Willie Hensley: Thank you. Your memory about Bethel is a little bit better than mine. I have a few black holes in my memory from those early days, because it was kind of a frenetic life once I finally understood the nature of the problem as a student up at Fairbanks at the university.
By way of introduction, I was born in Kotzebue, right about where the Korean restaurant was, the Arctic Dragon, but raised outside of Kotzebue in a place called Itkatuq. The reason we lived there was because, for one thing, there was timber. There were trees up there, and there was a lot of alder around the little creek called Itkatuuraq.
Kotzebue is a wonderful place, but it’s a long way from wood, no trees grow along the coast, and also, you know, it was a ways from game too. So we lived at Itkatuq in sod houses in the winter, and we moved into tents in the springtime.
I think, like many Native people, the ties with the land are very strong -- because that’s where they got their sustenance from and that’s where they buried their relatives. Unlike other people in the western world, we didn’t have an understanding of the ownership and title that has become a part of western life, because land had always been there. We never thought there was any danger to this idea of continued use and occupancy of the land.
Another thing that motivated me as a youngster was when the Bureau of Land Management came to sub-divide Kotzebue into a town site. We didn’t understand town sites, and nobody really took the time to explain town sites. They never told us we had an option to have a Native town site. In reality, I think most people in Kotzebue today don’t recognize the fact that literally all of the land in Kotzebue was virtually stolen right out from under us through the operations of the public land laws, because we didn’t understand them and they didn’t give us the benefit of the option.
With a Native town site, you had a restricted deed. People didn’t understand that a restricted deed was a way to protect your title from unscrupulous dealings, because you had to go to the Bureau of Indian Affairs to get approval to sell it.
The other thing was, of course, our church owned most of the middle of town under a law that we didn’t know existed called the Missions Act of 1900. This situation took place in places like Yakutat and Bethel and other places where it was easier for the church to get title to property than it was for the Native people.
These things, you know … sometimes you pick up a little bit of information here and a little bit of information there, and then all of a sudden, it’s kind of like it sort of comes together; you begin to see things in a way that you hadn’t before. And I think it would never have come together for me had I not had the good fortune of taking a course from Judge Rabinowitz in Fairbanks after I came back from George Washington University. Up until that time, I was just a rolling stone so to speak, a leaf blowing in the wind.
Because we weren’t taught any history, we didn’t understand the legal history of how Natives were treated in America and in Alaska. We had no understanding of anything, but of course we weren’t alone. I don’t think Whites knew anything either, or at least, if they did know it, they weren’t telling us.
In any case, Judge Rabinowitz taught constitutional law that semester, and I think eight or 10 of us took the course. I had a chance to choose my topic, and I chose to write about Alaska Native Claims. After just a few weeks of research, I had an understanding of where things were in 1966, seven years after statehood. It was clear to me that we were well on our way toward losing everything if we did not take some action. Based on my review of history and what law I could understand at that time, from a technical standpoint we still owned Alaska because our aboriginal title had never been extinguished. It had been in certain places like the Tongass, and maybe like in NPRA, wherever the parks and refuges had been taken for some governmental purpose. The only thing left in a situation like that was the possibility of a few cents an acre.
It was clear to me that in order to protect our interests, whatever they might be, we had to stop the state selections. That brought us toe-to-toe with Governor Hickel, doing his duty as governor, trying to receive and get from the federal government what they thought was due the state under the terms of the Statehood Act.
We, as a Native people, based on federal judicial interpretations as well as the Organic Act of 1884 and other laws, felt we had explicit protection of our rights to land that we used and occupied or claimed. To me, that meant the whole ball of wax. Of course, our own people first had to be convinced that we had rights and it was okay to face up to the federal government and the state. Then there was a lot of accommodating that had to take place by a lot of different interests including our own internally.
It was very clear to me, way back 35 years ago, that we faced the prospect of literally losing everything, especially after having seen what happened in southeast after 35 years of litigation. They got seven million dollars, and not one square inch of land.
From a strategic standpoint, it was clear we had to go through the congressional route if we were to get any land, and of course that was what we were seeking -- a land base in which our own people could evolve at their own pace.
We did not envision the complications of corporations initially. In some respects, the administrative vehicle was seen as sort of a side issue. There was never any consequential debate over the issue of tribes vs. corporations that I can recall. Others might have different memories, but I know there were strong proponents of the Settlement Act who had as much to do with getting the arrangement that we have in the act as anybody who may have subsequently fallen over to the other hand and then made strong comments about the corporate model.
To me, it is nothing more than a tool, and I have always felt that the corporation is a vehicle. It is an empty vessel, so to speak, that you can put your own values and your own spirit into and use as a tool to help you meet your goals. The problem is that sometimes we get confused, and don’t realize how many institutions have been created, not necessarily by us but by others, that have contributed to the disintegration of our cultures. There are ways to turn them around, to use them in a proper fashion, to help strengthen our identities.
To those who moan and groan and complain about what we have today, all I can say is that you’re born in this world, and when you look around and see things you don’t like, you have an obligation to get in there and try to fix them. That’s what we did, and if you don’t like what exists out there today, by God, get out there and fix it.