The Indians of Hydaburg, a fishing village in southeast Alaska, received 20,000 acres of timbered island from the federal government in 1971 in partial settlement of their claims to land they say was sold out from under them when Russia sold Alaska to the United States more than 100 years ago.
Now the native-run corporation created to administer that land has seen its logging operation fail and has filed for bankruptcy protection. The Haida Indian inheritance may be lost to the banks.
In the Aleut village of Port Graham, Jim Labelle became president of the village's native corporation -- and his wife and son became members -- after Congress approved the settlement. But Labelle's second son was born two years after the law's passage and therefore did not qualify for shares.
"The settlement has split families," Labelle said. "Jim Junior knows he's part of our family, but in the larger family of Port Graham, he feels left out."
Fourteen years after the fact, there is widespread unhappiness with the way the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, once heralded as a landmark social experiment, has worked out. Representatives of Alaska's 70,000 Indian Aleuts and Eskimos are preparing to return to Washington to ask Congress to rewrite the deal.
The law gave Alaska natives $962 million and 44 million acres -- about one-tenth of Alaska's surface area -- in exchange for removing aboriginal land claims dating to the U.S. purchase of Alaska in 1867. Congress created 13 regional corporations and several hundred village corporations, in which all natives could receive shares, to manage the land and money.
"Congress wanted to bring the Alaska Native into the mainstream of American life," former Canadian jurist Thomas R. Berger wrote in a recent study of the claims act. Instead, the act has become "a symbol of failed expectations."
Berger's book, "Village Journey," was commissioned by the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, an international Eskimo organization. Based on 1,450 interviews and meetings in more than 60 rural villages, it concluded that the act was part of a larger assimilation effort that has been linked to bitter resignation, a sense of loss, violence, alcoholism and high rates of suicide among Alaska natives.
In most cases, Berger said, Alaska natives would be better off transferri "y.
Some villages already are flexing their tribal muscles.
Tyonek, a roadless village whose Indian residents can see the lights of Anchorage across the water, has tried to enforce a tribal ordinance allowing the local council to decide who can live there. A federal court ruling on a discrimination suit filed by an expelled white family could be the first test of Alaska tribal jurisdiction in the wake of the settlement act.
Most regional corporation leaders have lined up against sovereignty as a solution, saying the Reagan administration would oppose it. Tribal sovereignty legislation also is strongly opposed by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who will play a key role in any congressional revision of the settlement act, and the rest of the Alaskan delegation.
"Sovereignty is a very complex and divisive issue, and linking it to 1991 is ill-advised," Stevens told the Alaska Federation of Natives last week. Stevens warned that Congress would be reluctant to approve any changes in the original settlement unless Alaska natives showed a united front.
In pursuit of unity, the federation decided to ask Congress for authority to transfer corporate lands to some unnamed "entity," possibly including tribal governments. The federation also has opened its voting membership to village representatives.
But the federation put off any decision on endorsing sovereignty as part of its legislative package and avoided acting on Berger's recommendation to dissolve the corporate structure.
"Given the likelihood of bankruptcies, takeover and taxation, given the possibility of greatly reduced federal and state funding in rural Alaska, who can justify the continuation of present arrangements?" Berger asked. "All of our history and all of our experience tell us now what will happen if the land remains a corporate asset."