The Potential Effects of Sturgeon V. Frost on Alaska Native Corporations

By Karns, Olivia | Journal of Corporation Law, Summer 2018 | Go to article overview

The Potential Effects of Sturgeon V. Frost on Alaska Native Corporations


Karns, Olivia, Journal of Corporation Law


I. Introduction

The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, enacted in 1971, was heralded as a new chapter in Indian Law.1 It extinguished Alaska Natives'2 aboriginal claims to land and created a complex mechanism by which Native groups were able to select and eventually own millions of acres of land, the distribution of millions of dollars in an Alaska Native fund, and anticipated profits for Alaska state oil royalties.3 Rather than vesting these assets in existing tribal governments, Congress created Alaska Native Corporations to manage and develop the assets.4 Today, almost 50 years after the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, the intentions of the Act have been met with varying degrees of success.

This Note compares Congress' intentions when it passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act with how past and current case law, including the Ninth Circuit's most recent ruling in Sturgeon v. Frost, have treated Alaska Native Corporations. It will also briefly examine how Alaska Native Corporations compare with their analog in the continental United States, Tribal Corporations. Part II will discuss in detail the history and expectations surrounding the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Part III will examine the Supreme Court's and Ninth Circuit's most recent decision in Sturgeon v. Frost, and consider the effects the Ninth Circuit's ruling may have on Alaska Native Corporations. It will also discuss how the Ninth Circuit's ruling might compare with the intention of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Lastly, Part IV recommends a direction for Alaska Native Corporations to take in light of the Ninth Circuit's ruling.

II. Background

Alaska Native Corporations currently comprise some of the biggest economic forces in Alaska and have economic influence throughout the United States.5 Alaska Native Corporations are owned by over roughly 111,000 Alaska Native shareholders who reside in villages and towns in Alaska as well as outside of the state.6 Annual per capita payments to shareholders have ranged in value, but have reached as high as $25,000.7 A 2010 report estimated the combined corporate revenues of Alaska Native Corporations to equal $8.2 billion from their business ventures in Alaska and around the world.8

However, although it is undeniable that Alaska Native Corporations have become a significant economic player, to fully appreciate their role and purpose it is necessary to understand the circumstances that surrounded their creation and the differences between Alaska Native Corporations and other Tribal Corporations found in the continental United States. This Part will discuss first, the history of Alaska Native claims to lands, second, the adoption of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) and the creation of Alaska Native Corporations, and lastly, the difference between Alaska Native Corporations and American Indian Tribal Corporations in the lower forty-eight.9

A.The History of Alaska Native Claims to Land

The United States acquired Alaska from Russia in 1867 pursuant to the Treaty of Cession.10 At the time the United States acquired Alaska, the land had been virtually untouched by non-Native people.11 The Treaty of Cession essentially quitclaimed Russia's interested in the land to the United States12 and provided that the "uncivilized tribes will be subject to such laws and regulation as the United States may, from time to time, adopt in regard to aboriginal tribes of that country."13

Except for a few unique cases, "the general lesson gleaned from history and disposition of aboriginal claims in Alaska is that, like other indigenous Americans, Alaska Natives held claims to vast tracts of land by aboriginal title."14 Congress first openly acknowledged Alaska Native claims to lands in the Organic Act of 1884 which stated "[t]hat the Indians or other persons in said district shall not be disturbed in the possession of any lands actually in their use or occupation or now claimed by them but terms under which such person may acquire title to such lands is reserved for future legislation by Congress. …

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