Monday, September 26, 2011

Fortieth Anniversary of The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act

l to r Wally Hickel, then Secretary of Interior, William
Hensley, Alaska Federation of Natives and
Senator Ted Stevens
University of Alaska Fairnbanks
When Russia sold Alaska to the United States in 1867 there were about 400 white people in the territory and something like 85,000 natives.  It’s a fair bet the 400 never engaged the 85,000 in a discussion about how to bring them in on the deal.

William Hensley, an Alaska Native (Inupiaq) legislator and business man who was a leader in the effort to create a fair land settlement for Alaskan Natives, pointed out in a speech he gave in 1969 that of the 375 million acres that made up the new state of Alaska, just 500 acres were in the actual ownership of Alaska Natives.
The legislation that made Alaska a state had no resolution of aboriginal claims when it passed in 1959. In fact, the legislation gave the state the ability to choose 103 million acres from the public domain lands while it stayed silent on native claims.
At statehood, there were about 54,000 natives in Alaska, spread across a vast geography, distanced not only by miles but by different cultures and languages.  Still they organized a group called the Alaska Federation of Natives and began to make sure they were not shoved aside yet again.  Remarkably, they were able to convince the Secretary of Interior, Stewart Udall, to freeze the transfer of lands to the state, building pressure for a lands settlement, but the odds were long against something even remotely fair. 

Bill Van Ness, center, between Senator
Henry Jackson of washington and Supreme
Court Justice William O.  Douglas
Then came the discovery of oil on the North Slope in 1968.  While Alaskans had been drilling, pumping and refining oil in Alaska since 1898, Prudhoe Bay was the biggest find in North America and bound for use elsewhere.  The requirements for pipelines, leases, shore side development and all the accoutrements of a mega-project required a settlement with the natives. 
In 1966, a young graduate of Western Washington University and the University of Washington Law School, Bill Van Ness, got a call from Senator Henry Jackson’s office.  There was an opening on the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee and the senator had heard that Van Ness was one of those bright young people with lots of energy who populate the staffs of effective senators.
Van Ness wanted to teach and had a fellowship at Yale lined up that would be an excellent first step in his law professor career choice. But he also had kids, a clunker car and debts from school. 

Bartlett in the center with the 49 star flag
Alaska University, Fairbanks
Handed the native claims issue, Van Ness was horrified to learn that the world knew almost nothing about Alaska Natives and there was almost no literature on their legal status.  He realized there would be no legislation without information and he advised that the committee retain a big think tank to develop a baseline set of information about Alaska natives – who they are, where they live, how they eat and house themselves, what happened during the 150 years of Russian rule and what all these things and others would mean for a deal that would stand the test of an American courtroom.

Alaskan Earthquake, 1964
US Geological Survey
Bob Bartlett had been the territorial representative from Alaska from 1945 and was elected its first senator in 1959.  Senator Jackson and Van Ness briefed him on what Van Ness had found and described their recommendation for a fancy think tank.  Bartlett thought it a disaster to put this critical piece in the hands of people who did not have experience in Alaska and, like so many people who have lived in and cared for Alaska, countered with an Alaskan solution.  He advised bringing in the Federal Field Committee for Development Planning, an organization put together during the Johnson administration to coordinate Alaska’s recovery from the 1964 earthquake.  What they didn’t know about academics, they countered with a recently developed understanding of aboriginal people in Alaska.
The earthquakes in Indonesia, Chile and Japan and their extensive live news coverage have obscured just how massive the Alaska earthquake was.  It was a 9.2 Richter event, the second largest ever recorded, and the shaking went on a full four minutes.  Centered in the Prince William Sound area, 75 miles southwest of Anchorage, the Pacific Plate slid under the North American Plate an average of nine meters for several hundred miles.  18 people were killed in Oregon, Washington and California by the resulting Tsunami.  The long duration of the shaking created local waves from 30-70 meters high that killed more than 70 Alaskans.  All in, 131 people died. 
The Field Committee’s work with this devastation made it intimate with most facets of Alaskan life – a unique body of knowledge in the world.  Their earthquake work brought them into close contact with native leadership as well as the needs and conditions of natives, so, when they were asked by Van Ness to produce a study for the senate committee, they were able to produce it rather quickly.
In 1968, “Alaska Natives and the Land” was published by the Field Committee and Alaskans found themselves in two difficult realities – they were floating on a sea of oil and were complicit in a deep injustice to a people who had occupied the land for millennia. 
It described Native Alaskans as poorly educated, poorly fed, poorly treated with many unable to get through a year with both heat and food.  As dreary as the image was, it contained information about where people were, how they lived and what needed to be addressed.
“How can Alaska Natives be enabled to improve the circumstances under which they live?” the Field Committee wrote.  “And how can settlement of their land claims and protests – the subject of legislation before Congress – contribute importantly to this end?  It is these two questions made one that are now the opportunity of government to answer.”
William Hensley put it this way in his speech:
“We are testing the American political system. We have found it responsive up to this time, and have hope. We know the history of our country in dealing with the American Indian, and want to see a final chapter not written in blood, or in deception, or in injustice. We want to be able to live longer and more decently, without having to stoop in indignity because of a degrading welfare system. We feel this is possible, if we can secure the kind of land settlement we are proposing.”
Having rejected the welfare based reservation system in use in the Lower 48, they focused instead on a corporate model, 12 regional corporations and over 200 village corporations charged with bringing opportunity where there was none.  They would divide a billion dollars and 40 million acres of land among them, along with mineral and other rights, provided they share among all of them the financial value of what lay underneath their land. 
Forty years ago, the corporations struggled early, focusing on what they knew – primarily timber and fishing.  However, their most important investments were directed at educating new generations of their own leadership.  Over the three generations since the settlement, they have built a cadre of home grown business administrators, accountants, economists and lawyers.
With such a small market at home, the corporations began to look beyond Alaska, acquiring companies in the Lower 48 and some across the world.  They became extremely adept at federal contracting, particularly after a Small Business Administration program became available to them in the early 80s.  In 2008, the Alaska Business Journal reports that the 12 regional corporations had annual income of nearly $7 billion.
The number of Native Alaskans below the poverty line today is at 22%, down from nearly 50% at the time of the settlement. 
The corporation of which William Hensley is President, NANA, is on fire.  Developer of the world’s largest zinc mine, it has shared nearly $600 million in mining income with its sister corporations over the past 20 years. 
Household income in the Kotzebue area, the northeast part of the state, home to the NANA Corporation, has gone from $18,000/year to $58,000/year, the Business Journal reports.
The success of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and its outcomes enrich the long time, special relationships that exist between Alaska and Washington state.  The settlement has also meant a better life for natives.  While the challenges of remote life in hostile environments are extremely difficult, the choice to deploy the corporate model over the welfare model has worked in

Bill Van Ness never became the Ivy League lawyer he thought he would be.  After working ten years on the Interior Committee, he founded a great Seattle and Washington, DC law and public affairs firm, Van Ness Feldman.  He continues his work with Native Corporations and, since its founding in 1983, has served on the Board of the Henry M.  Jackson Foundation.

Alaska Natives and the Land (Large Document)

Cool site with interviews of principals in the creation of the settlement

Henry M. Jackson Foundation


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