NANA Elders Decide Which Lands to Save

Story originally appeared in the July/August Hunter, Volume 21 Number 6

In the early days after passage of ANCSA, the newly minted Alaska Native village and regional corporations were tasked with selecting what eventually became 44 million acres of land throughout Alaska.

For most Native people living in rural Alaska, the surrounding landscape was not something that was traditionally owned. However, ANCSA changed that. Suddenly Native people had to decide what lands they would own and also what lands they would give up.

Willie Goodwin Jr. was NANA’s land manager at the time. “We decided at our board meeting to set up land selection committees in each village,” he said.

The committees had to prioritize their selections, based on berry picking, hunting, water, gravel, timber, transportation, access and eventually mining potential. Willie noted that some regions hired consultants to assist them. But he said in NANA’s case, the leaders knew the only answer was to consult with village Elders, making most decisions at the village level.

“What’s a high paid consultant going to tell me about my land?” he asked.

There was no roadmap for how to accomplish this immense task, but when asked whether good decisions were made, Willie had this to say: “We got Red Dog, didn’t we?”

Willie credits his success to simply analyzing ANCSA and asking the right questions. “I really studied the Act and regulations, so I figured out every advantage for us. However,” he said, “the credit goes to the land selection committees. I did the work, yeah, but the land was selected by the Elders back then. They all decided, and I just added up the numbers and this is what your map looks like.”

Willie believes the Elders chose wisely regarding subsistence. “They gave thought to the future by making selections that would affect us today and for the generations to come.”