On a cold December day in 1971, a group of young Alaska Native people gathered in a classroom on the Alaska Pacific University campus in Anchorage. They had come to await a phone call from President Richard Nixon. Many had grown up in orphanages and mission schools; few had finished high school. For years they had organized, fighting a hostile government and Big Oil to secure a land claim for Alaska Native communities. Finally a bill had made its way through the U.S. Congress. Now they waited to see what Nixon would do.

When the call came, the president began by expressing his own view that the settlement was the right thing to do. But he wanted to hear from Alaska Native people before signing it. Congress had not solicited a Native vote on the settlement. Although Alaska Native people had worked mightily to achieve a settlement and shape its terms, they had played no formal legislative role. Those in the room represented Native associations from across the state. Would they agree to this legislation? All but one group said yes. 

Applause broke out, and people gave each other high fives. Nixon had just agreed to sign the largest Indigenous land claims settlement in U.S. history. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) delivered nearly $1 billion in cash and conferred title to 44 million acres to Native people. The settlement would enable them to address their communities’ lack of adequate housing, health care, education, employment, and clean water, the legacies of dispossession and Jim Crow–style segregation. Since then, Native corporations have become economic powerhouses with global influence. 

The young people who filled the room that day included my father, Roy Huhndorf. As a child, I watched the fight for land claims and the settlement unfold. Most white Alaskans vehemently opposed the idea that Native people had claims to the land. My father donned a bulletproof vest during the day and attended college classes in the evening, year after year, to earn a degree that would help him meet the challenges of the moment. Threatening phone calls woke my parents, along with other Native families, in the dead of night. Their victory meant, among other things, that my generation gained access to higher education. Had there been no land claims settlement, I would not be a Berkeley professor.

When the U.S. purchased Russian interests in Alaska in 1867, there were no full-scale Indian wars or tribal treaties. Instead, Native people lost their land through gradual settler encroachment. 

But to win, Alaska Native people had to help Big Oil. Had oil not been discovered in 1968 at Prudhoe Bay, now the largest oil field in North America, Alaska Native people would likely have won no settlement at all. Courts decreed that Native land claims had to be settled before companies could develop that oil. For the first (and, so far, only) time, Congress settled Native land claims by establishing for-profit corporations rather than reservations with tribal governments. In so doing, lawmakers attempted to align tribal interests with those of oil companies.

The prospect of corporations presented Native people with a dilemma. The legislation aimed to integrate rural, subsistence-based communities into the mainstream capitalist system. Natural resource exploitation threatens Native people’s ability to hunt and fish, practices on which they still depend. Moreover, “the corporate structure is the reverse of tribal structure,” explains my father, still a prominent figure in Alaska Native politics. After 20 years, the corporations would go public, and the land would pass out of Native hands. Perhaps the land would be lost before then. The same young people who had lobbied for the settlement would be charged with running multimillion-dollar corporations with no relevant education or experience. Officials opined that Native people were inept and their corporations were destined to fail.

My father’s story is a key part of this narrative. Along with other young Native people, he grappled with a settlement that brought promise along with potential peril for his own Yup’ik and Athabascan family members, along with Inupiat, Unangan, Sugpiaq, Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, and Eyak people in more than 200 tribal communities across the vast state. Native people, who had for decades watched their lands slip away, would have to choose between a settlement that imperiled their lifeways and no settlement at all. Or at least so it initially seemed.

But thanks to my father’s generation, history took an unexpected turn. Alaska Native people transformed termination legislation into a tool for rebuilding their communities and spurring economic development across the state. Never before had Native organizations anywhere in the country wielded such power. 

Nevertheless, the details remain devilish. Corporations are economic entities without legal standing as tribal governments. The absence of sovereignty and subsistence guarantees has compromised the safety and health of Alaska Native people, along with their ability to live off the land.

