KODIAK — On a Tuesday afternoon, Dean Andrew, owner and operator of Andrew Airways, stood in front of Mary’s Creek Cabin. The cabin, which sits on the bank of the Karluk lagoon, had most of its windows boarded up. Inside the cabin looked like many others; there was a log burner, a long table, a sink, and walls covered with things like life jackets and tools. Upstairs, several mattress lay on raised beds. Only layers of dust betrayed the cabin’s disuse.
Up until a few years ago, the cabin was used regularly as a fishing lodge and by residents of the Native Village of Karluk.
“This was a place that we didn’t just do the fishing thing, but it was a retreat for the people in the village if they wanted to come use the cabin,” said Andrew. “A lot of the kids remember this place from when they were younger.”
Over the years the cabin has become a focal point in a decades-long land dispute between the Native Village of Karluk and Koniag Inc, one of the 13 regional corporations established by the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
“This is the first time I’ve set foot here since 2012,” said Andrew. “It used to be a nice little place … but now everyone’s afraid to get sued.”
In June 26 letter to its shareholders, Koniag inc. announced that it will tear down Mary’s Creek Cabin, which is operated by Karluk Tribal IRA Council. The cabin is situated on land which, following a 1980 merger, legally belongs to Koniag. The Karluk Tribal Council claims that the merger was fraudulent and the land rightfully belongs to the Native Village of Karluk.
MARY’S CREEK CABIN
The cabin in question was built between 2001-2002. Dean Andrew explained that his wife Alicia Andrew (née Reft; the couple married in 2006) purchased the materials, and Andrew Airways funded the construction of the cabin. At the time, his understanding was that the the Native Village of Karluk owned the land.
“An air service is always looking for a destination or somewhere to bring people … the idea was that we would rent the cabin until Andrew Airways was reimbursed for the construction costs,” he said. “So when we brought people in here, they would charge a land-use fee, which would go to the Tribal Council ... and then we did the flying back and forth just to bring some economy. In between trips, the kids and the villagers would come and clean it and get it ready for the next group.”
Alicia Andrew is the president of the Karluk Tribal IRA Council. She said that the cabin was built on “what we consider our land.” She said that the money provided by the cabin wasn’t much, but it helped the village. She said, beyond Karluk’s school and a couple of lodges owned by residents, the village has no economic drivers.
“We were just trying to get a little bit of income,” said Andrew. “It’s just this small cabin. It wasn’t like booked solid or anything, but we were starting to get a few clientele … If people came to go fishing, they would pay land use fees and that would go to the council.”
However, Koniag views the cabin as a liability.
The June 26 letter states that the cabin was built without Koniag’s permission and that, due to rot and unsecure foundations, the cabin is unsafe.
The letter goes on to state: “... as a corporation, we are legally, ethically and morally bound to protect Koniag’s assets … and cannot allow structures to be built and rented on Koniag land with permission.”
“We have great respect and admiration for the Karluk tribal council and community residents,” the letter continues.
According to Koniag’s regional and legislative affairs executvie Tom Panamaroff, the corporation has been aware of the cabin since around 2003. However both Alicia and Dean Andrew said that the corporation raised no qualms about the cabin for roughly a decade.
“It was never a problem until ,” said Dean Andrew. “When that fight started, Koniag made a point of contention over the land, and said that this strip of land belonged to them.”
Andrew is referring to a 2012 lawsuit, in which Koniag claimed that the placement of the cabin constituted trespass. This, however, is the tip of the iceberg of the overall land dispute.
The question of ownership of the land can be traced back to 1939, when the Bureau of Indian Affairs designated 34,000 acres as a reservation, which was associated with the Native Village of Karluk. Although that designation was revoked with the passing of ANCSA in 1971, Karluk Village Corporation was formed and the land that made up the former reservation was given to KVC.
Then, in 1980, Koniag circulated a proposal to merge all of Kodiak’s village corporations into a regional corp. The proposal was approved in a vote of corporation shareholders and Koniag absorbed swathes of land owned by seven village corporations across the archipelago.
Things changed after members of a number of native villages took issue with certain elements of the merger – primarily, the compensation they had received as part of the deal, which was $2,100 and 10 acres of land for each villager.
By 1984, a superior court judge found that Koniag had been “misleading” in its proposal for the merger, which had resulted in a favorable vote among it shareholders. Most of Kodiak’s villages became independent corporations again, had their land returned and received financial settlements of $600,000 a piece.
