Karluk Tribe keeps up fight over ownership of river

  • The Karluk River is protected from the notorious Shelikof Strait by a peninsula of land that has steadily eroded. In the 1890s, a more substantial land mass was inhabited by six canneries, offices and some fishing shacks. (Photo/Naomi Klouda/AJOC)
  • The original village of Karluk changed locations through the centuries as the river itself changed course. This shows the village as it existed in the 1900’s when six canneries once operated at the river’s mouth. Now the village is located on the opposite side of the Karluk River. (Photo/Naomi Klouda/AJOC)
  • There are about 50 people living year-round in Karluk today. The Karluk River continues to provide their main food source of five species of salmon and some jobs. But economic forces have not been in their favor; Koniag Inc. has limited economic opportunities of guiding and lodges built on Tribal lands. (Photo/Naomi Klouda/AJOC)

Centuries of tides changed the Karluk River’s course and the Tribe that continues to claim ownership today.

Storms in Shelikof Strait altered the beach where the ancient Alutiiq people settled thousands of years ago on Kodiak Island. It sent up big boulders, not just sand and pebbles. Slate blue waters covered the homes of those people and when that wasn’t enough, swallowed the artifacts so that only divers can regain its past for future people. It made more modern generations move.

First they lived on one side of the river. Then they moved to the other side of the river. Pushed inland, Karluk Alutiiq villagers, the 49 people left today, live a hard walk from the beach where precious salmon enter.

Karluk Chief Alicia Reft was in elementary school when the trouble started. Her parents and grandparents said their river lands, and ultimately that means the Karluk, were “illegally taken” in 1980.

That was when the small Tribal corporation created under the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act agreed to merge with another new entity, Koniag Inc., the regional corporation formed after the passage of ANCSA in 1971.

The agreement included the 24-mile Karluk River lands.

“That was when they signed to merge with the Koniag Native Regional Corp.,” Reft said. “People were naive back then. They believed what they were told by the regional corporation, that this would good.”

Under faulted advice from a Tribal leader, Reft said, Karluk gave up its independent tribal village corporation option to merge with Koniag. The agreement absorbed the mighty Karluk and Sturgeon River and village lands of nearly 84,000 acres.

Koniag claimed title to the lands except where the people’s houses and the school sat on a 34,000-acre reservation that was created in 1939 by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

What Alicia Reft’s parents were told along with five other tribes — Larsen Bay, Old Harbor, Ahkiok-Kaguiak, Ouzinkie and Afognak — made sense at the time. If they joined their resources together of timber, fisheries and lands, their larger joint holdings would eventually pay bigger dividends.

But it didn’t take long for the villages to do their math. Afognak’s Ole Olsen calculated the timber value alone in his village Afognak Island holdings and decided the $2,100-per person settlement money offered was an insulting joke.

In 1984, Olsen’s lawsuit against Afognak, Victor Peterson for Old Harbor and Ralph Eluska on behalf of Ahkiok, were joined as a combined lawsuit in Alaska Superior Court. Judge Douglas Sedahely found that Koniag hadn’t represented the truth in its case to gain the mergers.

The end result was a sweep back to allow each of those three entities to break away and form their own village corporations. Koniag was forced to pay each village $600,000 in cash plus return the lands.

“Karluk didn’t join the lawsuit in court. People back then were trying to survive. They didn’t have the money for attorneys,” Reft said. “But the people knew the merger was wrong.”

“No one except possibly Ole (Olsen) saw the future,” said Frank Peterson, an original director in Ahkiok-Kaguyak Inc. “He was the only one to foresee the timber assets.”

Peterson said foreseeing the loss wasn’t easy for any of the villages’ leaders.

“I went to Old Harbor and had to strong-arm my brother (Victor) to get him to join the lawsuit. I made at least three trips to Karluk and Larsen Bay to try to convince them,” Peterson said.

But Larsen Bay’s Jack Wick and Karluk’s Allen Panimariof were each on the Koniag board of directors, and Wick served for a time as a Koniag CEO. They convinced the people that the merger was the right course of action, Reft said.

It didn’t take long for the Karluk people to realize the severe loss as their own village economy spiraled downward in the 1990s and 2000s. The village shrank by half when people moved out to find jobs, Reft said. The other villages that went off on their own had begun to prosper and earn dividends on their corporate investments.

A young Reft, barely into her 20s, and her Tribal council began to ask questions.

They asked: Even though Karluk didn’t hire an attorney to join that lawsuit, didn’t the ruling still apply?

For 35 years now, that question hasn’t been answered to the Karluk Tribe’s satisfaction, but Koniag believes the courts have been clear.

The regional corporation contends that the village of Karluk does not have claim to sole ownership of the lands around the river, even if they say it was wrongly purchased from them for a very low price.

“There is a clear difference of opinion and we understand and respect the Karluk Tribal Council’s opinion,” Koniag Regional and Legislative Affairs Executive Tom Panamaroff wrote in response to questions from the Journal. “However, the courts have consistently said that Koniag owns the lands. It was part of a merger that happened more than three-and-a-half decades ago. It is clear the land belongs to all Koniag Shareholders, including those residing in Karluk.”

