Sitka | Three executives from Sealaska Corporation spent more than two hours in front of the Sitka Assembly last night, taking questions from Assembly members and citizens. The discussion surrounded the regional native corporation’s controversial land selection legislation, as well as separate plans to select land around Redoubt Falls – a popular subsistence fishing location south of Sitka.
Mayor Cheryl Westover allowed members of the public one minute apiece to ask questions of Sealaska executives Rick Harris, Jaeleen Araujo and Russell Dick.
“And we’ll give them time to respond,” Westover said. “And please be polite, and courteous.”
A gentle admonition before discussion of a topic that’s been known to test tempers in Sitka: Two pieces of federal legislation that would grant thousands of acres of land to Sealaska, coupled with the regional Native corporation’s separate – and much older – selection of 11 acres near Redoubt Falls.
Those who asked questions of the company officials had two main ideas on their mind: What is Sealaska going to do with the land it obtains, and when it comes to popular subsistence fishing sites like Redoubt…
“Can you tell me, yes or no, will I be allowed free access as it is currently, to the site where I subsistence harvest fish?” asked Sitka resident Ryan Kauffman. He was first up with a question repeated throughout the night: If Sealaska owns the lands around Redoubt, will subsistence fishermen still have access to do their fishing?
Subsistence does occur on private property, in addition to public land, said Sealaska Vice President and General Counsel Jaeleen Araujo.
“Our intention is to ensure that there’s no difference from the current use of the site, and we’ll do everything within our power to make sure that happens, as long as the site is not negatively impacted,” Araujo said.
If the level of use is maintained at its current levels, and doesn’t grow into something that harms the property, Araujo says she doesn’t see any change occurring.
Other questioners were more pointed, like Davey Lubin, who challenged a map Sealaska distributed at the meeting showing a few dots representing sites the company plans to select. Lubin says there are at least 25 sites in the House version of the land selection legislation.
“S.730, the Senate bill, it could be hundreds,” Lubin said. “Who knows? They’re not even listed. You mentioned you want to get beyond timber. Is that why you’re choosing 70,000 or so acres of high-class, old-growth trees on Prince of Wales Island?”
Lubin went on to ask a few more questions in his minute, including why Sealaska wants to select lands outside the original boundaries in the 1971 legislation that entitles them to the selections.
Rick Harris is executive vice president for Sealaska Corporation.
“We accepted those boxes at the time, but our selection choice, without going into those boxes, was mountaintops,” Harris said. “Top of Baranof, top of Wrangell-St. Elias, which is now monument wilderness: those are the kinds of things that were available for us to select.”
Lubin also asked why the Organized Village of Kake – the federally recognized tribal government in Kake – came out with resolutions opposing the legislation. Araujo said the tribal government believes that the sacred sites Sealaska wants to own should be under tribal control.
“We actually as a corporation would support tribal ownership of sites, but right now there’s no means to put land into tribal ownership that could be in trust to keep it protected,” Araujo said.
The legislation that would convey it to Sealaska, on the other hand, would put it into perpetual Native ownership, she said.
Just fewer than half of the members of the public who spoke did so in support of Sealaska’s efforts. Many of them, like Harriet Miyasato Beleal, said Sealaska will own only a small percentage of the land. She said it shouldn’t have taken 40 years of negotiations for that small percentage.
“What are we trying to explain to you? I don’t know why we need to explain, because we were the aboriginal people,” she said. “The government will give it to you with one hand and take it back with the other hand, and give you double talk.”
Back in May, Assembly members were considering a resolution to oppose Sealaska’s land selections – both the federal bills and the Redoubt selection. Sealaska, as it turned out, was having a shareholder meeting in the next room the night the Assembly met. After lengthy testimony that night, the Assembly softened its language – expressing concern, instead of opposition – and both sides agreed to have a longer conversation in the future. And that’s how last night’s discussion came about.
Rick Harris said the corporation didn’t communicate more with the city because it felt nothing had really changed with the legislation since the last time the two entities spoke. He apologized for not having more dialogue with city leaders.
The Sealaska representatives spent some time before the Assembly talking about their initiatives in a lot of surrounding communities – for example, Kake, where Sealaska’s revitalization of a fish plant has brought a couple dozen jobs to the community.
Russell Dick is president and CEO of Haa Aani, the land management arm of Sealaska. He says the company’s goal is to meet economic needs in communities where its shareholders live, by getting people started with their own business ventures.
“The last thing we want to do, or the last thing I want to do, is walk into one of our rural communities and say ‘Sealaska’s here, we’re going to solve your problems, here’s what you need to do.’ Because that isn’t going to work long-term,” Dick said. “That isn’t sustainable for us.”
Larry Crews said the company’s work in Angoon and Kake was good, but that those predominately Native communities were a different environment than Sitka. Later, Terry Blake said he sees a new generation of Native leaders, and that he was hopeful Sitkans could be reassured that Sealaska and the community are on the same team.
Dick addressed both notions.
“Ethnicity is an issue? Yeah,” he said. “It may be much easier in Kake and Angoon. It may be much difficult here. But that doesn’t mean we don’t sit down and try. Right? And I think there are a lot of opportunities here. I don’t know if it’s a generational thing, but I think you’re right. It’s an opportunity to come sit down with people and say, ‘Look, things may be different now, it’s not the same as it was 40 years ago, but let’s sit down and figure out a way to make this work for everybody.”
At public meetings in March of 2010 and again in May of this year, people gave impassioned testimony for and against the measures. Recent action on Sealaska’s Redoubt selection – first filed in 1976 – has also provoked strong feelings from people on both sides of the issue.
Whether Tuesday night’s discussion was a step toward any compromise or agreement or even understanding is hard to determine. But it was decidedly calmer than conversations held in the past.
Sealaska’s executives say they’ll keep in contact with city leaders, and will hope to talk again when they return for a Tongass Futures Roundtable gathering in Sitka early next month.