Fifty years after the passage of ANCSA, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear cases that will determine the future of Native nations in this country. At stake is tribal sovereignty. Cases about child welfare and the extent of Native legal jurisdiction on Native lands threaten to end policies of Native self-determination launched by the Nixon administration. These policies have benefited Native and non-Native communities alike.

The story of ANCSA tells what happens when Native communities gain the power to shape their own destinies. It is also a cautionary tale about what happens when those powers of self-determination are limited. Lawmakers should heed its lessons.

My boyhood was one of the most perfect ones I could have imagined,” my father says about growing up in Nulato, a small Athabascan village on the Yukon River. As the crow flies, Nulato is more than 300 miles from Fairbanks, the nearest city, which remains accessible only by boat or plane. In places with no electricity, running water, or supermarket, Native people lived off the land.

Fishing in the Nulato River, which runs behind the village, counts among my father’s favorite memories. “I remember looking into that crystal-clear water and fishing for grayling with a willow pole and an old string and a bone hook. I used to love to watch them coming up. You could see them coming up to the surface to get a fly and dive right back down, slowly like a bird in this clear water.”

Village life is hard work. The Huhndorf family burned wood for heat and hauled water from the river. My father was the second youngest of nine children. As a toddler, he gathered kindling for the kitchen stove. As he grew, he fed the dogs and carried water. By the time he was nine or ten years old, he hunted spruce hens and ptarmigan in the woods surrounding the village.

The Yukon River is vast, flowing nearly 2,000 miles from its headwaters in British Columbia to where it empties into the Bering Sea. Its basin exceeds the size of the state of Texas. Each summer, massive salmon runs supply the major food source to Native villages along its length. Families gather at fish camps, catching salmon in nets and fish traps to put up food for the long winters. Ducks and geese supplement summer diets. Moose can be hunted throughout the year. When my father was growing up, trapping provided the main source of cash. There was a small store in their village that sold salt and pepper, flour, coffee and tea, and crackers. 

Native territorial claims emerge from histories of use and occupancy codified in the common-law doctrine of Aboriginal title. Until the middle of the 20th century, most Alaska Native people depended on hunting and fishing to survive. Still today, about half live in rural areas off the road system, and even those in cities often depend on subsistence practices. In Alaska, land rights remain crucial for Native survival.

In the 1960s, as Native people began to file their claims, the U.S. Congress appointed the Federal Field Committee to investigate how much land Alaska Native people used. The report, “Alaska Natives and the Land,” provided an answer: nearly all of it. For Alaska Native people, the idea that they might lose their land was unthinkable. Nevertheless, when my father and other organizers came of age in the 1950s and ’60s, they watched their lands and livelihoods begin to slip away.

Life in Alaska had begun to change with the birth of the Russian fur trade in 1743. When the U.S. purchased Russian interests in Alaska in 1867, there were no full-scale Indian wars or tribal treaties. Instead, Native people lost their land through gradual settler encroachment. The canned salmon industry took fishing sites, churches acquired lands for missions and schools, and the government created townsites. Beginning in 1898, gold strikes in western Alaska drew tens of thousands of fortune seekers. Miners destroyed salmon streams and slaughtered animals on which Native communities depended. For the first time, Native people became a minority on their own lands. As noncitizens, they could not stake mining claims, vote, or own land. 

The gold rush brought mass death, from the measles virus and a deadly strain of influenza, diseases to which Alaska Native people possessed no immunity. The resulting epidemic wiped out entire villages. My great-grandfather had to ferry priests up and down the Yukon River to attend to the sick and dying. “They’d travel to fish camps where there would normally be two or three dozen people, sometimes more,” my father says. Often, though, “there would be nothing there but barking dogs on their chains—barking because no one was there to give them water. Everyone was either dead or in the stages of dying.” Today Alaska Native people remember this period as “the Great Death.”

After the gold rush, dispossession commenced on a grander scale. In 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt created the Tongass National Forest out of Tlingit and Haida land, an area that would eventually encompass almost 17 million acres. In 1923, the Warren Harding administration carved the 23-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve out of Inupiat territory. Native people became, in one organizer’s words, “renters or squatters in our own territory.”

