Native Claims: How Alaska Found a Settlement
Here is the story of what Alaskans did, as told by former Alaska Governor and US Interior Secretary Walter J. Hickel, excerpted from Crisis in the Commons: The Alaska Solution, pg 139-145:
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Urban attitudes toward Alaska Natives-including the idea that we know better how they should live their lives-are motivated by both ignorance and outright prejudice. Getting off the steamer in Juneau in 1940, I was shocked to discover that Natives were not allowed in the Baranof Hotel, the capital city's most prestigious establishment. In Anchorage, there was less overt racism, but even there I was chastised for dancing with a Native woman at a Rainbow Girls dance at the Elks Club. It was outrageous to me that newcomers who had just gotten off the boat treated Natives as outcasts in their own land. Some of these attitudes still linger today, although the vast majority of Alaskans recognize such ignorance and prejudice for what it is.
In my bid for governor in 1966, my platform included the recognition that Alaska Natives had been treated unfairly and deserved a major settlement of their claims to Alaska's lands. Although comprising more than 15 per cent of the population, they did not own their ancestral lands. Alaska's history had left most land in federal hands, without Indian reservations or treaty rights found in many other states. During the statewide campaign that year, I visited as many villages as possible, even tiny ones with few voters, and I learned a great deal. The poverty and hardship as well as the hospitality and warmth convinced me we needed to do something significant to improve living conditions even in the most remote villages. I proposed that we create a Department of Native Affairs to aid village economic development and to provide legal assistance to newly created Native organizations such as the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN).
Various Native groups fought for their lands in the courts for decades, but in 1966 they were becoming more unified and more sophisticated in their approach. The Alaska Federation of Natives gave Alaska Natives a single voice for the first time. The statewide organization held its founding meeting in Anchorage in October 1966 and invited me to speak. The Native land claims issue, to me, was an issue of human rights.
Those of us who fought for Statehood had high hopes when ... our state government began on January 3, 1959 .... We were now no longer second-class citizens. We had obtained the rights we had so long sought. But I charge that those rights were extended to only five out of six Alaskans, and have been denied to the one out of six that are Native Alaskans .... No Alaskan can hold his head high as long as we see other Alaskans deprived of their human dignity and human rights.
The incumbent, Bill Egan, had attacked my idea of a Native affairs agency, saying Natives should join the mainstream. Some Native leaders began to throw their support behind my candidacy, especially those who were unsatisfied with Egan's tentative support for their land claims. Speaking to the AFN, I challenged his record, one of the few times in that election. If elected, I promised that the state would be the Native's strongest ally in fighting for their land.
I won the election by a margin of 1,080 votes. Although Egan received most of the (consistently Democratic) Native votes, it is possible that my campaigning in the Bush and my stand on land claims made a difference to a few.
SETTLING NATIVE LAND CLAIMS
What would a fair settlement for Alaska's Natives look like? Interior Secretary Stewart Udall submitted a bill to Congress in 1967 that would cede 8 to 10 million acres of Alaska's 365 million acres to the Natives by placing 50,000 acres in trust for each village. A court would add an unspecified amount of cash later. This was not enough. But the AFN's own bill also left the amount of money vague and would allow the courts to determine the amount of land. Written by the attorneys for the Native groups, the bill specified a process that would have taken decades to determine what land was involved tying up the entire state in uncertainty and litigation. It also included a ten per cent take for the attorneys, potentially making them the nation's biggest individual landowners.
The delay over Native land claims had tied Alaska in knots.
Even as he offered an inadequate settlement, Udall maintained an "informal" land freeze on Alaska's federal land. No oil lease sales or land transfers to the state could occur on land claimed by Natives. He had received claims starting in 1961 but had approved none of them. By May 1967, the land freeze had chilled Alaska's economy, with partly overlapping claims filed on more than 380 million acres-more than the entire land mass of the state. The freeze was intended to help the Natives, but as we demonstrated in the January 1967 oil lease sale on the North Slope, it made more sense for everyone involved to continue to explore the land while working to resolve the claims.
