St. Lawrence Island corporations get clear title to their land
The federal Bureau of Land Management handed over permanent title to St. Lawrence Island to Alaska Natives last week.
Neil Kornze, federal BLM director, traveled to the sixth-largest island in the United States to sign a patent conveying the 1,068,104 acres to the two corporations representing the villages of Savoonga and Gambell. The conveyance makes good a promise made through the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971—45 years ago.
“The people of St. Lawrence Island have been seeking title to their lands for decades,” Kornze said. “I am honored to be here to help bring this long journey to a positive end.”
The people did receive an interim conveyance in 1979 pending a completed land survey of the island. The confirmatory patent, signed July 27, completes the transfer process for almost the entire island.
St. Lawrence Island lies in the Bering Sea about 160 miles west of Nome and less than 40 miles from Chukchi Peninsula of the Russian Far East. The island, thought to be the last remaining exposure of the Bering Land Bridge that once joined Asia and North America, is about 90 miles long and in width measures about eight to 22 miles.
Combined population of the two villages on the island comprises about 1,400 people who rely on the land and sea for their subsistence lifestyles. The residents of the island have a long tradition of gathering bird eggs and fish, hunting marine mammals, and creating carvings from walrus ivory and whale bone.
In 1971, residents of the two villages decided to opt out of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, ANCSA for short. ANCSA, as a way to settle aboriginal claims to their land, created 12 regional corporations and 200 village corporations in Alaska to receive title to 44 million acres of land and $1 billion.
Gambell and Savoonga had a different idea. They settled for 1.136 million acres of land in the St. Lawrence Island Reserve. Now the official patent conveyed by BIA July 27 affirms that Savoonga and Gambell jointly own the land as private property.
Researchers believe the island has been populated for the last 2,000 to 2,500 years. In the 1800s, about 4,000 people lived in many villages, thought to number 30 to 40 spread over the island. According to Alaska Native oral histories, in the period between 1878 and 1880, a severe famine and contagious illness reduced the population by 1,000 and wiped out all the villages but Gambell and Savoonga.
In 1900, the federal government introduced reindeer to the island to supplement subsistence food sources and to reinforce the economy.
The BLM manages more than 245 million acres of public land, the most of any federal agency. This land, known as the National System of Public Lands, is primarily located in 12 Western states, including Alaska. The BLM also administers 700 million acres of sub-surface mineral estate throughout the nation.