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To continue our countdown to the 50th Anniversary of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, we hear from a reporter who was there on the ground. Lael Morgan worked for the Native newspaper Tundra Times during the land claims movement. Morgan's story is unique -- she wasn't from Alaska originally, but she got involved with the land claims movement when she moved up north in the late 1950s. She continued writing after ANCSA, and went on to have a successful career in journalism. Today, she reflects on ANCSA, the Tundra Times and media's role in advocacy. 

What was your role in ANSCA? 

Pre-land claims, I was a reporter for the Tundra Times, and later did monthly coverage of Native villages in every region for Alaska Magazine and national publications like L.A. Times and National Geographic. I started in my early 30s.

What motivated you to get involved?

As a newcomer in 1959, I learned that Alaska had the highest infant mortality rate in the world and that the average age a Native in the Bethel area could hope to live was 27. I was broke in 1965, so I camped with friends in the Kachemak Bay village of Port Graham and enjoyed packing crab with Native workers in a nearby cannery in Seldovia. A year later, as a reporter for the Juneau Empire, I encountered signs in the local bars reading “No Coast Guard, No Dogs, No Natives!” I photographed five and six year old Inupitat children sent to Wrangel Institute and Indian boarding schools outside of the state who wouldn't see their families again for a year or two, if ever. I found most families along stretches of the Yukon River with a member or two in bed dying of TB. And it just got more interesting from there.

What part of your ANCSA work are you most proud of?

That it was not a white man’s gig. Direction came from the Natives themselves whose sound judgement and age-old systems of organization served them well.

Howard Rock, Iñupiaq, Tundra Times founder, working at his light table. 

Howard Rock, Iñupiaq, Tundra Times founder, working at his light table. 

What was ANCSA’s biggest success?

That its valid reasons to be, actually changed the thinking of many who were initially against it.

What do you think the role of journalism and reporting was during the land claims process?

Alaska’s Native people spoke six distinctly different languages with dozens of different dialects, and pursued greatly differing lifestyles. They had warred bitterly with each other for centuries, and those opposed to aboriginal land claims believed they could never unite. What naysayers hadn’t counted on was the fact that the government had long sent Native children to distant boarding schools where, of necessity, they had learned to get along. And, while few were fluent in English and literacy was marginal in remote areas, every village had a few residents who could translate. Major papers ignored news involving Natives unless they committed crimes or won dogsled races. But when the Tundra Times focused on their future, our Native people were quick to realize they had many serious problems in common and organized a solid front to solve them. Despite the fact there was no phones and little radio service in the Alaska bush, and travel was expensive, the little newspaper (usually with a circulation of under 1,000) was the link that coordinated and held them together.

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

When I joined the movement I never dreamed I’d see it happen in my own time. What a delight!

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

That it was as important to non-Native Alaskan as it was and is to Alaskan Natives.

Lael Morgan today

Lael Morgan today

Do you have any ideas on new directions Alaska Native Corporations could take?

Because ANSCA was Native crafted, I have hopes they are well equipped to carry on.

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


Do you have a favorite Tundra Times memory?

Money was tight during the land claims fight at the Tundra Times, and often during my tenure, it appeared we wouldn’t have enough money to mail a copy to each of Alaska’s Native villages on weekly publication. Inupiat editor, Howard Rock, was a quiet man and never did I see him express any worry as time for the post office closing drew near on especially lean days. Always, at the very last minute, some delinquent advertiser or dedicated backer would appear with the needed postage. Dr. Henry Forbes, a member of the Association on American Indian Affairs, who funded the paper’s launching in 1962, summed it up best in a quote from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline (Act IV, Scene III): “All other doubts, by time let them be clear’d; Fortune brings in some boats that are not steer’d.” I always thought of it as a kind of magic. And it was a pretty exciting job.

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

”Those who cannot remember their past are condemned to repeat it.” - George Santayana, The Life of Reason 1905

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