SITKA, ALASKA The map from Sealaska Corporation shows tiny little blue dots sprinkled across the islands and inlets of Southeast Alaska. The dots mark the sacred sites chosen by the regional Native corporation in a controversial land selection bill working its way through Congress.
“These are historic cultural sites that were used since time immemorial by Alaska Native people for a variety of uses,” said Sealaska CEO Chris McNeil.
He says the sites have been selected so Sealaska can make sure the sites retain their historical and cultural value.
“Our future uses are very specifically limited,” he said. “There’s no timber harvest, there’s no mining that’s permitted. That’s very clear in the legislation. These are not meant to be commercial sites. But they are intended to have reserved uses for educational purposes.”
Those purposes could include cultural camps for young people, run by the Sealaska Heritage Institute.
“So we would anticipate that it would have those kinds of uses for the future, and I think mainly the inherent preservation and protection of those sites which are ours,” McNeil said.
Back to the map full of little blue dots. Dot Number 119, for example, is about 10 acres on the east shore of Kalinin Bay, on Kruzof Island near Sitka. It’s a village site with petroglyphs, according to a summary list from Senator Lisa Murkowski’s office. Dot Number 198 is two acres on the northeast shore of Port Banks, south of Whale Bay on Baranof Island. A seasonal village site, according to the list. Dot 26 is 29 acres on the southeast end of Chaik Bay on Admiralty Island – a fort site.
“There’s various categories of cultural properties,” said Jaeleen Araujo, vice president and general counsel at Sealaska. “Some of them are old village sites, some are petroglyphs, some are shaman burial sites. We also plan to work with the tribes in terms of the appropriate management of each site that has ties to certain tribes in the area.”
Woody Widmark, chairman of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, says he’d like to have sites in the tribe’s traditional territory be included in a memorandum of understanding with Sealaska: an agreement that spells out how each entity – the tribe and the regional corporation – will be able to use and manage the land.
“We do already have sites that are protected, and we do already have sites that are in the hands of corporations,” Widmark said.
This legislation as a whole has been controversial. It’s included hours-long town-hall meetings throughout Southeast, to say nothing of countless letters to the editors of various newspapers, and lobbying efforts by people on either side.
“I’m glad that we had an opportunity to listen to people in Sitka, work with federal governments, talk to our legislators, and listen to our elders,” Widmark said. “I think that’s good down the line. At least you know what people are thinking.”
Despite the controversy on the whole legislation, opponents of the specific sacred sites component of the bill are hard to find. For example, the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, or SEACC, has been a vocal critic of the larger legislation. But SEACC communications coordinator Russell Stigall says the group is focusing its efforts on parts of the bill dealing with timber and Native Futures sites, areas where commercial enterprises could be developed.
The legislation was a major issue in November’s U.S. Senate campaign. The bill’s sponsor, Senator Lisa Murkowski, saw strong support from Sealaska board members in her write-in bid for re-election.
And then-Democratic candidate Scott McAdams criticized the bill, saying sites should be managed by tribes, not the corporations.
“You know I think that as a general rule putting Native lands back into Native hands is the right thing to do. I think the Sealaska land bill is a work in progress,” McAdams said during the campaign.
Araujo, with Sealaska, said the corporation has to claim the sites because no one else has the power to do it.
“All the village corporations have essentially made all their selections,” she said. “We’re the only ones left really that have remaining Native land selections. So if anybody’s going to get ownership of some of these properties, we’re the last ones standing.”
We tried to reach tour operators and organizations for this report – stakeholders who would be likely to access the areas near sacred sites as part of their business. But calls for comment were not returned.
Hear all the reports in the Sealaska land bill series:
Part 5: Sacred sites included in Sealaska legislation
Part 6: Sealaska bill faces challenges in Congress
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