A system of Jim Crow–style segregation made matters worse. In 1905, the Nelson Act legalized the segregation of Alaska’s schools. Theaters, restaurants, businesses, and even churches barred Native people from entry or created “whites-only” sections.. Signs warning “No Natives or dogs allowed” remained commonplace even after the Anti-Discrimination Act was passed in 1945. The position of Alaska Native people, one journalist reported, was “equivalent to that of the Negro in Georgia or Mississippi.” 

By mid-century, the situation of many Alaska Native communities was dire. A 1954 report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Interior placed infant mortality at more than 10 percent of all births and life expectancy at 46 years. Alaska Native per capita income was about 25 percent of that of the white population in the U.S., with two-thirds of households falling below the poverty line—a poverty rate more than seven times that of white Alaskans.

But for Native people, the situation was about to get worse. 

On June 30, 1958, the Anchorage Daily Times ran its largest headline ever. It read simply, in all caps: “WE’RE IN.” Congress had just admitted Alaska as a state. Revelers flooded the streets. People lit bonfires. In Fairbanks, they colored the Chena River gold to commemorate the gold rush. Statehood, many believed, would usher in a new era of hope and prosperity. 

By chance, Willie Hensley passed through Fairbanks for the first time in years on the very day that the Alaska Statehood Act passed. A contemporary of my father’s, Hensley would play a major role in the settlement. As a child, he had attended mission school in his home village of Kotzebue, and like nearly all Alaska Native young people who wanted a high school education, he had been required to attend Native boarding school. Hensley had just graduated from a boarding school in Tennessee. Everyone was celebrating statehood, and at first he celebrated too. He didn’t yet realize that millions of acres of Native land were at stake.

The Statehood Act entitled Alaska to select 103 million acres of land, more than one-quarter of the entire state and an area about the size of California. It prohibited selecting lands to which Native people held rights, but in practice that prohibition meant little. The new government began acquiring land that included entire Native villages. “The moment the state selected a piece of ground and got tentative approval,” Hensley said in an interview, “we were never, ever going to get it back. That was the extinguishment of Indian title.” That prospect required urgent action. 

Alaska Native people began to organize. They established Native associations to address land loss and other challenges. The Cook Inlet Native Association formed in 1964 in Anchorage, the state’s largest city. People showed up for meetings, says Emil Notti, the organization’s first president, but there was no money for anything else. “We had $9 in the bank,” he recalls. People held bake sales and cakewalk fund-raisers. The funds started to add up.

In October 1966, Notti learned that representatives of the Bureau of Land Management and the Department of Interior planned to hold a meeting about Native land claims in Washington, D.C. He called Alaska Senator Bob Bartlett, who said, “Come on down.” Willie Hensley, by then a candidate for the Alaska House of Representatives, accompanied him.

Bartlett had told them to “walk right in” to the meeting. They surprised Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall and Alaska Governor William Egan; no Native people had been invited to the meeting. “What that did,” Notti says, “was put the [Department of the Interior] on notice and the state of Alaska on notice that when they talked about Native lands, we intended to be players and participants.”

The Native associations provided many young people with a path to Native politics. My father counts among them. When he was in his mid-20s, my father attended his first Native association meeting. By that time, he had moved to Anchorage and married my mother. He was a night watchman in a warehouse where my family had a tiny apartment. By day he worked at Grocers Wholesale, a company that supplied grocery stores. For him, Native rights, as he would later tell the story, began in a freezer.

“At Grocers Wholesale, I was assigned to the freezer. They had a huge freezer, and they had a special electric forklift I worked in there. You pulled the frozen stuff down from the storage racks with it and assembled orders. It was always 30-below, 40-below in there.” No one wanted to work in the freezer, so the bosses assigned that job to the Native workers. In the cold, they talked about politics. A coworker convinced my father to attend a meeting of the Cook Inlet Native Association. Within a year, he became its president. The rest of his life has been devoted to Native issues.