On February 26, 1967, I called together a day of meetings with Native leaders at the Alaska Native Health Center in Anchorage work toward a joint position. We had to work through a lot mistrust. Property lines are foreign on the Arctic commons, but they were needed if we were to carve out pieces of Alaska that the Natives could own. For their part, the Native leaders wanted enough land both to generate income and to continue their traditional lifestyles. How many acres would they need for their trap lines, or to live off the great caribou herds that roam the Arctic and interior of Alaska. How many acres would they require to support new mines and logging operations that could employ their people?
That October, we found a path to a solution at the second convention. My Attorney General, Edgar Paul Boyko, said, "The state needs land. The Natives need land. The state and the Natives should go into partnership." We agreed to form the Governor’s Special Task Force on Native Claims, a group charged with producing a solution that the Natives, the State, and the Interior Department could all agree on. We invited Native leaders from each Alaska region. Some of the members of that Task Force have since demonstrated great staying power, including Senator Willie Hensley of the NANA Region, Byron Mallott of Sealaska, Aleut leader Flore Lekanof, Harvey Samuelson from Bristol Bay, and the first AFN President Emil Notti.
I wanted the Natives to receive enough land so they could carry on their way of life and advance economically. They also needed to receive subsurface rights so they could share in Alaska's oil and mineral wealth. And they should be paid cash for dropping their claims to the remaining millions of acres in Alaska. We needed to allow for a combination of traditional Native lifestyles and economic opportunities. The Native people themselves would decide the final mix over generations to come.
The Task Force proposal, completed the following January, recommended that 40 million acres be conveyed to the Natives through for-profit corporations representing the regions and villages of Alaska. In addition, Natives could continue to use other federal lands for subsistence hunting and fishing. After many twists and turns, most of these ideas were incorporated in the final settlement passed by Congress three years later, but the Task Force expected the cash the Natives would receive to depend on future resource revenues from oil and gas, with a minimum of $65 million. That wasn't enough. Testifying to a U.S. House subcommittee that summer, I called for at least $500 million for Alaska's Native people.
"The recognized judicial basis for the taking of land," I said, "is its fair market value, and I doubt whether the minimum $500 million settlement satisfies that criteria. As a side note, $1 billion is perhaps inadequate to satisfy this criteria."
In joining President Nixon's Administration at the end of 1968, I carried these ideas with me to Washington, but Washington was far behind our thinking. The key committee chairmen in Congress did not take seriously the magnitude of the Native demands. They were working on bills that planned for much smaller land and money settlements.
In April 1969, I asked for a meeting with President Nixon and other members of his Cabinet to determine the Administration's direction on Alaska Native claims. Commerce Secretary Maurice Stans was there, as well as representatives of the Justice and Treasury Departments. We met in the Oval Office, and the other departments presented their views to the President first, giving him reasons why the United States owed Alaska's Natives neither land nor money. Part of the Native argument rested on the belief that when the Russians sold Alaska to the U.S., Native claims were unresolved and not part of the bargain. Many Native tribes had little or no contact with the Russians. They argued that the Russians had sold land they didn't own. But the attorneys told Nixon there was no legal claim: the Russians conquered Alaska and their possession was confirmed by international recognition at that time. America had bought that ownership fair and square. The other departments explained why there was no economic claim. Clearly, I alone would be arguing the Native point of view.
After hearing out the other side, the President turned to me and said, "Let's hear from Wally."
I said, "Mr. President, I agree with my colleagues, there is no legal claim here, nor is there an economic claim. Mr. President, it's a moral claim."
As quickly as that, Nixon's face lit up. I knew that expression well. This was the positive Nixon who enjoyed doing things that were innovative· and right, the side of him which, tragically, was lost later in his Administration. He dismissed the arguments of the other Cabinet officers and said, "I'm going with Wally."
