Governor opens talks on return of Gulkana lands

Published January 2017

Representatives from Gov. Bill Walker’s administration are meeting with Ahtna and the Gulkana Village Council to explore a path forward to return the villagers’ sacred lands that are currently in state possession.

The working group formed after Walker visited Gulkana in June and heard firsthand the story of a bisected village and decades of ancestral grave desecration that began when the U.S. government built a highway bridge over the Gulkana River in 1943. Village residents had to move to the other side of the road, away from the cemetery.

Roy Ewan estimates 100 family members are buried in the cemetery.

“My grandpa, my grandma, my uncle, my auntie, my sister, my brothers. All we come together there all the time,” 90-year-old Hazel Neeley of Gulkana told KTVA-TV. That is until 1943, when Hazel was only 18 and returned with her family from a trapping trip to find a road had been built right through their village.

The 13 acres their family’s gravesite sits on was signed over to the state of Alaska in 1971. It’s now a campground and a boat launch. Ahtna and Gulkana have proposed a land swap that would exchange the 13 acres the cemetery sits on for another piece of land on the other side of the bridge.

While conversations are in the early stages, progress is being made and the working group has embraced
several goals:

  • Complete legal and expeditious return of sacred lands
  • Account for DOT&PF transportation mission needs associated with the existing bridge (Maintenance and operational access and future bridge rehab scheduled for 2018)
  • Ensure reasonable alternative public access to the Gulkana River (Ahtna has plans for a new boat-launch facility)
  • Collaborate on a public process for those impacted so they have opportunity to be heard and provide input
  • Account for fiscal reality – both the state and Ahtna/Gulkana are working within tight fiscal constraints

Everyone interested in this topic should stay tuned for public process announcements in which opportunities for input will be offered and welcomed.