Back in 1976, John McPhee wrote a beautiful book about Alaska called Coming into the Country. In it he profiled the peoples—native and immigrant, rural and urban—and the varied environments of American’s largest state (more than double Texas, the next in line). About land ownership he wrote (83), “The federal government, long ago, used to watch over Alaska with one eye, and with so little interest that the lid was generally closed. In all of that territorial land, so wild and remote, emigrants from the United States easily established their frontier code: breathe free, do as you please, control your own destiny. If you had much more in mind than skinning hares, though, it was difficult to control much of a destiny—to plan for example, any kind of development on a major scale, since the federal government owned more than 99% of the land.”
That period ended in 1959 with statehood, and Alaska has long been the theater for great controversies about land ownership and management. We are familiar with the conflict between conservation and development, but it is hardly that simple. There are conflicting claims between the state and federal governments, between different federal agencies, and of native peoples, which were formally recognized under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement. Conservationists may be allied with native peoples in revering the land, but in conflict with their desire to continue subsistence hunting and other ancient forms of land use.
Who owns the land? It is complicated, and always has been. Parashat Pinhas contains within it some of the conflicting agendas that often face people hoping to accommodate different claims. In a five-verse passage (52-56) Chapter 26 explains that the land should be divided according to population—the bigger the tribe, the bigger its claim—and yet also by random lottery, regardless of tribal size. This internal contradiction tied the rabbis in knots, and that was just the beginning. What was the basis for population-claims—the number that departed Egypt, or the number that would eventually reach the land? What about the few who fit both groups, or neither? There is a long discussion in Bavli Bava Batra dedicated to exploring, inventing and resolving such conflicts. Rashi (in his Torah commentary) summarizes the Talmudic discussion with a cut through the Gordian knot, claiming that the lottery was directed by the Holy Spirit, with consideration not only for quantity but also quality of the land, magically meeting the true needs of the people. Ramban doesn’t buy it. In an extremely long comment he argues that was a distinction between tribal claims, which were all treated equally, and the claims of families within the tribes, which were allotted according to their original size. Not magical lottery cards, but good governance, was used to resolve the conflicting claims. Continue reading