Meghan Sullivan
Indian Country Today

Alaska is mourning John C. Sackett, a former legislative powerhouse, who died March 3 at the age of 76.

During Alaska’s oil boom, the Athabascan leader made sure a share of the wealth went to rural Alaska, which is predominantly Alaska Native. In the 1980s, the state of Alaska was transformed by oil development on the North Slope. Fueled by taxes and oil royalties, Alaska’s state budget skyrocketed. As one economist put it, “The state appeared to be rich beyond the wildest dreams of the most fervent boomers.”

Sackett served in the Alaska state House and Senate for nearly 20 years beginning in 1967 and as a member of finance committees for 18 years. For 10 of those years, he achieved many of his aims while serving as the savvy chair and co-chair of the powerful finance committees.

Together with a handful of other legislators who shared his interests, he steered hundreds of millions of dollars to rural Alaska. They created infrastructure that immeasurably raised the quality of life of rural residents, and that acted as a catalyst for economic growth in the region.

In a 1991 interview with Bernice Joseph, Sackett said, “Nothing is ever given to you — in state government at least, and I'm an expert in that field — because it is a necessary right. You have to fight for everything, every service and every program. And it's not going to be given to you because it's right, as it should be. I don't care how basic the need is.

“We learned that, at a very early stage ... that we just had to fight for every educational program, every grant for water and sewer, community hall, electricity, roads, water, everything we have to work for, nothing was ever given to us at all,” he explained. 

Sackett was born at Cutoff, a village on the Koyukuk River in Interior Alaska, on June 3, 1944. He graduated from Sheldon Jackson High School as valedictorian in 1963, and went on to graduate from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1972 with a major in Accounting and a minor in Political Science.

“John was a hard worker, very bright and funny,” said Sackett’s friend and colleague, Emil Notti, Athabascan. “He was one of the great leaders, and a tough negotiator with the oil companies. He was very brave.”

Sackett began his political career at the age of 22, when he became the youngest person ever elected to the Alaska Legislature, and the first Athabascan to represent rural Alaska in the state legislature. He spent the following decades serving Alaska in multiple roles, including vice president of the Fairbanks Native Association, and president of the regional non-profit Tanana Chiefs Conference. He worked in the House of Representatives from 1967-1970 and the Senate from 1973-1986.

Sackett brought a sharp business mindset to negotiations as he helped shape the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which transferred title to 44 million acres of land and $1 billion to for-profit regional Native corporations. In 1972, he was elected as the first president and chairman of Doyon, the Alaska Native corporation for the state’s Interior.

“All of us here at Doyon, Limited are deeply saddened to hear about the passing of our first president, John Sackett of Huslia. Sackett was a trailblazer for Doyon and our shareholders. We extend our gratitude for his leadership and vision that brought Doyon to where it is today,” said Doyon’s current President Aaron Schutt, Athabascan.

Throughout his lifetime, Sackett continuously emphasized how important the land and subsistence practices were to the state’s Indigenous communities.

“We have, I feel, a very religious feeling toward the land and everything that comes from the land,” Sackett explained in a 1970 hearing before the House Subcommittee on Indian Affairs.

“He loved going up on the Yukon in the summertime — going back to his roots, putting up fish and drying them,” Notti said.

Even after he retired, Sackett still would attend Doyon meetings, explained Doyon board member Jennifer Fate, Koyukon Athabascan.

“He wanted our businesses to succeed, and still cared about that up until the last years of his life,” she said. She recalls Sackett coming over for dinner when she was younger, discussing his dreams for the community with Fate’s parents. He would spend his life working to make sure those dreams became a reality.

"I have had a wonderful life," Sackett wrote in an autobiographical essay in 2010. "I feel privileged to have lived in both the old ways and the modern world. I have achieved my goals."

On Thursday, Governor Mike Dunleavy ordered that U.S. flags and Alaska state flags fly at half-staff on Monday, in honor of his passing.

“John Sackett was a valuable and effective advocate for Alaska Natives and our rural communities throughout his nearly 20-year tenure in the Legislature, as well as his extensive professional and community involvement,” said Governor Dunleavy in a press release. “His legacy of service will forever be an integral piece of Alaska’s history.”

In a Facebook post, his family said their beloved brother, uncle and friend “went without pain during a heart procedure…” and more details would be forthcoming.

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Joaqlin Estus contributed to this story.

Meghan Fate Sullivan, Koyukon Athabascan, is a writer for Indian Country Today. She grew up in Alaska, and is currently reporting on her home state from Anchorage.