The Eskimo and Indian languages of the Far North have no words to translate such foreign concepts as corporation, stockholder, lawsuit, investment or joint venture.
Yet the vocabulary of high finance has, thanks to Congress, become commonplace among the natives of the Alaskan bush, many of whom live in isolated villages without running water, telephone or automobiles.
In 1971, Congress passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, billed as the most generous Indian treaty in history and a bold experiment in America's relations with her aboriginal peoples. Native claims were threatening to delay the proposed trans-Alaskan oil pipeline. In exchange for renouncing all aboriginal rights. Alaska's 65,000 Eskinos, Indians and Aleuts were awarded $962 million and 44 million acres - 10 per cent of the state.
To receive the land and money, the natives had to set up regional corporations in 12 areas and village corporations in 200 settlements. Each corporation would be wholly owned by native stockholders. Acreage and revenues were to be divided under complex formulas.
Today, six years after passage of the act, the natives are tangled in a nightmare of lawsuits, government red tape and financial difficulties. Despite millions of dollars in suits against the Interior Department, only a tenth of the land has been conveyed. Village corporations are impoverished. Several regional corporations have lost millions of dollars. Native stockholders are fighting native administrators, and the corporations are suing each other.
While native leaders argue that the 1971 settlement has increased their economic and political power, many villagers fear it was a cynical bargain.
In the southwestern village of Chevak, whose 400 residents rely on fishing, hunting and food stamps to survive, John Paul Jones, a local Eskimo leader, says, "We'd have been better off if (the act) hadn't passed. Our bargainers bargained away our aboriginal rights to hunt and fish. It was like saying, 'Okay, Eskimo, your culture is abolished. You're in the melting pot. Be a businessman tomorrow and succeed.'"
Harold Sparck, adviser to an association of Eskimo villages based in Bethel in the Southwest, said, "Congress established profit-making corporations in a culture that had no concept of money. It linked development with the future of the culture. That's an inherent conflict."
Native life in Alaska is infused with communal tradition: land is used, not owned; the whale, moose or salmon catch is shared among families. Money has become necessary only in the last 10 to 20 years. In congressional hearings at a dozen villages this month, natives unanimously cited dependence on hunting and fishing as the basis of their culture.
Yet under the claims act, native land now used for hunting and fishing will be owned by corporations. To make money, the corporations must develop the land. Roads, of drilling, mining, real estate ventures tourism - such uses may not be compatible with wildlife, some Alaskans fear.
Starting in 1991, the 44 million acres will be subject to taxation. Unless the corporations have developed profit-making enterprises, the land could be sold to pay the taxes. Also in 14 years native stockholders will be permitted to sell their shares, thus subjecting the corporations - and the land - to outside takeovers.
"These villages have never known private property before," said Paul Gaskin, a consultant to six villages. "All they've gotten under the act is the privilege of paying taxes. Why should they own the land when they can get the game from it anyway?"
Establishing the corporations and selecting land used up much of the village's money. Gaskin, one of the more pessimistic native claims experts, predicts "the regional corporations will all be broke in 24 months." He estimated that Calista, the southwest regional corporation, has lost millions of dollars in two expensive construction projects, a $33 million Anchorage hotel and a $14 million subdivision at Settlers' Bay.
A northwest regional corporation, Bering Straits, posted losses of $5.5 million last year, after investments in a ready-mix concrete firm and a trucking companh soured. A $19 million hotel in Fairbanks remains abandoned in mid-construction. The corporation president was unseated after a stockholder suit.
A majority of the regional corporations, however, have been able to stay afloat thanks to lucrative pipeline-related contracts. NANA Commercial Catering, an offshoot of the corporation based in Kotzebue, north of the Steward Peninsula, grossed $3.3 million last year serving food to pipeline workers. Another NANA company provided pipeline security. Doyon the Fairbanks-based native corporation, earned $1.2 million from a joint venture maintaining the pipeline haul road.
Arctic Slope, the regional corporation that includes the oil-rich northern part of the state, has leased 1.5 million acres to Chevron, Mobil, Texaco and Union/Amoco for oil exploration.
The Claims Settlement Act, seeking to balance rich and poor native lands, requires each corporation to distribute 70 per cent of natural resource revenues among the other corporations. But Arctic Slope's $14 million in lease revenue remains in the bank while the corporations sue each other over what is deductible.
The fight over distribution of resource revenues has created bitterness among natives after centuries of peaceful relations. "We don't want to give the money away," said Oliver Leavitt, Arctic Slope's secretary-treasurer and one of a new class of leisure-suited, fast-talking Eskimos. "When you become a businessman, you become stingy."
