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Public Statements

40th Anniversary of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC

Mr. BEGICH. Madam President, I come to the floor to first say ``thank you'' to my colleagues for supporting an incredible judge, but I also come to the floor today to mark an anniversary. December 18, 2011, marks the 40th anniversary of a truly historic date for the first people of Alaska--passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. To mark this historic occasion, Senator Murkowski and I have submitted a Senate resolution to formally celebrate the success and contributions of Alaska Native people and their corporations. We will be asking for the unanimous consent of our colleagues to adopt this resolution at a certain point.

Over the past 40 years, Alaska has witnessed astonishing economic growth resulting from ANCSA. This has benefited not just Native people but all Alaskans. This historic piece of legislation allowed a new group of people who for centuries were economically disadvantaged to enter into the business world and to become economic leaders. Under ANCSA, they have contributed to the State and national economies in unprecedented ways. ANCSA has two primary goals: to resolve longstanding issues surrounding aboriginal land claims in Alaska and to stimulate economic development.

Many Alaskans led the charge on creation and passage of the claims act. My father, the late Representative Nick Begich, was one of them. There were many new Native leaders involved--Willie Hensley, John Borbridge, and other young advocates who very quickly engaged in this historic Native rights legislation.

Today, I would also like to recognize all the wives, daughters, sisters, secretaries, and other powerful women who contributed to the passage of ANCSA. Many of them may not have received formal recognition of their contributions, women such as Marlene Johnson, who played an instrumental role in the creation and passage of ANCSA. She spent countless hours flying to and from southeast Alaska and Washington, DC, leaving behind her full-time job and five children, doing her part to see ANCSA move through Congress. To engage in negotiations, Alaskans would fly for days to get from Barrow or Fairbanks or Kotzebue to Washington, DC. Many of them camped out on couches and floors in Washington for months to get it done.

Today, Alaska Native corporations are tremendous economic drivers not only for Alaska but for the entire United States and even internationally. In 2010, 8 of the 10 most profitable businesses in Alaska were Alaska Native corporations. Of the five that topped $1 billion, all were Native corporations.

Cash dividends paid to corporation shareholders continue to be a very important source of income for many Alaska Native individuals and families. In total, dividends paid by Alaska Native corporations to their shareholders rose by 39 percent from 2009 to 2010, up to $171 million.

These dividends serve Native families in many ways. In some cases, they help provide basics, such as food and heating fuel or supplies and equipment to continue their subsistence way of life. For other families, shareholder dividends go into college savings accounts or new startup businesses. Sometimes they simply help offset the costs of caring for their aging loved ones.

For the business owners everywhere, Native and non-Native alike, shareholder dividends provide a major economic boost. Today, Alaska Native corporations and their subsidiaries are providing thousands of jobs across the United States. These corporations provide job training and scholarships and other support to create new opportunities for young shareholders and their descendents. The corporations also offer meaningful internships to help young Alaska Natives build longstanding professional careers within the corporate structure. Elders, the most respected people in the Native communities, receive special assistance and financial support from their corporations.

Clearly, 40 years later, many Alaska Native corporations have matured to become business leaders. Unfortunately, many others and the Alaska Natives they represent have not all had great success--yet.

The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was one approach, an experiment to meet America's treaty obligations to the first people of this country. I will continue to support the Alaska Native tribes while also strengthening the capacity of the Alaska Native corporations.

Now we look forward to the next 40 years of ANCSA. I call on my colleagues in this Chamber to work together to help all American Indian and Alaska Native people gain their economic independence. Through ANCSA, we see this happening in Alaska. Alaska Native groups are proud of their culture and heritage but also of their business success. We all should be proud of this success.

In Alaska, we innovate. We rely on fresh approaches to solve our unique challenges. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act is such an example. It was a monumental act of Congress--one my father pushed forward and I know is profoundly successful and one that today I profoundly defend.

With our national economy in its current state, we need more of this in America. We need to lift our people to build capacity and to allow the first people of this Nation to succeed. When that happens, we all benefit.

Madam President, Senator Murkowski and I ask you and our colleagues to support this resolution to recognize and honor the impact and importance of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. More important, it honors Alaska's first people and their extraordinary accomplishments over the past 40 years.

I yield the floor.


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