Catholic missionaries first started venturing into the Alaska territory in the late 19th century, not long after Russia sold the land to the United States for 2 cents per acre.
The Catholic Church built missions and churches, and in the 1950s, bought land in the Copper River Valley from the U.S. government for a mission school largely serving Native students. Even at a modest $1.25 per acre, the sale netted the U.S. government a tidy return on investment.
Now, 50 years after the once-thriving school was shuttered, the Archdiocese of Anchorage-Juneau wants to sell the 462-acre property back to its Indigenous inhabitants for more than $4,000 an acre — or put it up for sale on the open market.
And that has the citizens of the tiny Native Village of Tazlina — a federally recognized tribe — scrambling to raise the $1.86 million asking price so they can regain stewardship of its ancestral lands.
“It’s the Copper River. It’s where we’ve always fished traditionally … for thousands and thousands of years,” Gloria Stickwan, president of the Tazlina Village Council, told Indian Country Today. “I would like to see that land back for our tribal members because … if that land is sold (to outsiders) our fishing sites could be taken away and that concerns me for tribal members not to be able to fish. It’s how they provide for their families.”
By all accounts the village and the church share a warm relationship, and the church reached out to the village about the sale. It is less clear how readily the church could sell the property on the open market or how it arrived at its asking price.
Congress placed restrictions on the property in 1953 when it enacted Private Law 151, the statute that authorized the sale of the land. It states that the land is to be used for a “mission school” and that “the coal and other mineral deposits in the land” shall remain the property of the federal government. When the church tried once before to sell the land, in 1976, those restrictions scuttled the deal. A subsequent effort to get Congress to rewrite the 1953 law stalled, and the same restrictions that torpedoed the 1976 sale remain in force today.
Further, the deed to the property issued in 1956 states that the church’s rights to the property do not supersede preexisting fishing rights “as may be recognized and acknowledged by the local customs.”
“The title to that property is clouded,” said Matt Newman, a staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund’s Anchorage office. “This just isn’t a viable commercial property. … It could not be available for purchase in any way besides to the people who have historical use of the land.”
Church officials declined to comment on the proposed sale.
“The Archdiocese of Anchorage-Juneau does not discuss details of its business transactions,” Chancellor John Harmon wrote in an email to Indian Country Today. “The Archdiocese has established a very good working relationship with the Village of Tazlina and looks forward to the sale of the property.”
A ‘troubled’ history
The Copper River drains off the Wrangell and Chugach mountains in Southcentral Alaska, east of Anchorage, feeding once-abundant salmon fisheries as it coursed through major points of the territory’s history.
Ahtna Athabaskan hunters discovered the copper deposits in the river valley that featured prominently in ancient regional trade routes.
Russian fur seekers ventured up the valley in the 18th century initiating some of Alaska’s first Indigenous-colonial contacts. And the trans-Alaska pipeline — which transformed the state’s economy in the 1970s — is still visible along stretches of the Richardson Highway that parallel the river.
By the 1940s, Jesuit Priest John Buchanan was pushing for development of a school for Native youth. In 1953, Congress agreed, authorizing the Department of the Interior to sell the acreage to the church for the purpose of establishing a mission school.
The priest opened the Copper Valley School a couple of years later with a combined staff and student body of about 70 people. Enrollment peaked at more than 150 in the mid-1960s, as Native and some non-Native students were brought in from around the state. It was one of 367 Indian boarding schools across the country established in the 19th and 20th centuries.
A 2005 survey, “Thirty years later: The Long-Term Effect of Boarding Schools on Alaska Natives and Their Communities,” by the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage, documented the impact of boarding schools in the state.
“The history of formal schooling for Alaska Natives, from the time of the U.S. acquisition of Alaska in 1867 to the present, is a troubled one,” the survey concluded. “The goal of many educators at the time of mandatory boarding schools was to assimilate people of different cultures and ethnicities into the dominant culture. This cost many students not only the loss of their language, but also their culture and identity. These practices had lasting effects on individual students, their families, and communities.”
The Copper Valley School shut down in 1971 when the state of Alaska — after numerous lawsuits — agreed to build schools in communities throughout the state rather than continue a mandatory boarding school policy for Native students.
In 1976, the structure was destroyed by fire and the church made its first effort to sell the land.
That year, construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline — which winds down through the Copper River Valley — was in full swing. Large quantities of high-quality gravel and sand were needed for the work, and yards of it lay right near the surface along the Richardson Highway on the boarding school property. The church seized a business opportunity and sold the property to a group called One-Eleven Associates that planned to sell the gravel and build housing to provide shelter for workers along the pipeline route.
But One-Eleven ran into roadblocks. Officials realized they didn’t own the rights to the gravel on the property and the restrictions in the deed prevented “the use of the land by owners for housing, or purposes other than a mission school,” according to Congressional documents.
The company, unable to get financing, lobbied Congress to remove the “mission school” reference and amend the mineral rights language from the 1953 act authorizing the sale of the property.
