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Meghan Sullivan
Indian Country Today

As part of the ANCSA profile series, Indian Country Today wanted to acknowledge some of the instrumental Alaska Native leaders who have since passed. Twenty years ago, Willy Templeton, the director of Alaska Native Student Services at the University of Alaska Anchorage, interviewed many of these elders for an ANCSA at 30 celebration. Below are excerpts from these discussions, which can be found on the online learning tool LitSite Alaska. As ANCSA approaches its 50th Anniversary, many topics addressed then are still relevant now -- such as, subsistence rights, tribal land ownership debates, and confusion surrounding its legal complexities.


Tom Richards, Jr. : ANCSA "transformed" Alaska Natives

Tom Richards Jr. was born in Kotzebue in 1949. He initially got involved with ANCSA as an “interested observer,” which was sparked by the Tundra Times's reporting on ANCSA throughout the early 1960s. He soon moved from a loyal reader to a journalist himself. In 1968, he officially joined the paper as a staff writer, covering ANCSA issues throughout the land claim movement. He later became president of Alaskans on the Potomac, a group of Alaskans living in Washington D.C. who acted as a sort of embassy for Alaska Native organizations working on ANCSA during that time. He continued to work on ANCSA issues throughout the 70s and 80s as a staff officer for tribal organizations in Interior and Southwest Alaska, and in the Alaska Area Office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Richard’s overall view of the legislation was nuanced, describing it as a policy" bitterly despised by some groups and beloved by others,” that was caused by a “complex matrix of oddly-related circumstances and events.”

What was the promise of ANCSA? Has it fulfilled the promises? If not, what happened and why?

The primary purpose of ANCSA was to settle unresolved aboriginal land claims...The primary promise of ANCSA, providing title on lands to Native entities, has not been fulfilled. Delays have been experienced because of the bureaucratic process, land use conflicts arising from the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, and from natural and understandable lags in developing Native management experience relating to learning curves. Other difficulties include conflicts involving public issues, such as subsistence hunting and fishing and the tribal status of Alaska Natives, and because of differing opinions about how to pass ownership of ANCSA assets to future generations. Some expert observers say it may take 100 years or more to resolve some issues, such as land title conveyances and establishing management regimes to govern land use and management of fish and game resources.

Were there unintended consequences of ANCSA developments that no one foresaw?

Unintended consequences of ANCSA include ongoing disputes over subsistence rights because of the ANCSA provision extinguishing Alaska Native hunting and fishing rights, confusion about Alaska Native tribal status because ANCSA is silent on this issue, and deep-rooted controversy involving some Native corporations because of varied shareholder expectations and desires which sometimes have fostered chaotic management shifts.

How has ANCSA changed Alaskans, particularly Alaska Natives? What values of Alaska Natives have been changed or challenged?

In some cases, ANCSA has caused transformation of many Alaska Natives from impoverished social liberals seeking redress of historic claims into conservatives wanting to protect property rights and lessen government regulation of business management practices. There is some irony here, because much of the opposition to ANCSA came from conservative political and business interests, while advocacy came from national liberal political leaders. In some areas, ANCSA has contributed to a devastating impact on rural and village economic sustainability. The rural ability to influence public policy has been eroded because of Native outmigration to urban areas for work with ANCSA corporations. In some regions, villages have no economic viability and function more as retirement communities than traditional Native settlements.

What is your favorite ANCSA story?

There are so many...One is about a visit to Anchorage by a village leader from Southcentral Alaska for an early AFN convention, at a time when few delegates had much money. By accident, he wandered into the Petroleum Club. The maitre d' challenged him at the door. He told the fellow that this was an exclusive club for people in the oil business. The village leader thought quickly, and then replied, "I am in the oil business -- the seal oil business." He was admitted to the club. There are hundreds of such stories. ANCSA was contrived in an atmosphere involving people from so many cultures that some confusion was to be expected.

John Borbridge, Jr giving a speech. 

John Borbridge, Jr giving a speech. 

John Borbridge, Jr: ANCSA “sought justice”

John Borbridge Jr, Tlingit, was born in Juneau during the 1920s. His roles included vice president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, president of the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indians of Alaska, and president and chairman of the board of Sealaska Corporation. In 1965, elders from his tribe asked him to go to Washington D.C. to represent them as the land claims movement took off. The trip launched his long legacy of community advocacy -- he would go on to become one of the most significant Alaska Native lobbyists during the ANCSA debate, ensuring Southeast Alaska’s inclusion in the legislation.

