World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - United States of America : Inuit and Alaska Natives

Updated April 2009


Estimated population in 2000: 96,998 (0.03% of total population)

Ethnicity: Inuit, Tlingit, Haida, Alaska Athabaskan, Aleut, other tribal groupings

First language/s: English, Yupik, Inupiaq, Gwich'in, Aleut, Alutiiq, other local dialects

Religion/s: Christianity, Indigenous religions

Indigenous peoples of Alaska include at least 20 language groups (some now spoken only by a handful of elders) and several hundred villages and tribal groups. Inuit (or Inupiaq) are the largest group, numbering 54,761 in 2000. Until 30 or so years ago, the term 'Eskimo' was regularly used to describe this group, but today, the more common usage in Canada and Greenland is Inuit, although in Alaska, Eskimo is still actively used. The second largest group are the Tlingit-Haida (22,365) followed by Alaska Athabaskan (18,838) and the Aleut (16,978). Others groups include the Alutiiq, Yup'ik and Cup'ik, Eyak and Tsimshian Natives.

In 2000, their population numbered 96,998, working in every sector from traditional hunting to corporate management. Alaska natives make up about 16 per cent of Alaska's residents, and are a significant segment of the population in its rural communities. Up to 57 per cent of Alaska natives live in rural areas, though growing numbers are moving to urban areas, particularly Anchorage, in search of work.

Historical context

Before European contact, Inuit lived in extended family groups as semi-nomadic hunter-fisher-gatherers. Aleuts also hunted and trapped, but lived in more permanent, partly subterranean homes on the Aleutian Islands. Native groups further south had large permanent settlements and trade networks. The first Europeans to land in Alaska were Russian explorers, and the territory was occupied by the Russian Empire from 1741 until 1867, when it was sold to the USA. The USA imposed restrictions on indigenous Alaskans' education, religious and voting rights similar to those experienced by Native Americans in more southerly states. Alaska became the forty-ninth and largest US state in 1959. In 1966, the Alaska Federation of Natives was formed and filed land claims covering the entire state. Oil was discovered in Alaska in 1968, and in 1971 the US Congress passed the Alaskan Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). It extinguished aboriginal titles and created for-profit corporations in each region to administer an award totalling US $962.5 million and covering 178,068 sq km. Corporate shares, which could not be sold until 1991, were granted exclusively to indigenous Alaskans born before December 1971.

The treatment of Alaskan aboriginal peoples by European-descended Americans parallels the history of dispossession of other indigenous peoples in North America, with many of the same effects: dependency on government income transfers, poverty (Inuit and Natives earn on average less than half of white Alaskans' income per capita), educational failure, health problems, teenage suicide, poverty, language loss, alcoholism and violence. However, because of Alaska's relative isolation and long territorial status, the principle of Native sovereignty is less well-entrenched there. The state government maintains that, historically, indigenous Alaskans have always been treated as individuals, not peoples. No treaties and only a few reservation lands exist.

Alaska Natives widely criticized the ANCSA for imposing a corporate structure over their traditional forms of governance. Its provided only weak protection of aboriginal title, leaving lands open to eventual corporate or government take-over, and gave no recognition to traditional subsistence hunting and fishing rights. In February 1988, Congress passed amendments to the Act that extended the stock sale restrictions and tax exemptions indefinitely, but allowed corporations to issue new stock to younger people and non-aboriginals. These amendments split the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN). Some members welcomed the amendments as a way to resolve the dispute and encourage economic development. Others objected that not enough had been done to safeguard traditional lifestyles and rights.

In 1980, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act set aside lands for national parks and wildlife refuges and recognized the priority of traditional uses of resources. But the Conservation Act is administered mostly by the state government, which leans towards commercial interests, and the situation has never been clarified. However, in October 1993 the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs quietly confirmed 225 Alaskan villages as recognized tribes. Several regional corporations have now transferred their lands to tribal governments to protect them against state appropriation. Ironically, indigenous Alaskans might ultimately achieve self-determination only by obtaining federal government support.

Indigenous Alaskans' rights, like those of other circumpolar peoples, are closely linked to environmental concerns, particularly in connection with oil. Oil companies provide 85 per cent of the state revenue of Alaska, but oil drilling is highly disruptive to subsistence life. Thus, oil exploration is controversial both inside and outside Native communities. In 1988, in 1991 and again in 1995, Congress proposed opening the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development. President Bill Clinton considered vetoing the measure if it was passed by Congress in the 1996 budget. Oil spills, including the 11 million gallon Exxon-Valdez spill in 1989 and the up to 80 million gallon Russian spill in 1994, pollute the Arctic Sea and disrupt indigenous wildlife, culture and economies; in 1994, Native villagers were paid US $20 million on top of Exxon's 1991 $1 billion settlement with Alaska, and litigation is ongoing. A 2001 survey of the shoreline of Prince William Sound found that the Exxon-Valdez spill had continuous low-level effects. Other current environmental issues include anti-fur activism and whaling conservation efforts, which threaten Native livelihoods. The Inuit Circumpolar Conference's alternative whaling commission argues that Native hunting should not be included in the US quota, but should be protected as a separate category. In addition, dumping and international control failures make the Arctic Circle a 'sink' for greenhouse gases, chlorofluorocarbons, DDT, heavy metals, hydrocarbons, radio nucleotides and nuclear wastes. These substances may alter the climate of the region, and toxins accumulate in the bodies of Alaska Natives and other polar peoples, causing unknown health risks.