The bill with the amended language sailed through a Senate committee but ran into headwinds when Interior Secretary John Kyl balked at relinquishing the rights to the sand and gravel under the property.
That “would appear to be a generous gift of large quantities of mineral materials to the Catholic Bishop of Northern Alaska or a purchaser from him,” Kyl wrote in June 1976 to Rep. James A. Haley, a Florida Democrat and chairman of the House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs.
“The value of the material was not included in the price paid for the land and the conveyance to One-Eleven Associates did not include title to the minerals,” he wrote. “We know of no basis or justification of giving the Catholic Bishop or One-Eleven Associates this extra benefit and therefore oppose the enactment of this provision.”
The bill died and the church resumed ownership of the property from One-Eleven Associates, with the original restrictions on the property intact.
Legal issues surfaced again in a claim brought in 2014 against the church for a portion of the Copper River property. The case was argued in state court by Newman, who represented the family of Stickwan in an effort to regain possession of a family fishing site.
For generations, family members had operated a “fish wheel” on the banks of the Copper River. A fish wheel resembles a watermill that harnesses a river’s current to spin a wheel fitted with baskets that can scoop up salmon as they travel to spawning grounds upstream. It is a traditional fishing apparatus ubiquitous in Alaska that often plays a central role for families and communities.
“It wasn’t just fishing at fish camp,” said Tazlina Village citizen Donna Renard, who was not a party to the lawsuit but who has fished her whole life in the region. “We learned our life lessons down there. That ground is where generations of my family walked, so everywhere I walk at fish camp I’m walking in their footprints.”
In 2015, the Stickwan family prevailed and won possession of its 1.3-acre fish wheel site on the river and a legal right-of-way to it over other church property. Many other Tazlina families could bring similar claims, according to Newman, though none has come forward.
“Individuals have a very strong claim to large swaths of that church land,” he said, noting that any potential buyer of the property would surely weigh the possibility of future litigation.
Stickwan remains puzzled that her family is alone in asserting claims to fishing sites.
“I tried to talk to other families that were using that area, tribal members, but they did not get involved,” she said. “And I couldn’t force them to. I couldn’t speak up for them because it’s their responsibility to talk for themselves and they wouldn’t. “
The reluctance may be rooted in the general atmosphere of comity that pervades the relationship between the Catholic Church and Tazlina.
Although the school has been closed for generations of students, an active alumni association still exists and holds reunions every August in the village.
“We get about 50 every year,” said Copper Valley School Association President Stephen Gemmell. “One year we had more than 300. It was RVs and tents for as far as you could see.”
And it persists despite sometimes strained relations.
After the school burned in 1976, the site fell into ruin and became a dumping ground. For decades, villagers complained of the eyesore and environmental dangers at the site.
Eventually, federal regulators stepped in. In 2013, Environmental Protection Agency investigators identified asbestos contamination and ordered the archdiocese to clean up the 30-acre school building site. The church complied and the work was completed later that year, EPA records show.
The cleanup costs apparently factored into the calculations behind the church’s asking price for the boarding school land. Tazlina villagers said church officials told them the church set the price for the property at $1.86 million — which comes to $4,025 per acre — because the church has to recoup the money it spent on the cleanup. Various published reports have put that figure at between $1 million and $3 million.
The asking price appears high, according to a review by Indian Country Today of online listings of undeveloped acreage for sale in Interior Alaska.
“At that price (the property) would have to have some substantial improvements,” said James W. Riley, a Realtor in Willow, Alaska. There are no structures on the property.
Nonetheless, Tazlina villagers are pressing ahead with fundraising.
The terms of the original contract the village signed with the archdiocese gave the villagers until October 2021 to raise the money. Last year, because of the pandemic, the church extended the deadline to October 2022.
“Before the church put the land on the open market, they did reach out to Tazlina because of the great partnership we’ve had over the years,” said Marce Simeon, village administrator and a tribal citizen.
“We’re especially grateful and thankful that the church was able to provide that one-year extension for us. It definitely makes it more of a possible goal,” she said.
The Village’s GoFundMe page had raised more than $100,000 as of Friday and the Great Land Trust of Southeastern Alaska has pledged about $600,000 to purchase a portion of the property to put in a conservation easement.
“We have a long way to go,” said Kristin Carpenter, an outside consultant hired by the village to assist in fundraising. “But we’re optimistic.”
“We really appreciate the Catholic Church working with us and we really hope to be able to secure this for future generations for our tribal members and community members alike,” said Simeon.
Villagers are also driven to reclaim the land as the salmon runs appear to be dwindling.
“There have been several years now that the fish run has been low,” Stickwan said. “We have not been able to catch what we usually catch. I remember when we used to be able to catch maybe 300 a day. That was the norm. But we don’t see that anymore. It’s just not the same. Sockeye runs are not the same. The king salmon are small. The sockeyes are small. The run is not healthy. And we have a large family and they all use the wheel and we share what we have.
“We have our family site protected, but I am concerned about other tribal members.”