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History and Culture

Home  >  History and Culture  >  Ancsa at 30  >  Events
Commemorating the Signing of ANCSA; Hosted by Alaska Pacific University.  -  Part 8 - Governor Hickel
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Edgar Blatchford: Thank you, Emil. Thank you very much.

Irene Rowan: I think we should say thank you to one very important person -- the Honorable Governor Walter Hickel. I now can appreciate the politics that you had to undertake for the Claims Act.

Governor Walter Hickel
Governor Hickel: Well thank you for putting this together. My involvement in the idea went back to Paul Robinson, attorney from the BLM in the late 40s. He explained the Mineral Leasing Act to me, and it took me about a year to think it out. After knowing about that, I thought the Native people had a problem and they also had an opportunity.

When I became governor the first time, I put together the Rural Affairs Commission, to try to bring the country together -- Native people and the rest. Then I got a call from John Mitchell the Thursday night before Thanksgiving, from the attorney general of the United States. He said, “Wally, we’d like you to accept the job as Secretary of the Interior.” I’m gonna tell you, I really got tough and I turned it down. I said, “John, I’ve got too much to do up here.” One of the things I mentioned was rural affairs, and he said, “Well can’t you get that in pretty good shape?” I said, “No, John, there’s too much to do.” Long story short, he hung up and the next night, the vice president called me. He told me about the same thing, and said the same thing to him, never thinking that they were going to talk to the president. On Sunday afternoon, at about four o’clock, I received a phone call from the White House, from President Nixon. He didn’t ask me. He said, “Wally, I want you to know that I’m going to announce that you’re going to be Secretary of Interior, but keep it quiet until I do it.” He didn’t give me a chance to talk, and he hung up and I cried.

Long story short, I went. The reason I’m telling this story is because I originally turned down the position, and whenever I took an issue to the president, he supported me. There were 11 people on the cabinet at that time, and I remember several issues, once the vote was four to two, once the vote was five to two, and the president took our side.

In April of 1969, he called a cabinet meeting. It wasn’t a full cabinet meeting -- he had the State Department, Justice Department, Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Attorney General, Commerce Secretary and myself. He brought up the Native land claims thing -- what were we going to do about it? The State Department, Justice Department, and Legal Department all told the story of why there wasn’t a legal claim. They went back to the history of western civilization and what constituted ownership.

I thought to myself, well, as a high school kid out of Kansas, if I argue the legal side of that against these lawyers, I was gonna lose. They asked OMB and the Treasury Department, and they said there was no economic claim, because we bought this land from Russia. I sat there thinking it was all sort of negative; not negative against people, negative with the law saying we can’t do it. Then the president said, “Let’s hear from Wally.” I said, “I agree with the law department; there’s no legal claim. I agree with economic people, treasurer and OMB; there’s no economic claim. But Mr. President, this is not a legal or economic issue. This is a moral issue.”

I will never forget how he turned around, his eyes opened wide and he said, “I’m going with Wally,” and dismissed the rest. There was no argument. From that day on, no matter what or who, President Nixon was on the side of settling that issue.

I was in a department that supported the Native claims. You might remember, eight to 12 million acres of land plus 185 million dollars for resources that came out of the continental shelf, but there was no money there. It was something that wouldn’t happen, so I talked to the president about that.

The only point I want to make is that you got it because the Native people believed as a unit of one. There was some dissatisfaction, but it was clear. You got it because President Nixon dismissed all the negative votes and said, “We’re going that way.”

God bless you, and thank you for bringing this together. History is there. It’s a step. It’s been 30 years. We’ll take the next step, whatever it might be, in the next 30 years. God bless you.

Edgar Blatchford: Thank you, Governor Hickel. Irene and I and Dr. Jeannie Eder talked about putting this event together. It was very short notice. We didn’t plan to have any sort of event, any speakers, but one good thing that evolved out of this is that Chancellor Lee Gorsuch will be sponsoring a lecture series at UAA next semester. It’s going to be called The Howard Rock -- Emil Notti Lecture Series. Irene’s been contacting people from all across the country, inviting them to speak in January, February, March and April.

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