Had oil not been discovered in 1968 at Prudhoe Bay, now the largest oil field in North America, Alaska Native people would have had no leverage and likely would have won no settlement at all.

The Alaska Federation of Natives formed in 1966. It created committees to address education, employment, health, housing, and other issues. The land claims committee issued recommendations: The U.S. Department of the Interior should freeze all state land selections pending an Alaska Native land claims settlement, Congress should pass a law to settle Native land claims, and Native people must help to determine the form that the settlement would take. 

At first, they made little headway. But the political landscape was about to change dramatically. In December 1966, just weeks after the AFN’s first meeting, Udall imposed a land freeze, halting acquisition of lands to which Native peoples had laid claim. The state would be unable to proceed with land selections until the claims were settled. Nor could private companies access resources in those areas. The pressure compelled the state to begin discussions with the AFN to bring a land claims bill to Congress.

Then, in March 1968, oil was discovered on Alaska’s North Slope at Prudhoe Bay. But bringing that oil to market posed a problem. Prudhoe Bay lies within the Arctic Circle. The Beaufort Sea remains frozen for most of the year, making it impassable for oil tankers. Transporting the oil south to the port of Valdez required building an 800-mile-long pipeline across Native lands.

Native villages filed suit to prevent a pipeline construction permit, insisting that a right of way could not be permitted before Native claims were settled. A federal district court judge issued a preliminary injunction against pipeline construction. If the oil companies wanted a pipeline, the federal government would have to settle Native claims first. But the deal they struck would have to support the looming oil bonanza.

Federal Indian policy, it is often said, is like a pendulum: It swings back and forth between hostility to Native interests and support (however nominal) for Native nations. Alaska Native people began organizing to protect their land rights in a period of hostility. During the termination era of the 1950s and ’60s, Congress sought to abolish Native communities. It “terminated” more than a hundred Native nations and dissolved their reservations. When lawmakers began debating Alaska Native claims, they refused to consider recognizing 200 villages as tribal governments. If the land claim did move forward, it would likely take the form of a cash settlement. The federal government never returned land to Native communities. 

Most lawmakers opposed any kind of settlement at all. For years, Alaska Native people found no support from their own state government or congressional delegation. Native politics often upends divisions between the left and right. Senator Ernest Gruening, a liberal hero, opposed the Vietnam War and fought racial segregation in Alaska, but he fiercely opposed Native land claims. 

Soon another factor worked in favor of a settlement: the 1968 election of Richard Nixon, the most Indigenous-friendly president ever. Nixon overturned termination-era policies and called instead for “a new era in which the Indian future is determined by Indian acts and Indian decisions.” He signed measures to support Native self-determination, increased the budgets for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian Health Service, and established the special office on Indian Water Rights. His administration leveraged the return of Blue Lake to Taos Pueblo, the first instance of the U.S. returning land to a Native nation. 

Outside of the Native world, few understand the significance of these changes. Sovereignty and land are the lifeblood of Native politics. Native nations with tribal governments have the power to control their own membership, facilitate economic development, administer social services, and assert hunting and fishing rights on their lands. Many operate their own justice systems and have jurisdiction over environmental regulations. For Native nations, the right to govern themselves on their own lands is as important as it is in European nations such as Ukraine. But federal Indian policy has been a relentless assault on Native sovereignty. Nixon reversed that trend, at least temporarily. 

No measure advanced by the Nixon administration was more significant than the Alaska Native claims settlement. The legislation conveyed to Alaska Native people nearly as much land as all Indian reservations in the U.S. combined. Passed by Congress on December 18, 1971, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act extinguished “Aboriginal title” in Alaska in exchange for $962.5 million and title to 44 million acres, about one-ninth of the state. It remains the largest Indigenous land claims settlement in U.S. history.