Since the 1987 split over the ANCSA amendments, the United Tribes of Alaska and the Alaska Native Coalition have joined the AFN and Alaska Inter-Tribal Council in representing Alaska Native interests, along with tribal and village governments. In 1977, Inuit from Alaska, Greenland and Canada created a common forum in the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC), which meets yearly and in 1983 gained non-governmental organization status at the United Nations. Inuit of the former Soviet Union joined the ICC in 1993. There is also an initiative, led by Canada, for an Arctic Council with indigenous and governmental representatives from the seven countries on the Arctic Circle: Canada, the USA, Russia, Norway, Finland, Iceland and Denmark. The Council would extend and enforce the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy, which is not yet a legally binding treaty.

Current issues

In 2004, 16.1 per cent of Alaska Natives lived below the official poverty line, compared with 13.1 per cent of the total population. The US Census Bureau found that the labour force participation rate for Alaska Native men (62.2%) was lower than that of all men (71%), while the rate for Alaska Native women (58.4%) was slightly higher than for all women (57.5%). The median earnings of Alaska Native men ($33,259) who worked full-time year-round, were substantially below those of all men ($37,100), while the median earnings of Alaska Native women ($27,924) were slightly higher than those of women in the total population ($27,200). The overall educational attainments of Alaskan Natives were lower than those of the total population: 75 per cent of had at least a high school education, compared with 80 per cent of the total population. Within the tribal groupings the level of educational attainment varied: 82 per cent of Tlingit-Haida had at least a high school education and 11 per cent had at least a bachelor's degree, compared to 70 per cent and 6 per cent, respectively, of Inuit.

A 2004 report by the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Anchorage concluded that while, in some respects, the state of Alaska Natives had improved and they now had more jobs, higher incomes, better education, health care and living conditions than before, they remain several times more likely than other Alaskans to be poor and out of work. Alaska Natives experience some of the highest rates of accidental deaths, suicides, alcoholism, homicides, fetal alcohol syndrome and domestic violence in the United States. Alaska Natives, mostly young men, are incarcerated in the state's jails at a rate exceeding 250 per cent of their numbers in the general population. Native children are not obtaining adequate education, and Alaska Natives remain on the economic fringes of one of the richest states, per capita, in the USA.

The validity of the Alaska Native cultural perspective continues to be ignored, and traditional ways of life and native languages are gradually disappearing as tribe elders are passing away.

With the increased attention being paid to the Native American vote in the November 2008 federal election, questions were raised regarding whether Native Americans - especially those who are more proficient in their tribal languages than English - were being given sufficient resources to understand ballots and other election materials.

Four tribal communities in the Bethel Alaska region took the issue to the Alaska U.S. District Court arguing that state and local election officials have failed to provide them with effective oral language assistance and voting materials in their traditional Yup'ik language.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Native American Rights Fund which represented the plaintiffs pointed out that apart from two poorly translated radio ads in 2006, no other election information has been provided in the Yup'ik language even though funds have long been available under the Help America Vote Act to address such shortcomings.

A motion filed in May 2008 argued that election officials have violated provisions of the Voting Rights Act which mandates that if more than 5 percent of the voting age population in a certain jurisdiction are members of a single language minority and have limited proficiency in English, that jurisdiction has a responsibility to provide oral and written assistance in the minority language.

Much of Alaska is covered by this provision which aims to prevent jurisdictions from enacting laws that would impair or interfere with the right to vote, such as requiring state-issued driver's licenses and forbidding the use of tribal identification cards.

In June 2008 a panel of federal judges ordered the state to provide various forms of voter assistance - especially language - to Yup'ik language voters.

Citing years of State neglect, For the 2008 elections The state was ordered to provide trained poll workers bilingual in English and Yup'ik; sample ballots in written Yup'ik; a written Yup'ik glossary of election terms; consultation with local Tribes to ensure the accuracy of Yup'ik translations; a Yup'ik language coordinator; and pre-election and post-election reports to the court to track the State's efforts.

Post election tracking was key request since based on past experience plaintiffs and legal representatives remained sceptical as to whether state and Alaska 's Division of Elections officials would follow through in accordance with the law. They requested that federal observers oversee elections in the Bethel area through 2012, noting that the Yup'ik case might symbolize a wider spread problem in Alaska, that is still to be fully documented.

The issue of native voting rights in Alaska was particularly significant in light of the Republican party's choice of Sarah Palin the female governor of Alaska to run as Vice president in the November 2008 US presidential elections. Indigenous rights activists have consistently criticised the Alaska governor's record on granting fundamental rights to Alaska Native Tribes especially regarding voting sovereignty, and lifestyle rights.

They point to the governor's record of opposition to the Subsistence Hunting hunting and fishing protections that Alaska Native people depend upon for their traditional way of life as it runs counter to the state's aims to enhance sport fishing and recreational hunting opportunities.

Additionally both the state and federal courts struck down the governor's policy of refusing to recognize the sovereign authority of Alaska Tribes to address key issues including those involving Alaska Native children.

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