1912, the Tanana chiefs asserted title to their lands in interior Alaska after white settlers began to infringe on their territory. The Tlingit and Haidas began efforts to regain their land during a meeting in 1929. The Tlingit and Haidas sued the United States in 1935 (when Congress passed a law allowing them to sue the United States for lands lost), and won the case in 1959, receiving monetary compensation in 1968.
In the 1960’s, Alaska Natives addressed the urgency to organize and fight for their lands. What began in 1961 as an effort by Natives to preserve their land rights concluded with the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act of 1971 (ANCSA). The Statehood Act did not recognize aboriginal title to Native lands, and the new state was about to select more than 103 million acres from the public domain. In response to the imminent threat of lost lands, Alaska Natives began forming rural, urban, and regional organizations. Collaboration between these organizations was hindered, due to the long distances between rural villages and urban Alaska, major cultural differences, and mistrust among Native groups. Howard Rock, an Inupiaq from Point Hope, formed a newspaper, the Tundra Times, in 1962 as a means of reporting policies and goals of Native organizations, and as a source of information about Native issues. Soon, the paper became the medium through which Alaska Natives were able to communicate and rally together concerning common concerns.
AFN Founded in 1966
The Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) was organized largely in response to the Alaska land claims issue that re-emerged after Alaska Statehood in 1958. After statehood, the state of Alaska was poised to select 100 million acres of land. Much of Alaska’s over 365 million acres of land had been occupied by Alaska Natives for thousands of years. AFN was the first statewide group organized to advocate for Native land claims. Early AFN leaders knew if they did not strive to retain aboriginal lands, they would be in danger of losing their homelands forever.
The Athabaskan president of the Cook Inlet Native Association, Emil Notti, called for the first statewide meeting of Alaska Natives and their organizations. A major turning point that aided the formation of AFN was the assistance of the Chief of Tyonek village, Albert Kaloa Jr. Tyonek had recently been awarded $13 million dollars from oil leases on its reserve, and the village provided most of the financing for the first AFN meeting. On October 18, 1966, 17 Native organizations and over 250 people attended the first AFN meeting. Many of AFN’s early leaders were young and inexperienced, yet they successfully worked towards the passage of ANCSA.
AFN organized as a non-profit to solicit government program funds, and eventually came to operate education, manpower training, housing and health programs. At the same time, AFN worked tirelessly to press their claims for lands. AFN was structured in a way that represented, and continues to represent, the diverse Native groups within Alaska at the state and federal levels. In 1966, the president and the board were created to represent the different Native groups within Alaska including tribal organizations, regional non-profits, individual village tribes, urban Native groups, and tribes that had federal reservations.
At AFN’s first convention, recommendations of the land claims committee, chaired by Willie Hensley, were unanimously approved by the conference. The land claims committee recommended that the Department of the Interior freeze all disposals of federal land pending a land claims settlement, that Congress should pass a law to settle claims, and that Alaska Natives should be consulted before the passage of any such law. The conference also made specific recommendations for legislation pertaining to land already taken by the state at current market value. In addition to achieving a united stand regarding land claims, the meeting was important in identifying Natives as a significant political force.
The Second Meeting
To continue the work of the Alaska Federation of Native Associations, the name temporarily adopted for the statewide group, an Aleut from St. George, Flore Lekanoff, was elected chairman. When the group met for a second time (early in 1967) it emerged with a new name, the Alaska Federation of Natives, and a full-time president, Emil Notti.
AFN and Land Claims
The first major task of early AFN was to settle the land claims. Early leaders traveled tirelessly around the country speaking about their cause. Soon, the land claims issue was brought to the United States Congress. Arthur Goldberg, a former supreme court justice, and Ramsey Clarke, the Attorney General under President Kennedy, counseled AFN leaders in how to proceed with their land claims. They helped bring legitimacy to AFN’s cause and gain the attention of key leaders in the Congress and White House. In a speech given in July 2001, Willie Hensley stated, “What gave AFN the ability to move the Nation was the strong spirits of its membership and the ability to focus on the key issues of the day. . . We faced pressures from state politicians as well as members of Congress and our own internal warfare. We persevered, knowing that if we gave up due to our egos being hurt or our issues being ignored, that our people would be the ones to suffer.” As a fledgling organization, it was able to convince the White House and Congress of the fairness and justice in conveying 40 million acres and $1 billion to Alaska Native peoples.
Arnold, Robert. Alaska Native Land Claims. Anchorage: The Alaska Native Foundation, 1976.
Willie Hensley’s Speech to the First Annual Native Hawaiian-Alaska Native Summit, July 6, 2001