What does a salmon river cost?

Koniag absorbed 83,767 acres from Karluk, including the famed Karluk River lands. Koniag quickly found out how much a famous salmon river sells for: By selling a temporary conservation easement to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Koniag gained more than $29 million.

What did each Karluk shareholder get in exchange? Exactly $2,100 per person to its original 186 people in 1984, or $390,600, and 1,800 acres was conveyed to the Tribe. But even this was trickery, the descendants say. They were paid with their own settlement money.

“It was our money that was given back to us; so they didn’t pay us anything,” Reft said.

The funds Koniag paid to Karluk came from the original Karluk village corporation settlement set aside by Congress under ANCSA, which included nearly $1 billion in payments as part of the settlement along with 44 million acres of land.

Karluk elders noticed they had been cheated and their Tribal council led the charge through the years.

They kept pointing to the 1984 Sedahely decision that ruled the 1980 village corporations’ merger with Koniag had constituted fraud. When Koniag didn’t listen, they took it to federal officials such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Land Management.

When those agencies decided they had no jurisdiction to help, the Tribal chief and her council members went to the congressional delegation. They’ve turned to several unhelpful generations of Interior Department secretaries, back to their congressional delegation, then to any official, even candidates running for office, who will listen.

“We’ve been fighting this thing all these years,” Reft said. “Now there’s hardly anyone left that was involved in the original (1980) merger.”

They’ve also been told there is no statute of limitations on contesting the merger.

“So we keep fighting this, year after year,” she said.

A stack of court filings eight inches thick proves her point.

Panamaroff said the position of the regional corporation is that all Koniag shareholders, including shareholders residing in Karluk, are owners of the Karluk River lands, “and Koniag makes every decision with the best interests of ALL our shareholders in mind.”

“We have great respect and admiration for the Karluk Tribal Council and community residents. We wish them success and are glad they are part of the Koniag family as shareholders. As a corporation we are legally, ethically and morally bound to create economic growth to provide opportunities and benefits for our shareholders, which includes shareholders residing in Karluk.”

The coveted Karluk

Russian fur traders set up a post at Karluk in 1786, just 10 years after the American Revolution. They came for the otters. Pelts went for $3,000 each at the market peak.

Soon, the Russians also were setting up saltries and feeding themselves on the rich salmon entering the Karluk. But the Russians lost interest in Karluk when they depleted the otter population there, and so they moved on, according to local history.

The otter populations didn’t survive the Russian period, but the salmon runs weren’t too badly dented. By the time American ownership called the shots, wealthy cannery owners from Puget Sound had discovered the Karluk River’s bounty.

Just 11 years after the ink dried on America’s purchase of Alaska from Russia, the first cannery on Kodiak was set up at the banks of the river in 1878. Four years later, five canneries were operating there.

Karluk’s population of Alutiiq people was dwarfed as the American, Chinese and Filipino cannery workers arrived. For several decades they processed the salmon that the fishing fleet took out in the “millions each year,” according to the Alaska Packers Association’s historical accounts.

Watching how outsiders invaded and depleted the salmon that had long been their primary source of food and a store of wealth for trading with mainland Alaska Native tribes, the Karluk Tribe sought a solution. Chief Ewan Naumoff, active in the late 1920s and ‘30s, found a method for protection by seeking reservation status. The Tribe’s members voted 59-0 to pursue becoming a reservation.

That status was granted in 1939 and it set up an unusual situation of ownership favorable to the Karluk Tribe. The National Indian Law Library recorded Karluk’s Reservation Constitution in 1939.

“They sought the creation of the reservation in order to protect their river from over-fishing,” said Karluk Tribal board member Joyce Jones. “They saw what the canneries had done, an awful devastation.”

Jones remembers the stories.

“The people filed a lawsuit against the fishing companies for taking too many fish,” she said. “The canneries and their buildings covered the whole spit for a lot of years and the people knew they had to do something.”

The move worked.

The Karluk Tribe was given ownership of its river. Under reservation law, the Karluk River was closed to commercial fishing by anyone but Tribal members. Federal reservation law outlined specifics on who may fish: “The waters of the Karluk Indian Reservation shall be open to commercial fishing by bona fide native inhabitants of the native village of Karluk and vicinity, and to other persons insofar as the fishing activities of the latter do not restrict or interfere with fishing by such natives. Such natives shall not be required to obtain a license to engage in commercial fishing in the waters of the Karluk Indian Reservation.”

It further spelled out the Tribe’s ownership of the Karluk River containing approximately 35,200 acres.

Karluk was under federal law protections decades before ANCSA began to apply, due to this unique reservation status, one of only two villages in Alaska to obtain it. Metlakatla on Annette Island was the other. The lands were deeded to Karluk Tribe and control over the rivers, according to the Cornell Law Institute, which archives the historical records.

The law was put to the test in at least one case, in the 1940s, while Alaska was still a territory. In Hynes vs. Grimes Packing Co., the regional U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was able to sue Grimes Packing Co., for illegally fishing on Karluk Reservation river waters.

