SAINT LAWRENCE ISLAND, Alaska - In one of the biggest land conveyances in US history, the federal government officially signed the title to Saint Lawrence Island over to its native population.
More than one million acres of land was researched and surveyed by the Bureau of Land Management in preparation for the title transfer. Using GPS mapping and aerial photography, the BLM took three years to complete the process before handing over ownership of the island.
“This is the largest survey we have ever done, and the fourth largest conveyance that the US government has ever done in one fell swoop,” said BLM director Neil Kornze.
Multiple BLM officials from Washington DC, Anchorage and Nome flew into the villages of Gambell and Savoonga on Wednesday for an official document signing ceremony. The conveyance of land finalizes a process the Alaska Natives of St. Lawrence Island have been waiting for since President Nixon signed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 (ANCSA.)
“The descendants of our forefathers would have clapped their hands just like we did with the signing of the patent,” said Gambell village elder Branson Tungiyan.
With the title in hand, the villages of Gambell and Savoonga will share ownership of the sixth biggest island in the US.
Full ownership of the island was a decision made by the village elders decades ago. When ANCSA first passed, villages across Alaska were offered a piece of a near billion dollar settlement to sell large portions of their land to the federal government.
Savoonga and Gambell elders opted out of the payout. Instead they received no money, no opportunity to become part of a larger regional native corporation, but rather received opportunity to own the former St. Lawrence Island Reserve, now giving them 900 miles of coastline, mountains and lakes.
“One of the things [the elders] told us is, ‘as long as you are owners of the island, the island will take care of you,'” said president of Kukulget Corporation Perry Pungowiyi.
“You keep the land instead of the money, because money runs out,” said Tungiyan.
The BLM gave the native population interim conveyance of the land in 1979, only to receive the final title when the government finished its survey of the land. The survey for St. Lawrence Island wasn’t completed until 2016.
“The ANCSA entitlement in total [statewide] was about 44 million acres, and that's roughly the equivalent size of the State of Washington,” said Erika Reed, Alaska BLM deputy state director of lands, cadastral survey and pipeline monitoring. “That's about the acreage that we've been surveying and conveying over the last 45 years.”
Pungowiyi said, so far there's no plans for greater development of the island. He said, most important to the village at this point is to preserve the land their ancestors have inhabited for thousands of years.
“This is home. This is where I live. I feel at peace when I'm here. I have no worries other than fish and game,” said Pungowiyi. “Here it still feels like we're living with our ancestors.”