But to win back their land, Alaska Native people had to agree to facilitate oil development. ANCSA established for-profit regional and village corporations to own the land and administer resources. Rather than being enrolled in a tribe with a reservation, Alaska Native people became corporate shareholders. Whereas reservation land is held in trust by the federal government for Indian tribes, the corporations would hold “fee simple” title to the lands—that is, they would own the lands outright with the ability to develop natural resources, and even be able to sell them. This opened up the possibility that the land could be lost. 

From the lawmakers’ perspective, establishing corporations solved multiple problems at once. The profit imperative would compel Native communities to engage in resource exploitation, while private property ownership and the corporate structure would hasten Native assimilation. It was no oversight that ANCSA remained silent on questions of sovereignty and subsistence rights. Under the original legislation, the corporations would go public after 20 years. At that point, lawmakers predicted, Alaska Native communities would no longer exist, and the land would pass out of Native hands. 

The prospect of corporations roiled the Native community. In a series of letters published in the Native newspaper Tundra Times shortly after the settlement, Fred Bigjim, then an Inupiat Harvard graduate student, expressed criticism of ANCSA that spoke for the concerns of many Alaska Native people. ANCSA, he warned, was a plan for terminating the Native way of life in Alaska.

Yet there seemed to be little choice. Never before had the U.S. settled Native claims by returning land. The Indian Claims Commission, established in 1946, provided only monetary settlements. This was the possibility that organizers feared most. At meetings of the Alaska Federation of Natives, my father remembers, participants agreed that above all else, they needed their land. Congress had made clear that recognizing tribal governments was off the table. Establishing corporations would be the only way to hold on to Native lands.

In addition, some Alaska Native people had their own reasons for wanting a different kind of settlement. They cast a wary eye on the state of Indian Country in the lower 48 states. Reservation lands are held in trust by the federal government, and government abuses were notorious. Most tribes, in the days before gaming revenue flowed in, confronted extreme poverty and economic dependency. 

“Our association with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other federal agencies in the past instilled in us hatred for bureaucracy,” explains the Ahtna elder Roy Ewan, one of the organizers who were involved in the settlement. “We didn’t want to be like the other American reservation Indians.” Ewan, along with other Native organizers, had worked to create community development corporations in Alaska as part of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. They had experience using corporations to meet community needs. Under ANCSA, the corporations would own the lands without BIA control. Economic resources would enable them to address community needs. Corporations, as they saw it, could provide a different, perhaps better, path to self-determination.

For the Native community, no problem looms larger than subsistence rights. Alaska Native people do not hold these rights even on their own lands; rather, they are subject to the same subsistence laws as other Alaskans. 

In the aftermath of the settlement, the young Native people who had organized so powerfully for land claims would be tasked with making corporations meet the needs of Alaska Native communities. In their hands, corporations became tools to rebuild communities and advance tribal rights, contrary to the purposes of the congressional authors of ANCSA. But the years that followed also brought setbacks that stemmed from the corporate structure itself.

When the settlement was passed in December 1971, it provided only six months to establish the corporations. The BIA helped to identify and enroll about 80,000 Alaska Native shareholders. Land selections required years-long negotiations with the secretary of the interior. Although the legislation promised to return village land and the surrounding areas needed for subsistence, sometimes those lands had already been claimed by the state or other entities. In those cases, the parties had to agree on alternative selections. The goals were twofold: to secure village and subsistence sites, and to select lands for resource development, as the corporate profit imperative requires. 

During those years, we saw little of my father. In 1975, he became president of Cook Inlet Region, Inc., the Anchorage-based Native corporation. It was as he devoted himself to land negotiations and building the corporation that he realized a college education would help. He worked long days, returned home for dinner, attended night classes, then arose at 3 a.m. to study. Some semesters, his travel schedule forced him to drop out, but he always reenrolled the following term. He graduated from college the year before I did. Throughout this time, my mother held the family together. He says she has always been his best adviser.