The Native villages of Karluk and Larsen Bay, however, did not join the lawsuit.
Alicia Andrew said that the elders in charge of the KVC at that time of the merger were not equipped with the business acumen required to appreciate the value of its assets. Beyond that, according to Andrew, alcoholism was rife.
“There was a lot of drinking … [Koniag was] promising people things that weren’t true,” she said. “They had no idea of the wealth of what they owned.”
Mary Reft, a current Karluk resident who lived in the village at the time of the merger, spoke of poverty and noted that, at the time, the financial compensation of the merger seemed substantial.
“They got the $2,100 … and they needed money,” said Reft.
“Karluk could have stayed a village corporation and we could have had 100 shares in Koniag,” said Andrew. “Our people here didn’t understand any of that.”
“They were lied to,” said Kathryn Reft, Mary Reft’s daughter. “They were told, ‘if you don’t side with us, you won’t get the $2,100.”
Over the years, various attempts have been made to have the land transferred back to the Native Village of Karluk.
In 1987, Koniag Inc held a proxy vote among its shareholders on three issues, one of which was to transfer 34,000 acres of land back to the Native Village of Karluk (as well as roughly 17,000 acres of land to the village of Larsen Bay). According to a Koniag document regarding that vote, the total value of the land was estimated to be roughly $8.4 million. The conveyance, however, was contingent on a number of conditions, and ultimately never happened.
In 2012, the Native Village of Karluk tried to take the matter into its own hands. By that point, the statute of limitations on the 1980 merger was up, so the village attempted to sue Koniag in tribal court. The lawsuit aimed to have Karluk Native Corporation demerge from Koniag Inc, and to have its land returned. Its tribal court filing stated, “The Native Village of Karluk tribe are entitled to the same awards as the other parties were awarded.”
In response, Koniag counter-sued in federal court, arguing that Karluk tribal court lacks jurisdiction over Koniag Inc. because it is not a member of NVK. Federal Alaska District Court Judge Sharon Gleason ultimately ruled in favor of Koniag.
In March 2013, Koniag filed another lawsuit in federal court, suing Andrew Airways and Alicia Andrew for trespass in an attempt to have the cabin removed.
In 2014 Alicia Andrew filed a motion to have that suit dismissed and the court conceded, finding that the issue was not a federal matter. After Koniag took the case to a state court, it was ruled that Koniag owns the land.
Koniag’s June 26 letter states its intent to remove the cabin “this summer,” but does not go into further detail. According to Panamaroff the corporation is currently analyzing the safest way to go about removing the cabin.
The letter, penned by Koniag president Shauna Hegna, states “The cabin’s foundation is unsecure, several walls show significant signs of rot, and Koniag is concerned about the safety of anyone who might want to use the cabin.”
Members of the Native Village of Karluk refute this. Although there is rot on one of the logs at the front of the cabin and signs of rot in one corner, according to Andrew this could be easily fixed.
Safety aside, Panamaroff said that it comes down to a matter of legal land-ownership and noted that several courts have upheld Koniag’s claim over the land. The issue, he said, doesn’t just affect the corporation, but its many thousands of shareholders.
“Koniag, as the land-owner with over 4,000 shareholders – we have a legal and moral obligation to take care of our assets and that includes our lands,” he said.
Panamaroff said that Koniag has never had issues with members of NVK in terms of their utilization of Koniag lands.
“Our lands are available for our shareholders to use for subsistence or to hunt or anything else,” he said. “And that’s true for all of our shareholders, including those who live in Karluk.”
Panamaroff also said that a number of attempts to negotiate with NVK have taken place over the years.
“That has been attempted in the past with folks here in Kodiak,” he said. “It didn’t bear fruit … if it had, we wouldn’t be at this point.”
Those living in Karluk talk about the cabin almost as an emblem. While its removal will not have a huge economic impact on the village, Karluk’s residents see its removal as evidence that Koniag does not support them.
“It’s been hard. We live off government grants,” said Alicia Andrew.
“I’ve been with this village since 2002, and I see a lot of depression with the kids,” said Dean Andrew. “It’s almost like there’s no hope down here, because it’s like they get no help to try to survive.”
Editor’s disclosure: Andrews Airways flew a Kodiak Daily Mirror reporter to Karluk for this story.