ANCSA paved way for Alaska Natives, state to prosper together

Photo by Michael Dinneen

Sweet A young boy looks down to read his protest sign Sept. 10, 1969, as a group of Alaska Natives demonstrate outside Sydney Auditorium in Anchorage against a lease sale of the oil-rich North Slope lands.
AP Photo/Barry

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services enforcement officer Harry Pinkham got more than he bargained for when he arrested a couple Iñupiat hunters for shooting ducks around Barrow in May 1961.

Hunting migratory waterfowl from March to September was barred under a 1915 treaty between the United States and Canada, but had never been enforced in the Arctic until shortly after Alaska became a state in 1959.

After two arrests for illegal hunting, Charlie Edwardsen and his cousin, on instructions from his grandfather, proceeded to shoot as many ducks as they could, and later that evening 138 Iñupiat men summarily presented the ducks to Pinkham at his hotel and demanded to be arrested, according to the book, "Take My Land, Take My Life," by Donald Craig Mitchell.

The charges against Edwardsen’s uncle, John Nusunginya, and Tom Pikok, were dropped and Fish and Wildlife Services backed off its enforcement efforts.

The Barrow "duck-in," as it came to be known, would not be the last time Edwardsen was heard from, or the last time Alaska Native solidarity would carry the day against the power of the government.

The duck-in, in addition to an audacious federal proposal to use a nuclear blast to form a harbor in Point Hope (later shelved) and an equally controversial project to build a large dam on the Yukon River at Rampart (flooding a huge area in the Yukon Flats), helped unify Alaska Native people in a quest for land rights.

In the Arctic, Edwardsen helped form the Arctic Slope Native Association, which filed the first large aboriginal land claim, covering all of northern Alaska. This was to start a series of similar large land claims across Alaska, which soon blanketed the state.

Ten years after the duck-in, President Richard Nixon signed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, or ANCSA, a landmark piece of American legislation that for the first time wove the right to self-determination into the resolution of aboriginal land rights.

The act, now almost 40 years old, settled Native land claims with 44 million acres and $962 million paid over 11 years from the U.S. Treasury and income from oil revenue. Rather than model the act on the reservation system of the Lower 48, with Native Americans still living under the control of Bureau of Indian Affairs, 13 regional corporations and about 200 village corporations were formed to manage the funds and land to provide economic opportunity and integration for Alaska Natives.

"It’s quite remarkable what was accomplished, especially when you see where these guys came from," said University of Alaska Anchorage professor Willie Templeton, who is also director of Native Student Services. "They did not allow Alaska Natives to be a marginalized population. When you look at the future development of the state, the Alaska Natives are at the table. We play a major role in the development of the state and the success of the state is going to be dependent on the success of the Native corporations."


Cultural historian Aaron Leggett stands outside the Alaska Native Heritage Center. Leggett has worked to keep alive the history and culture of his Dena’ina peoples.
Photo by Michael Dinneen

Shares of stock in the corporations were issued to 80,000 Alaska Natives, and more than 100,000 Natives are shareholders today. In 2008, some $171 million in dividends were paid, representing 66 percent of net income to the regional corporations.

Income for the 12 regional corporations in 2008 was $6.9 billion, double the revenue of just four years earlier, boosted by billions in federal contracting dollars awarded through the Small Business Administration’s 8(a) program.

Since 1970, according to socio-economic research performed by the University of Alaska, inflation-adjusted income has grown by 50 percent to $42,703 and the proportion of Alaska Natives living below the poverty line has declined from 47 percent to 22 percent.

Native healthcare has also improved dramatically through the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, the Southcentral Foundation and the development of telemedicine to provide care in remote villages.

"I don’t think we realize how fortunate we are until you go down and see how they do it in the (Lower 48)," Templeton said. "We may not agree with some of the decisions our leaders make, but we definitely have more control over our lives than other Native people in a general sense. That’s not to say we don’t have challenges. But the point is I’m confident we have the talent growing up in the Native community that we can meet those challenges."

In a way, ANCSA has been more important to Alaska than the Statehood Act itself.

From statehood in 1959 to the signing of ANCSA in 1971, Alaska had been stuck in a kind of development purgatory. It was largely unable to select the 103 million acres promised from the federal government when Alaska joined the Union because the entire state was subject to Native land claims, and Interior Secretary Stewart Udall had imposed a freeze on all land transfers to force a settlement of the claims.

Shortly following statehood, Alaska did successfully select land for oil and gas development in Cook Inlet and the North Slope, and began collecting millions in royalty income. Not long after, the nascent Alaska Native activist movement began challenging every state land claim.