Over the past 50 years, the corporations have transformed the Native community and contributed billions of dollars to Alaska’s economy. They have created tens of thousands of jobs. Cook Inlet Region alone has distributed nearly $1.25 billion in dividends to approximately 9,000 Native shareholders. Their unexpected success changed public opinion. Governor William Egan, among others, reversed his long-standing opposition to the settlement. Had he understood the economic benefits that ANCSA would bring, he later told Native organizers, he would have supported a settlement of 80 million acres or more.

Since the 1970s, the retribalization movement has grown increasingly powerful in Alaska. Tribal governments serve a role that corporations cannot: They bolster cultural and community identities on the land. 

Although Congress had written ANCSA as termination legislation, the corporations have used their profits to rebuild Native communities similar to the way that other tribes have used gaming revenue. Native corporations established nonprofit entities to address housing, job placement, health care, elder support, and legal assistance. They have contracted with federal agencies to provide social services through subsidiary nonprofit organizations. Multimillion-dollar endowments provide funds for education. 

These organizations took over programs previously run by the Indian Health Service, creating a network of clinics in Native villages linked to major medical centers in urban areas. The Southcentral Foundation, a nonprofit subsidiary of Cook Inlet Region, has won international recognition for health care innovation. The Harvard Medical Center sends its own physicians there to receive training. These health care organizations transport residents of rural villages to Anchorage, where the major Native health care facilities are located, at no cost to them. Alaska Native life expectancy has increased by 25 years.

Alaska Native people also used corporations to advance tribal rights. They successfully lobbied Congress to overturn the requirement that the corporations would go public in 20 years; they remain an integral part of Alaska Native life today. Corporate resources support revitalizing traditional cultural knowledge, including languages, and reforming a criminal justice system that targets Alaska Native people. 

In 1993, the Department of Interior added Alaska villages to its list of federally acknowledged tribes; today, they number 229. In so doing, it codified the bifurcated system of governance established by ANCSA: Corporations hold tribal land and attend to the social and economic welfare of Alaska Native people, whereas tribes administer local affairs in a government-to-government relationship with the U.S. 

Soon after, however, the Supreme Court would decide that Alaska Native villages do not hold the same sovereign rights as tribes in the lower 48 states. Unlike other tribes, they could not exercise significant control over economic development, the justice system, or hunting and fishing rights on their own territory. The reason: the status of ANCSA lands.

In 1997, the Supreme Court heard Alaska v. Native Village of Venetie, which centered on whether the Venetie Tribal Government could levy taxes on businesses located on tribal land. The state government told the Court that the village lacked taxation authority. At the Court, John Roberts, the future chief justice, represented the state. Indian Country, he argued, includes only lands held in trust by the federal government or other “dependent communities.” It does not include lands owned outright by a corporation. The justices ruled unanimously in favor of the state of Alaska. Ironically, the very elements of ANCSA that my father’s generation saw as a path to self-determination—their communities would wholly own their lands without BIA control—provided the legal basis for undercutting their sovereignty rights. 

The Indian Law and Order Commission, convened by Congress in 2010 to study crime in Indian Country, reports that the state of Alaska’s control over law enforcement puts the safety of Native people, especially women and children, at risk. The commission stresses the urgent need for tribal governments to engage in justice delivery. The lack of sovereignty rights, however, prevents them from doing so. In this regard, the commission concluded, ANCSA “got Indian policy in Alaska wrong.”

For the Native community, no problem looms larger than subsistence rights. The Tlingit elder Sam Kito, who had worked to bring about the settlement, laments that his generation failed on the issue of subsistence. Despite decades of advocacy, the federal and state governments control hunting and fishing rights in Alaska, and both entities refuse to recognize subsistence as an Indigenous right with cultural meanings. Alaska Native people do not hold these rights even on their own lands; rather, they are subject to the same subsistence laws as other Alaskans. Still today, Alaska Native people depend on hunting and fishing for survival, and they face criminalization when those practices violate state law. In the aftermath of the Venetie decision, neither the corporations nor tribal governments possess legal standing to assert those rights. 