What was the promise of ANCSA for you?

I think the promise of ANCSA can be assessed in part by the three primary objectives that the Alaska Natives sought: land, protection of the subsistence rights, and compensation for lands to which their aboriginal title would be extinguished. The loss of lands due to selections by the State of Alaska under the Statehood Act was stemmed, and we received title to our lands. However, one of the unforeseen consequences was that we were required as a Native people to spend tens of millions of dollars in litigation to ensure that what was promised was in fact delivered.

I think the other matter, subsistence, was one in which the promise of the Congress was so complex it took a little while longer for them to deliver on that. Finally, we worked for the passage of Title VIII, the subsistence title of ANILCA, the Alaska National Interests Conservation Act. As a consequence, we received protection of our subsistence lifestyle, although it was not directed at us as Native people. It was directed at us as rural-situated Alaskan people.

Has ANCSA fulfilled its promises and if not, why not?

I think they've fallen short. I'll start on this basis -- Is it a perfect act? No, simply because, (1) it has been amended a number of times, and (2) in the implementation of the act a great deal of money has been expended by the corporations to ensure that the promise of ANCSA was delivered. I think another way the act has fallen short of its promise is, even 31 years after the passage of ANCSA, not all the titles to lands promised under the act have been delivered. It clearly falls short in those respects.

I don't want, however, to inadvertently overlook the fact that it sought to do justice. Justice is rarely ever a perfect thing. It so often is a matter of compromise. In this instance it sought to do justice and it sought to recognize that the Native people took their grievances and their desires to the Congress of the United States and through a very sophisticated, persistent effort they brought about the passage of the Claims Settlement Act, one of the largest and most complex acts ever enacted by the Congress.

Has ANCSA changed Alaskans, particularly Alaska Natives?

It has involved us on the business side of things, and so it has expanded our intellectual horizon. It has been a challenge for leaders to communicate their experiences to people in the villages and also to recognize the people in the villages, who have a lot they can teach the directors and elected officials of the corporations. I think there needs to be more interaction.

In terms of unanticipated events, a big one is the number of lawsuits. For example, lawsuits have sought to clarify aspects or provisions of ANCSA. One example is 7(i); it turned out to be very simple in concept. There would be monies that would be shared, so that when Corporation A realized money from resources, monies derived from those resources would need to be, under the provision of ANCSA, shared with the other corporations. The idea being that the resource-rich corporations would not be rich while neighboring, resource-poor corporations were not enjoying the same kind of success. So I think that 7(i) was intended by the Congress to try to even things out.

What is your favorite ANCSA story?

Oh my personal favorite is when Governor Hickel was appointed to be Secretary of Interior in President Nixon's cabinet...We walked in the Senate Room, and there were all these lights blazing from the television cameras that were set up. Police were posted at the door, and just about all the seats were filled except those at the very front, which were reserved for VIPs. As we approached the door where the police guard was, Willie Hensley said to Eben Hopson, "What do you think about the hearings, Senator?" The fact was Mr. Hopson had been a state senator, and you could just about see the ears of the policeman perk up right away. He turned to us very quickly and said, "Senator, will you follow me and bring your party?" So of course, Willie Hensley and I followed Eben Hopson, who was following the policeman, and we were taken to the front row and seated amidst a lot of speculation. People were wondering, "Who are these power brokers?" That's my favorite story.

Joseph Upicksoun, left. 

Joseph Upicksoun, left. 

Joseph Upicksoun: ANCSA "wasn't enough land"

Joe Upicksoun was notably one of the only Alaska Native leaders who was against the passage of ANCSA, along with other Arctic Slope advocates such as Charlie "Etok" Edwardsen Jr. Born in Noatak during the 1930s, Upicksoun was president of the Arctic Slope Native Association and a board member for the Alaska Federation of Natives when the land claims movement began. He worked to protect Indigenous land claims with all the other Alaska Native regions, but didn’t believe ANCSA was the solution. Despite his stance, he would later become one of the founding members of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation and served as its first president and chairman.