From that day on, Nixon was the strongest ally of Alaska's Natives in Washington. Historians writing on the Native claims have noted that without Nixon's support a settlement as large as we achieved would never have happened.
It's important that we set the record straight on what motivated Nixon's support, and uncouple the oft-repeated link between the trans-Alaska oil pipeline and the Native claims settlement. My support for a large settlement pre-dated the discovery of oil on the North Slope, and Nixon's decision to back my position came before Ed Patton or anyone else linked the two issues. Later, the pipeline issue strengthened the Natives' cause, and Congressional politics linked the two issues, but in 1969, when we established Administration policy on Native claims, the subject of the pipeline never came up. We simply wanted to settle the claims because it was the right thing to do.
All it takes to introduce moral considerations into government, on the commons or on any other issue, is for one man or woman with conviction to speak from the heart. Words so spoken get heard, either because those listening believe or because they feel ashamed of their own motivations. Nixon backed me up when I went to Capitol Hill to testify on pending land claims legislation. The Senate Interior Committee asked me to appear on April 29, 1969, three months after I had taken office. The Congress and Natives waited anxiously to hear the new Administration's position. The bill under consideration included a payment of $185 million. I announced that the Administration couldn't accept that figure. This gave the impression that we thought the figure was too high. Then, I hit them with a bombshell, saying we would not support any bill with a payment of less than $500 million. That figure became the floor in legislation that followed over the next two years, and it moved up from there.
The next year, 1970, the Senate passed a bill sponsored by Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson and supported by Senator Ted Stevens that included cash payments of up to $1 billion but only million acres of land. The Native spokesmen knew that wasn't enough land for their people to continue their traditional way of life. Feeling they were being treated unfairly, they adopted more extreme positions. The issue appeared headed for an impasse.
Back home, it took time for development-minded Alaskans to support a large land settlement. Governor Miller, reflecting a common view in the business community, thought the Natives should get no land exclusively for their use and no sizable money settlement. Bill Egan believed a settlement of five million acres would be reasonable. But shortly before the 1970 election, in which Egan defeated Miller and returned to office as governor, Egan changed his mind.
Governor Egan explained his reasoning later. When the land was in federal hands, as in territorial days, the resources were abused, or put off limits. Through the statehood fight, we were promised 103 million acres for the state, and we had brought in the Prudhoe Bay oil discovery on property we selected. If the Natives got another 40 million acres, then the federal government would have that much less land to mismanage or ignore. Native leaders wanted a better life for their people, so they could be counted on to care for their land and to use it productively. This was one reason Egan began to advocate strongly for a generous settlement, including an AFN proposal that was even larger than the final bill.
Other forces also joined with the Natives. By 1971, the pipeline issue had become inextricably linked to their land claims. After the showdown in 1970, when the oil companies committed to build the pipeline and hired Ed Patton to do it, they threw their support behind a settlement satisfactory to the Natives, because that would help clear the legal tangle ensnaring the pipeline corridor. Nixon met with Don Wright, president of the AFN, and after hearing Wright’s impassioned plea, Nixon committed to veto any bill that the Natives felt didn't meet their needs. The Administration then introduced a bill calling for 40 million acres and $500 million; with terms close to those my state Task Force had advanced three years earlier.
On December 14, 1971, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act passed Congress, ceding 40 million acres of land and $962.5 million to 13 regional Native corporations and many village corporations. This was, by far, the largest settlement ever received by indigenous people anywhere in the world, and set a new standard in human history for the fair and moral treatment of First Peoples.
Before he would sign the bill, President Nixon wanted to know if the settlement was agreeable to the Native community; so the AFN called a special meeting on December 16, 1971. Two days later the Native representatives present voted 511 to 56 to accept the terms, in which they would receive title to one ninth of Alaska and nearly $1 billion. I was present as President Nixon was connected by telephone to a meeting hall at Alaska Methodist University in Anchorage to receive the news of the Natives' vote. Nixon said, "I want you to be the first to know I have just signed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act."