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Meghan Sullivan
Indian Country Today

"There are as many ways to be Indigenous as there are Native people in the state, and because our communities are in such a state of flux and have changed so quickly over just a few short generations, we are all still figuring it out,” writes Cordelia Qiġñaaq Kellie, Inupiaq. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was one of those recent changes. As with any other topic, there are countless different ways that individual Indigenous Alaskans and the 200 + communities they belong to view ANCSA and navigate the dynamics it created.

Leading up to the 50th anniversary of ANCSA on Dec. 17, Indian Country Today will be highlighting a wide range of these experiences, including insights from the elders who fought for the land, perspectives from current leaders today, and future goals from younger generations.

Willie Hensley

One name that many bring up in ANCSA conversations is Willie Hensley, an Inupiaq elder who has been involved with the movement since his college days.

Hensley was one of the primary leaders behind the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. While at university, he wrote the paper, "What Rights to Land Have the Alaska Natives: The Primary Issue," which became one of the major catalysts of the land claims movement. Originally from Kotzebue, he was a founder in both the regional corporation NANA and regional non-profit organization Maniilaq. He helped form the Alaska Federation of Natives, and has served as its executive director, president, and co-chairman. He recalls how Alaska Natives secured an “unprecedented” land victory, and reminds younger generations that the “corporation is a tool, not an end in itself.”

What was your role in ANCSA?

I wrote the research paper when I was 24. The paper was important to me and others because it provided a “paper trail” to support all Natives’ perspective that we owned historically, all of Alaska. I don’t know if there had ever been an effort in the previous 100 years to study/analyze Alaska Native land rights. My paper was reproduced and distributed by Charlie Edwardsen when we met to form the Alaska Federation of Natives in October of 1966. I was asked to chair the lands committee and we came out with our first, out of the gate, position. We wanted compensation for all the lands taken..and we wanted all the land that had not been taken, granted to us by the U.S. government.

What motivated you to get involved?

I was raised out in the country outside of Kotzebue and we always knew that this was Inuit territory. We had never thought that it was in danger of being taken away. My research helped me to understand that we were on the verge of losing over 100 million acres—without so much as a hearing.

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What aspect of ANCSA are you most proud of?

I’m proud of the fact that Alaska Natives stuck together during some very hard times—tremendous pressures. We had internal disagreements, but we made accommodations and put our focus on getting the Congress & the American people behind us. What we were asking for had never been done before. We also came up with ideas that mitigated opposition—we were fighting the miners, the business community, the loggers, the State—we had to find ways to bring all of them along. As a minority, we didn’t control the process. We used ideas and the notion of fairness and equity. We knew we had to use the system in place and that was not easy. Initially, we had no money, no lawyers, little experience, virtually no knowledge of history, had only the US mail for communication..and as it turned out, almost no time. All this took place between 1966 and 1971. When they found the oil in 1968, it was either get a bill through congress or get run over.

What was ANCSA’s biggest success?

The biggest success was, of course, getting a complex, innovative and expensive bill through Congress. Never before had anything like this been passed for American Indians. But without the “land freeze”—keeping the state from getting all the land helped build the pressure for a settlement and the construction of the pipeline. If they had gotten permission to build the pipeline, in my opinion, there would have been no bill and we would be twiddling our thumbs waiting for decisions from the Court of Claims—no land, pennies an acre.

50 years later, is there anything related to ANCSA that has surprised you or that you didn’t expect to occur?

The good news is that Alaska Natives have learned to function in the American world of business. The reality was that we were primarily interested in the land and had not even thought of business in the beginning. The land was how our people had survived and were tied to it with an invisible umbilical cord. That’s what ten thousand years of connection with the land meant. Even though we got a fraction of the land we had occupied, it was something our people could hang on to. Unlike most Indian tribes, our people are still on the land where they have been for millennia.

An early NANA meeting.

An early NANA meeting.

Are there any new directions Alaska Native Corporations could take?

ANCSA has been modified many times and made more workable. I think that section 7i should be made more equitable for the developer regions. I think that there should be accommodations made between tribes and corporations. No reason why they cannot co-exist. Tribes are a direct pipeline to Uncle Sam. Corporations are part and parcel of the American psyche—but in this case, our people control them and they provide unimaginable opportunities for employment, training and experience. They have also, in many cases, rejuvenated the cultural spirit of the group through language programs, elders councils, spirit camps and dance groups. Our people are no longer bystanders—through our settlement, we have become players in the political, economic and cultural scene in Alaska and beyond. Our boards of directors need to be more focused on developing indigenous management and leadership. It’s a competitive world out there.

What is one word that comes to mind when you think of your work on ANCSA?

For me, the word “spirit” is key. It was the strong spirits of the first Alaskans that prevailed in our fight for the land. Without the survival of cultural spirit we become nothing more than another corporation and eventually, the land will be gone unless the shareholders maintain that love for the land that motivated their early leaders.

What is something you think people should know about ANCSA, that most people don’t?

Most people, including our own, don’t realize that the land settlement was never assured. The fight was really a last minute effort and we were on the verge of completely losing any say over our traditional lands. Had we not come together at the Alaska Federation of Natives, and fought furiously for it, there would be no Alaska Native regional or village corporations. We would still owe our soul to the local trading post.

What is a piece of advice you have for future generations?

Yes, we gave up a lot but thanks to a series of fortunate personalities and events, we got something unprecedented in the US Native American world—almost as much land as all the other tribes in the lower 48. Names too numerous to cite but without President Nixon, there would have been no bill. Governor Walter Hickel was the first to support the 40 million acres. Secretary Stewart Udall held to the land freeze despite tremendous pushback from the State and oil industry. Senators Jackson, Gravel, Stevens and Governor Egan played key roles. Don Wright and Emil Notti, Eben Hopson, John Borbridge and Etok Edwardsen and others in the Native community played key roles. For future generations, we need to keep control of our land and of our corporations. The corporation is a tool, not an end in itself. It is not our identity. We put our values and spirit into it so it can be guided in the right direction.

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This story is part of Indian Country Today’s series 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. Stay updated on ICT’s ANCSA project using #ANCSA50 and at https://indiancountrytoday.com/tag/ancsa-50.

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