In his ANCSA at 30 interview, he recalled the David and Goliath dynamic Alaska Natives all endured together:

“[The state and federal government] had all the money to do what they wanted, but Alaska Natives didn't have that kind of money. We had to rely on the Bingo games held in our communities every couple weeks to make enough money to travel, and we applied for grants. We were able to apply for an $85,000 grant, which we successfully received. During my involvement with ANCSA, I felt a purpose in working with our people and establishing an aboriginal title and our legal rights.”

Why did you vote against the passage of ANCSA?

On December 18, 1971, at the Alaska Pacific University, there was a meeting that we, the Alaska Federation of Natives held. Those who were involved in lobbying the Alaska Native Land Claims effort were there to hear the President of the United States, Richard Millhouse Nixon, announce he had signed the bill.

We had good reasons for voting no. One was that there wasn't enough land. Forty million acres was not enough land for us anyway, especially those of us who live in the Arctic and rely very much on the yield of the land and sea.

Secondly, the distribution of the proceeds of the settlement on a per capita basis. The Arctic Slope Native Association had always, by population, been five percent of the Alaska Natives, so we had five percent of the vote. Southeastern Alaska and the Yup'iks with their large number of votes held us back. We couldn't continue to fight with that many votes against us.

Then, of course, we had some objection to how southeastern Alaska, even after the court settlement that brought in 7.2 million dollars. They were only getting 25 percent of the settlement. There were other things, too, that we did not mention in that telegram to the president, and one was that we wanted to protect the integrity of the Edwardsen v. Morton lawsuit. We still had that.

How did the other leaders react when you voted no?

The other associations had always maintained that each association was entitled to express its own opinion, its own vote.

Have you changed your opinion about ANSCA since then?

No. For economic reasons, it's all right. We had white man tools, a for-profit corporate concept. It has its covenant, the articles of incorporation, and can do business. It has shareholders, which are identified as the Native people, and of course the books were closed for anyone to register on December 18 of 1971, which left the After-Borns with nothing up until 1988 when ANILCA came out and we were able to maintain the status quo or enroll our After-Borns.

As you work with a bill long enough, you start questioning, "Why are they making new laws when the United States Bureau of Land Management already has existing public land policies and laws?" I questioned why Congress had to put in special laws for us when I knew that if there were white shareholders in a corporation, they would have objected to duplicating what is already a public law in the Bureau of Land Management and Department of Interior.

What would you say to people who take the opposite view, and say 40 million acres is enough. What would you say to them now?

The 375 million acres that comprised all of the state of Alaska was divided into different ethnic groups, different areas, different regions, each coming in with their share filing their land claims.

For example, Arctic Slope happened to have 56 and a half million acres, which was 14 percent of all of Alaska land. The other regions also had certain amounts they came into the Alaska Native Land Claims with, and they had their certain portion of the whole state of Alaska. What we did with the 40 million acres was that we wanted 14 percent of that, that's on the land side. On the money side, we didn't care about that, because money comes and money goes, and we could make our own money by developing our own land.

After the Department of Interior made their land selections, we had very little land to select from.

Have you seen a change in values or a change in Alaska Natives since ANCSA?

In the Arctic Slope, we always felt that after the ANILCA, when we were able to include even the After-Borns, it made our children feel proud of being part of a settlement. They're shareholders in our regional corporation. It gives them a lot of pride to identify themselves with a very successful corporation.

I have a lot of confidence in our young leaders. They have feelings about their corporations. They want them to succeed, and they want to become involved in them.

The leadership we have now is realizing that tribal councils under the Indian Reorganization Act have permanent relationships with the federal government where the government protects the hunting and fishing rights. We always have the ability to harvest the land, rivers, and seas. One has to distinguish between economics and the subsistence lifestyle, and know the definition of what economics is and what subsistence really means. The way any ordinary dictionary explains subsistence is as a total absence of economics, see. I grew up and did not know what money was because my dad was a very good provider, and we came out very happy, healthy kids who were well fed and well groomed, all without any money. Of course, they were able to trap fur. But, once economics enters the subsistence lifestyle, then trappers are regulated, so they can only trap during certain seasons. It's sort of a golden rule that I adopted: "He who has the money makes the rules."

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This story is part of a joint project between Indian Country Today, Alaska Public Media, and Anchorage Daily News on the 50th anniversary of the landmark Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Funding for ICT’s ANCSA project is provided in part by the Alaska Center for Excellence in Journalism and the Solutions Journalism Network. Stay updated on ICT’s ANCSA project using #ANCSA50 and at

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