GUEST COMMENTARY: A slap in the face to Alaska Native Vietnam veterans

They have waited long enough — and they are dying.

It is no secret that throughout Alaska’s history, the federal government has gone to great lengths to lock up huge swathes of Alaska land. In a deeply troubling move April 16, the Biden administration announced under Public Land Order 7899, that it has delayed a program that gives qualified Alaska Native Vietnam veterans the opportunity to select a plot of federal land in Alaska. After a 50-year wait, these lands were supposed to be released in February of this year, only to be delayed another two years.

A brief history

Under the Alaska Native Allotment Act of 1906, land transfers between 2.5 and 160 acres of “vacant, unappropriated, and unreserved non-mineral” land was first authorized for individual Alaska Natives who could prove “continuous use and occupancy” of the land for five years.

The program existed for 65 years before it was repealed in 1971 with the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. ANCSA granted large land allotments to newly formed Native Corporations who then assumed the responsibility of granting land allocations to their individual members as the organizations saw fit.

It would take another ten years to settle all the pending land claims made prior to ANCSA, but the federal application period for individual Alaska Natives to apply ended in December 1971 with ANCSA’s passage.

How does this affect Alaska Native Veterans?

During the Vietnam War, 2,800 Alaska Natives served in the military, that’s a higher rate per capita than any other group. Because the conflict did not end until 1973, both voluntary and conscripted service members were unable to apply for land before the deadline.

After years of advocacy, these Alaska Native Veterans were finally given that opportunity once again under the 1998 Alaska Native Vietnam Veterans Allotment Act, which authorized a new 18-month filing period for qualifying Alaska Native Veterans to apply for up to 160 acres of Alaska land.

But 20 more years of delay ensued. Eligible veterans began passing away. In response, the Alaska congressional delegation worked to include within the President Trump-signed John D. Dingell Jr. Act of 2019 provisions to extend eligibility to qualified veterans and their heirs. These provisions also removed a five-year occupancy requirement, freeing applicants to apply for available lands anywhere in the state.

These lands all over the state would have been made available for selection on Feb. 19, just a few months shy of 50 years after the passage of ANCSA, which initially closed the application period. But, once again, the service of these men and women is being “rewarded” by the Biden administration with an additional two-year halt to the program.

A trail of broken promises

Alaska has contributed more than 60 percent of its lands to the federal government for conservation purposes. And yet, after 60 years, the federal government continues to break the promises it made to Alaskans in exchange for that land. The Biden administration reneging the commitment of past administrations to Alaska Native Veterans is just the most recent instance in a long history of broken promises, and at the worst possible time with record unemployment, a state budget crisis, and a global pandemic.

As a veteran, I deeply appreciate the sacrifices and dedication required to serve our nation, all the more present in those who served during the Vietnam Era. The continued disrespect that is being shown to those who served honorably makes my heart ache.

How is it fair to now tell these Alaskan Native Veterans to pound sand after decades of waiting? Why must they pay for someone else’s campaign promises?

As Alaskans and Americans, we owe these veterans far more than a debt of gratitude for the blood, sweat and tears they’ve given to this country. We owe them the land that was promised. And while we may not be able to turn back the clock and make these veterans whole, in the immortal words of Dr. King, “the time is always right to do what’s right.”

Do what is right, Mr. President.

Josh Revak is a state senator from Anchorage and Click Bishop is a state senator from Fairbanks.

Updated: 
04/29/2021 - 12:33pm