FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Descendants of Alaska Natives who died in the Vietnam War between 1964 and 1972 could apply for a land grant in the deceased veterans' names under legislation that surfaced on the U.S. House floor.
The bill is a scaled-back version of a proposal introduced earlier this session by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska. It was opposed by the Clinton administration. But the version that emerged Tuesday has the administration's support.
Alaska Natives killed in the war prior to 1972 did not have an equal opportunity to apply for a 160-acre allotment, Assistant Secretary of the Interior John Berry said in a letter to Young.
Their descendants should be able to apply for allotments in recognition of this fact, he said.
The Native allotment program was begun in 1906. It closed at the end of 1971 when Congress passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
That means soldiers killed between Aug. 5, 1964, the official start of the war, and Dec. 31, 1971, could be considered to have missed their opportunity to file an allotment application by virtue of their military service, Berry said.
That, however, was the only concession the Interior Department was willing to make on the issue. And that's what the new bill reflects.
That makes it greatly changed from the original version, which Alaska Natives supported during a House Resources Committee hearing that Young chaired in Washington in June.
Young's original bill would have allowed all Alaska Native veterans of the Vietnam era to apply for an allotment if they had not done so when the program was open.
It also would have allowed their descendants the same right.
This was a broadening of legislation passed two years ago with the Clinton administration's support.
Under that law, Native veterans who served between 1969 and 1971, and some of their heirs, were given a chance to apply.
The administration supported that because such service might have prevented the veterans from learning that ANCSA was likely to end the allotment program and keep them from applying.
The new application period for such veterans, and the heirs of those who died in the war, opened this summer.
But Young's earlier bill would have expanded the eligibility period not only back to 1964 and but also forward to the war's close, in 1975.
The administration objected to that on fairness grounds. It contended that the war couldn't have interfered with applications after 1971 because there was no allotment program after that year. It also questioned how military service prior to 1969 could have interfered with allotment applications, because after that year the impending end of the allotment program was well-publicized in Alaska.
It also opposed offering eligibility to anyone other than people who lost someone in the war, a stand Berry reiterated in comments about the bill pending now before the House.
''We believe it is important to keep eligibility to deaths caused by war, because otherwise there is no basis for distinction between Native veterans who lost their opportunity due to service and other Natives who served or who are not veterans,'' Berry wrote.
Walter Sampson, with the Northwest Arctic Borough, said in June that such a view was too narrow.
''Veterans who died of other causes in the 30 years since the repeal of the Native Allotment Act in 1971 missed the same opportunity to apply while serving their country as did veterans who are still alive or those who died as a result of combat,'' he said in written testimony.
''This restriction on the ability of an estate to apply on behalf of a deceased Native veteran makes absolutely no sense.''
Along with extending eligibility to heirs of people killed in the war, the new bill fixes a technical glitch that Sampson pointed out. The new measure reaffirms the eligibility of Native veterans who served after Dec. 3, 1970, and before June 2, 1971.
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