The 70 per cent sharing requirement is a "handicap," groused Tim M. Wallis, president of Doyon, which is exploring for oil and minerals. "General Motors doesn't have to share its money with competing corporations."
Critics like Gaskin say the native corporations have become "dangling puppets of the big companies" like Exxon and Phillips with which they are contracting. Not so, say the natives. "We're as tough as those guys," Leavitt said, "because we've hired the people who can deal with them." Arctic Slope, for example, has retained Watergate-Korea investigator Leon Jaworski's Houston firm, which specializes in oil and gas.
Despite the lawsuits between them, the native corporations have cooperated on several joint ventures. Among the more successful is the United Bank of Alaska, owned jointly by five regional corporations. Since it opened in December, 1975, its assets have grown from $3 million to $47 million. Only 10 per cent of its business is native.
A few unusual projects have been spawned. NANA has a 4,000-head reindeer herd that provides meat for Eskimos and a profit for the corporation. Last year, $67,000 worth of reindeer antlers were sold to South Koreans, who grind them up for a powdered aphrodisiac.
Doyon, which bought a hotel in Hawaii last year, also spent money defending a shareholder who was charged by the state with killing moose out of season. The defense: religious freedom, because the moose was for a traditional funeral potlatch.
However, the corporations say their activities have been severely hampered by the slow pace of Interior Department land transfers. Although the Claims Act said the land was to be conveyed "immediately" after selection, so far the Bureau of Land Management has relinquished only 4.4 million acres, of which 4 million was conveyed to a single corporation, Arctic Slope, under a special agreement.
Dozens of lawsuits over easements are holding up the transfers.Interior, backed by Alaskan sportshunters, wants to reserve continuous easements along the rivers and coasts where the natives have selected their land. The natives say they don't mind providing public access across their land in a few places, but thousands of trails, corridors and campsites amount to a "massive land grab," they contend.
The Interior Department has "viewed the easement section) of the act (as a way to make native lands into public lands," said John Shively, vice president of NANA, which has budgeted $250,000 this year to fight the government. "We do not believe this was the intent of Congress."
Until the issue is resolved, said Roger Huntington, manager of the native village of Galena, "No on knows who owns the land or who can use it. Schools, clinics, airports, housing and roads are being delayed." Galena residents trying to move out of the flood plain of the Yukon River have been unable to get bank loans because the village does not have title to its land.
The delays are creating hostility between natives and whites. Huntington said. "It seemed as if [the Claims Act] was being noce and giving land back to us. But with the other hand they're taking it away."
Confronted with such complaints at hearings around the state this month, House Interior Committee Chairman Morris Udall (D-Ariz.) said, "every member of Congress is angry" about the delays. "We never thought we'd be sitting here in 1977 still asking for title."
Rep. John Seiberling (D-Ohio), who heads the Alaska lands subcommittee, told natives here he is "absolutely shocked and disgusted . . . the first thing we're going to do is write a new law and cut through this red tape."
Despite the hassles over land transfers, and the criticism that development many undermine the natives' traditional way of life, native leaders praise the Claims Act, as a major step forward from the paternalistic arrangements the government maintains with "Lower 48" Indians.
"We're playing your game in your ballpark with your rules," said Wallis, who dropped out of high school to work on construction. The corporation he now heads, Doyon, will hold 12 million acres, making it one of the largest private landowners in the nation.
The Claims Act, he said, "has given us more hope of being able to cope with the future."
William Hensley, an Eskimo who heads NANA's development corporation, said, "The corporate institution is the most complex we could deal with. It has brought very rapid change . . . But without the act we would be in much worse condition. We would have no land, and no political clout."
Conflicts between commercial development and subsistence hunting and fishing. Wallis and Hensley say, can be kept to a minimum. NANA stockholders told the corporation last year not to get into mining, because of the conflicts, so investments are being directed elsewhere.
Nevertheless, native leaders foresee a time when hunting and fishing may no longer be so important, and employment opportunities from development will be critical. "People who believe the Eskimo should stay a certain way are blowing smoke," Hensley said. "No one stays static." CAPTION: Picture 1, Rep. John Seiberling and leisure-suited Oliver Leavitt, a corporation official. By Margot Hornblower - The Washington Post; Map, These are the 12 regional corporations created under the 1971 claims settlement. By Dave Cook - The Washington Post; Picture 2, Tim Wallas at $3 million Doyon Native headquarters which he heads.