At the U.S. Department of the Interior, responsible for settling Alaska’s land selections, an unofficial "drawer veto" policy took effect. If an outstanding Native claim existed on the lands selected by Alaska, the state request went in a drawer and no action was taken much to the consternation of the state’s leadership and its Congressional delegation.

The widely held belief that Alaska Natives neither deserved nor had use for the tens of millions of acres they claimed, and their dogged insistence to the contrary, created years of impasse.

While progress toward a fair settlement of land claims moved haltingly throughout the mid-1960s, the time was not wasted among the Native community, as organizing thrived from Southeast to the Arctic. Their political clout and savvy grew, and bolstered by the Tundra Times newspaper and editor Howard Rock, so did unity and Native awareness.

The organizing efforts of Emil Notti, the president of the Cook Inlet Native Association, culminated in 1966 in Anchorage, where 300 Native leaders from across Alaska arrived to begin crafting their own proposals for settlement of land claims.

After learning that politicians and bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., were attempting to craft a settlement without Native input, Notti sent letters to 14 Native organizations inviting them to a meeting in Anchorage. Rock picked up the letter and featured it in the Tundra Times, and the impressive show of support in Anchorage led to the formation of the Alaska Federation of Natives, with Notti as its first president.

Notti recalled those early meetings in an interview with the University of Alaska Anchorage celebrating the 30th anniversary of ANCSA: "It was hard to get people to start trusting each other. We would hold meetings from 8 o’clock in the morning until 10, 11 o’clock at night. They were wide open; everybody had a say. We would vote on issues, it was hard to get everybody to work toward consensus.

"With these open meetings, people started trusting each other; they all had a say and they were all treated with respect. Even if we had great differences of opinion, we arrived at a position, issue by issue the amount of land, the amount of money … After a lot of arguments and discussion, we arrived at our positions and marched on to Congress."

There was not much enthusiasm for the AFN proposal in Congress, the White House or in Juneau, but Alaska Natives did have the support of some key state legislative figures such as state House Speaker Mike Gravel, whose whirlwind campaign through 124 Native villages in 24 days nearly propelled him to an unlikely near-upset of four-term Congressman Ralph Rivers in the 1966 Democratic primary.

Charlie Edwardsen, who was helping energize the land claims movement in the Arctic, was a legislative page for Gravel in Juneau that year when he met Willie Hensley of Kotzebue, another emerging Native leader who wrote the seminal paper on Alaska Native land claims for a constitutional law course at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Hensley was a founder of Northwest Arctic Native Association, which became NANA Regional Corp. after ANCSA passed, and eventually served as its president.

Hensley, who’d been in school at George Washington University, met Notti and other Native leaders during that fateful year of 1966 that witnessed the formation of AFN.

Yet for all their organizing prowess and emerging political stature, it was the discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay in 1968 that propelled the need to settle Alaska Native claims with a new sense of urgency.

With a plan envisioned to build a pipeline from the North Slope to Valdez needing thousands of acres and miles of right-of-way crossing Native lands, Gravel, by then elected to the U.S. Senate, held firm in standing for a claim settlement first before the project could move forward.

"(Gravel) was insisting that, ’you’re not building this thing until the land claim is solved,’" Templeton said.

Ted Stevens was also in the U.S. Senate by that time, having been appointed to fill the vacancy left by the death of Sen. E.L. (Bob) Bartlett. Gravel and Stevens worked together with Native leaders for passage of the claims act.

ANCSA was signed in 1971. Construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System began in 1974 and was completed in 1977. The effect on Alaska was nothing short of transformational.

In 1976, the gross state product was $8 billion and Alaskans earned $5 billion in personal income taxed at 14.5 percent, the highest rate in the nation. Nearly 40 years later, oil revenue provides nearly 90 percent of state revenue, Alaskans no longer pay state income tax, gross state product has swelled to $39 billion and state residents earned $25 billion in personal income.

"Alaska Natives gave this state the ability to prosper in that settlement," Templeton said.

The greatest gift, of course, from leaders like Notti, Hensley and Rock was to Alaska Natives.

"They really have passed on something to us, the next generation," said Templeton, who was 15 when ANCSA passed. "They got us to the table and kept us from being marginalized. It’s our job to maintain what they have given us. We are players. We have a future in this state. That’s something it did that sometimes we don’t recognize. It maintained the sense that we have a future."

10/13/2010 - 8:00pm