Alaska Native Review Commission

The Alaska Native Review Commission was established at a meeting of the Inuit Circumpolar

Conference in July 1983. The Commission was asked to analyze and report on five broad areas: the social and economic conditions of Alaska Natives; the history and intentions of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA); the place of ANCSA in the history of claims agreements by the US government; the capability and performance of the regional and village corporations in carrying out the spirit of the settlement act; and the overall significance of ANCSA to indigenous people around the world.

The Commission was chaired by the Honorable Thomas R. Berger, a former chief justice of the Supreme Court in British Columbia. Berger and his staff began the study in September 1983. For the next two years, they visited 61 villages and listened to the testimony of more than 1400 Alaska Natives. The Commission also organized two "Overview Roundtable Discussions" in Anchorage that considered Native views of the past and present, the effects of changes in land tenure and land use, the history of US policies toward Native Americans, and the relevance of ANSCA to other states and nations.

The Commission finished its work in June 1985 and published Village Journey (Berger, 1985), a summary of its findings and recommendations, several months later. The Commission concluded that ANCSA was not only an act of assimilation but, ultimately, an instrument of destruction, for it separated people from the land and from each other. In Berger's view, this was the intent of Congress in constructing the settlement, to eradicate communal patterns of leadership and decision-making, customs of sharing, aboriginal rights to hunt and fish, and traditional notions of land use and ownership.

What gives meaning and nourishment to Native communities, the Commission found, is subsistence, or what Alaska Natives refer to as their way of life. It is through participation in the village subsistence economy that people acquire needed skills, learn their traditions, understand their environment, and join with others (including those who have lived in the past) to work, share, and celebrate. According to one witness: "The culture and life of my Native people are the subsistence way of life. And that's what we always used, the subsistence way of life. It goes hand in hand with our culture, our own language, and all our activities" (Berger, 1985: p. 52).

Consistent with their conclusions about the settlement act and Native societies, the Commission proposed three general recommendations: (i) provision should be made for the transfer of land from ANCSA corporations to tribal governments, which they could then hold in fee simple title or in federal trusteeship; (ii) village tribal governments should reassert their sovereign powers and seek state and, more important, federal recognition; and (iii) tribal governments should be given exclusive jurisdiction over fish and wildlife on Native lands.

The effects of the work of the Alaska Native Review Commission are mixed. Certainly the Berger report lent urgency and legitimacy to the "sovereignty movement" in Alaska, which sought to develop and strengthen tribal governments. Their efforts led to federal recognition in 1993, the organization of tribal courts, and increased tribal contracting for health and social services. Nevertheless, the powers of tribal organizations remain circumscribed by state opposition, federal rules, limited resources, and the 1998 US Supreme Court ruling that Indian country does not exist on Native lands in Alaska.

David C. Maas

See also Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA); Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC)

Further Reading

Berger, Thomas, R., Village Journey, New York: Hill and Wang, 1985

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