Recently, the anomalous political status of Alaska Native corporations hindered the pandemic response. In 2020, 18 tribal nations sued the Department of Treasury to prevent the corporations from receiving CARES Act funds. These corporations, they argued, should not be included among tribal governments that administer social services—although the corporations have assumed this responsibility for decades. Congress had allocated $8 billion for tribal nations, and without the corporations, other Native communities would receive a larger share. The larger problem is that corporations are not regarded as tribal entities, even by Native communities outside Alaska. The decision wound its way through the courts for more than a year, leaving Alaska Native communities with limited resources at a time when they were disproportionately suffering from COVID-19. In June 2021, a Supreme Court decision agreed that Alaska Native corporations had this power. 

Since the 1970s, the retribalization movement has grown increasingly powerful in Alaska. Alaska Native villages have established tribal councils, adopted constitutions, and established their own justice systems (though their authority remains limited). Tribal governments serve a role that corporations cannot: They bolster cultural and community identities on the land. 

Often the people who sit on the tribal council also run the corporation. This explains why many Native people do not see them as in conflict. The central question, says the Native political leader Willie Hensley, is how to make these organizations work for the people. He sees this as the challenge for the next generation. “Don’t get hung up on the entity, because they’re all alien entities anyway,” he advises. But Congress and the courts retain the power to obstruct retribalization.

Fifty years after the Nixon administration launched the era of Native self-determination, the policy pendulum appears to be swinging the other way. Throughout the U.S., renewed assaults on Native land, identity, and sovereignty are being waged in legal battles as well as the court of public opinion. The legal debates are the same as those about ANCSA. Suspicions persist about the competency of Native communities to manage their own affairs.

The 2020 U.S. Supreme Court decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma is at risk. The decision confirmed that most of eastern Oklahoma legally remains Indian Country and the state has no legal jurisdiction over crimes committed on those lands. The state of Oklahoma has filed more than 30 petitions asking the justices to overturn McGirt. The Court recently agreed to consider narrowing the scope of the decision, with arguments scheduled for April. The decision will carry implications for tribal rights on Native lands across the country.

But perhaps the greatest threat to tribal sovereignty comes from challenges to the Indian Child Welfare Act. The ICWA grants tribal nations jurisdiction over custody cases involving tribal citizens. Before the act was passed in 1978, one-third of all Native children were removed from their communities and placed in non-Native homes or institutions, even when well-qualified family members were available to care for them. Child removals were designed to facilitate the assimilation of Native people into the dominant society. The ICWA reversed this practice. The new system has been called the gold standard for child welfare by a coalition of 18 national child advocacy organizations. Challengers contend that tribal control over their citizens represents an unconstitutional race-based preference, calling into question the legitimacy of tribal sovereignty itself. If tribal sovereignty is overturned, Native lands will be open for resource exploitation. The Supreme Court will hear the case in its next term, beginning in October.

ANCSA carries important lessons for these debates. The young Native people who brought about the settlement transformed their own communities and built the economy of the entire state. Yet their success has been obstructed by a federal system that refuses to recognize Alaska Native tribal governments and thereby imperils the health and safety of Native communities and their ability to live off the land as they have always done. The story of Alaska Native land claims calls on Americans to rethink a system of federal Indian law that hinges on the idea that Native people cannot run their own affairs.

I recently asked my father what one thing he would tell readers about ANCSA. The settlement transformed despair into hope, he says. Alaska Native people were able to care for themselves and shape their own future. “People often say, we gave Native people everything, and look what happened. But what you didn’t allow us was the opportunity for self-determination.”  

Shari Huhndorf

Shari Huhndorf is a professor of Native American studies at the University of California at Berkeley and a trustee of the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution. With her father, Roy Huhndorf, she is working on a book on Alaska Native land claims.