The agency seized the boats and net gear owned by the cannery. Grimes appealed the case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled on Nov. 10, 1950, to uphold the the seizures for illegal fishing.

ANCSA changed the law

By the time the Karluk Tribe was asked to do the merger with Koniag, they were warned that the reservation status was to become null and void, replaced by the new body of law under ANCSA. That was the first step to losing their river.

The Karluk Tribal Council, composed now of Chief Alica Reft and other Tribal members, has taken a stand. They were joined by other members of the Tribe in a unanimous move.

Since their lands were illegally taken in the merger, they contend, they are asking for a return to the reservation status. To do that, they’ve hired Tribal Attorney Kurt Kanam, who has made filings in federal court asking for a return of those lands.

But Koniag allegedly owns even the reservation lands where the residents live, even the Tribal building that doubles as their post office and utility office. This excludes only land where the school sits.

“If it is all owned by Koniag though, where is their deed of trust saying they own the land?” Chief Reft asks now. “If they really own the land we live on, our reservation lands, where’s the paper that proves a transfer of ownership?”

The deed doesn’t seem to exist, she said. Koniag has never produced it, but Panamaroff wrote that the ownership issue is settled from a legal standpoint.

“Over the years, the courts have consistently ruled that Koniag owns the land and that the merger with Karluk Native Corporation is valid,” Panamaroff wrote to the Journal. “The Karluk Tribal Council has made several legal claims in various forums over the years contending that the 1980 merger was invalid. Koniag believes the time has long since passed for the Karluk Tribal Council (or anyone else) to legally challenge the merger between Karluk Native Corporation and Koniag. We would like to move forward and find ways to work together.

“We can work on together to create benefits for all of Koniag’s Shareholders, including those residing in Karluk. While we have compassion and respect for the Karluk Trial Council and Karluk residents, we are moving forward.”

New ownership test

A new ownership test emerged recently, however. Chief Reft and her husband, on behalf of the Karluk Tribal Council IRA, had built a cabin near the Karluk River. It is land included in what Karluk claims as its own, now mapped by Koniag as inclusive of regional corporation lands.

The cabin is for cultural activities to be used by for educating youth and other gatherings as well as for a source of tribal income.

Though Koniag knew of the cabin for several years, Koniag filed a lawsuit against Alicia Reft and her husband, Dean Andrew, more recently. The regional corporation alleged “trespass” and used the term “eviction” in the lawsuit.

On July 28, 2012, Koniag’s vice president of corporate affairs, Charlie Powers, wrote to Alicia Reft that the “cabin on Conveyance 105 is on Koniag land.” He wanted to meet on Sept. 1, 2012, with “the cabin owners to formulate a plan with owners of cabin and plan for its removal.”

No deed of ownership was produced to prove Koniag, and not Karluk, owned Conveyance 105. Instead Powers produced a document that showed approval of a planned merger, Dec. 10, 1980.

Chief Reft countered with signatures of Tribal members who wanted out of that merger. The document stated “voting members of the Native Village of Karluk Tribal Council unanimously agree to de merge from Koniag Inc.”

The document lists the successful court cases that challenged the merger with Koniag — or got out of mergers and won — which Karluk maintains it could it not join due to lack of funds to fight at the time. It named the original victors: Afognak, Arnold Olsen (1980) Nicholas Shuravloff, (1981) Ralph Eluska, Akiok, (1982) Victor Peterson, Old Harbor (1982).

“Karluk was never compensated like these other Tribes. On Jan. 6, 1984, the cases were handled collectively,” stated Karluk’s response to Koniag’s Charlie Powers.

Wins and losses

Alaska U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason dismissed Koniag’s lawsuit against Alicia Reft and Dean Andrew in September 2014.

Was this a victory? A step closer to regaining the lost lands and the river?

“Not necessarily,” answers Karluk’s Attorney David Clark. “It’s the first step in 13 steps to be made. At least (Judge Gleason) agreed the case doesn’t belong in federal court.”

State court is where Clark would rather argue the “trespass” case. But the ball is in Koniag’s court to decide whether they want to pursue a dismissed case or not, he added. Once the land ownership questions are opened, Karluk may finally get its first chance to argue in court.

“They’ve never had that day in court to say this is their lands or that the merger was fraud,” Clark said.

He has argued in filings over the past years that “Koniag wants to sweep under the carpet its theft of Karluk Native Corp. lands in this federal court lawsuit. Koniag received 83,767 acres of valuable land from Karluk, and has received or will receive millions of dollars from the Fish and Wildlife Service by defrauding Karluk shareholders out of their ANCSA heritage.”

Clark argues that Koniag undervalued the lands owned by Karluk to its shareholders long ago, “while cynically engaging in efforts to sell the resources for considerably more. The merger of Karluk into Koniag is one of the largest land thefts induced by fraud in the State of Alaska.”

And that is where the case languishes, as an eviction-trespass issue. Bounced from state court, federal court and Tribal court, the Karluk Tribe keeps fighting to recover its river.

Naomi Klouda can be reached at [email protected].

10/18/2017 - 12:38pm