Alaska Native veterans testify about obstacles in getting land allotments

Posted: Thursday, June 15, 2000

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Alaska Natives who served in the military during part of the Vietnam War say they're being frustrated by federal officials in their efforts to get a second shot at picking land allotments.

''Today as Native veterans we are feeling the effects not of bullets but of the bureaucracy,'' said Walter Sampson, who served in Vietnam and is a member of the Northwest Arctic Borough Assembly.

He made the remarks Wednesday in testimony before the House Resources Committee. Sampson was there at the invitation of its chairman, Rep. Don Young, who wants to change what he said is a flawed law backed by federal officials.

Congress passed a measure in 1998 that gives Alaska Native veterans who served from 1969 to 1971 a second chance to apply for title to 160 acres under the now-defunct Native Allotment Act.

Young has introduced legislation that would expand that eligibility to any Alaska Native on active duty from 1964 to 1975, or the Vietnam War era.

John Berry, an assistant secretary with the U.S. Department of the Interior, said the agency supports allotments for Natives who served from 1969 to 1971. Those were the three years before passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which repealed the allotment program.

If Natives were serving in the military before the repeal, then they might not have heard that the program was about to end, Berry said. Giving them another chance to apply is reasonable, he said.

But offering land to veterans who served after 1971 raises questions about fairness, he said.

Alaska Natives whose military service ended by 1969 had ample opportunity to apply before the program's repeal, he said. For the three years leading up to 1971, the Bureau of Indian Affairs had an active public education program encouraging people to apply, Berry said.

Young didn't buy that argument.

''I believe we could give every veteran the allotment they requested and not do any harm,'' the Alaska Republican said.

An estimated 600 Alaska Natives are believed to be eligible for the land.

The Department of Interior is unnecessarily worried about allotments being selected within federal parks and refuges and then developed, said Sheri Hardman, with the Tanana Chiefs Conference in Fairbanks.

''Only a very small percentage of Native allotments that exist today have more than a tent frame and game trails on them,'' she said.

Sampson described some problems with the 1998 law, which he said unwisely resurrected bureaucratic rules that Congress discarded in 1980.

The rules require people to provide evidence they had used a piece of land for five years ''to the exclusion of others,'' Sampson said.

Evidence basically means the applicant has to have left trash around the place, he said. Native people never possessed land to the exclusion of their neighbors in the traditional Western sense, he said.

The resurrected rules also require applicants to prove their land contains no valuable minerals, including sand and gravel, Sampson said.

Young said he wants the Interior Department to work with Alaska Natives on a compromise.

Young said he could get his bill passed and then the president could veto it, which the Interior Department has recommended.

But that would make Clinton the bad guy in the Alaska Native community, Young said.

''I'd love to be able to whap you on the side of the head but it doesn't accomplish the goal,'' Young told Berry.

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