OPINION: Biden administration needs to keep its promise to Alaska Native veterans

The federal administration’s broken promises are a slap in the face of Alaska Native Vietnam veterans.

Federal overreach has always affected our way of life in Alaska. It is no secret that the federal government has been quick to lock up federal lands and slow to deliver on its promises. In a deeply troubling move last year, the Biden administration delayed a program that gives qualified Alaska Native Vietnam veterans the opportunity to select a plot of federal land in Alaska.

As you are reading this, 50 years after these veterans last had the opportunity to apply for their land, take a guess at how many of these applicants have been awarded land. If you guessed just a few, you’d be right.

More than 50 years have passed since these veterans were promised land allotments. The administration needs to pick up the pace and keep its promise. The slow-walking of this promise is a slap in the face to our Alaska Native Veterans. It is completely unacceptable, and action is needed — and needed now. They have waited long enough, and they are dying.

The timeline

During the Vietnam War, 2,800 Alaska Natives served in the military — a higher rate per capita than any other group. Since the conflict did not end until 1973, service members were unable to apply for land before the December 1971 deadline created by the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

Alaska Native Veterans were finally given that opportunity once again under the 1998 Alaska Native Vietnam Veterans Land 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 provisions within the Dingell Act of 2019, signed into law by President Donald Trump, 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.

Promises made and broken

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. Subjected to Agent Orange, numerous other toxins on the battlefield and vilification upon their return, these veterans’ scars run uniquely deep. The continued disrespect shown to those who served honorably makes my heart ache and my blood boil.

Alaska Native veteran Jerry Ward shared his perspective with me recently. “Many Alaska Natives who were in combat were unable to apply for an allotment. I was in the jungle in combat. I had no idea that the federal government was doing away with this. Thanks to our congressional delegation here in Alaska, this problem is being solved. The problem is that this process is outliving Alaska Natives. I can list half a dozen friends of mine who I served with that have now died.”

The trail of broken promises speaks for itself. But it is the stories of veterans like Jerry who motivate me to fight for solutions. How is it fair to tell these Alaska Native Veterans to “pound sand” after decades of waiting?

Perhaps most frustratingly, the land that is currently allotted by the federal government, through the administration, is largely unusable, inaccessible land; on top of mountains of glacial land that is not native to those to whom it is allotted. Is this the treatment our veterans deserve?

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.

“This was a right that was supposed to be given to Alaska Natives that they will never have,” Ward continued, “It is a promise that we are still waiting for half a century later. I am glad that Sen. Revak along with the delegation is looking at this and I am hopeful that there will be a resolution for my fellow veterans.”

Please join me in signing a petition to the Biden administration asking them to keep their promise to our Alaska Native veterans. Email my office today to sign: Sen.Josh.Revak@akleg.gov.

Sen. Josh Revak represents Senate District M in the Alaska Legislature, encompassing the Huffman, O’Malley, Abbott Loop, Independence Park, and East Dowling areas of Anchorage. This op-ed was published in newspapers across Alaska.