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History and Culture

Home  >  History and Culture  >  Ancsa at 30  >  Interviews
William Van Ness, Jr.
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William (Bill) Van Ness, Jr., served as special counsel and chief counsel to the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee of the U.S. Senate under Senator Henry M. Jackson. Mr. Van Ness was an active participant in the drafting and development of many of the landmark natural resource, environmental and energy laws of the 1970s, including the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act, and the Alaska Natural Gas Transportation Act. Bill Van Ness is now in private law practice at Van Ness Feldman.

Ronald Spatz: Please share with us the background of your involvement in ANCSA.

William Van Ness: My involvement with the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act goes back to 1966 when I graduated from law school. Shortly after graduation, Senator Jackson -- Henry M. Jackson of the State of Washington, who chaired the Senate Interior and Insular Affairs Committee -- contacted me. I had never met him, but I knew who he was. Apparently, he had contacted me at the instigation of some of my law school professors and indicated that he had an opening on the committee staff for a new special counsel and he wanted to interview me for that position. I went ahead and took the interview, although I was not really a fan of politics at the time and had no interest in going to Washington, D.C. On the other hand, I didn't have a job at that time, because I had a Sterling fellowship to go to Yale Law School and do graduate work, and what I wanted to do was be a law school professor.

William Van Ness, Jr.
In any event, we had two kids at the time, a broken down station wagon, and lots of bills from going to school, so I did go talk to him. I found him to be a charming, highly intellectual guy and I liked him. I took the offer of a job figuring I'd stay on the east coast for a year or two years, eventually re-institute my fellowship and go on to teach law school. My one- to two-year plan stretched out to 11 years. I enjoyed every minute I worked with Senator Jackson and the committee. I could never remember looking at the clock. The array of issues was astounding.

One of the first things Senator Jackson made me responsible for was the settlement of the Alaska Native Land Claims; that was back in the fall of 1966. The issue was very obscure and there was virtually no literature on who these people were, what their socio-economic conditions were, how many villages there were, or even how many Alaska Native people there were. By the same token, there was practically nothing on their legal status. Was their legal status the same as the Lower 48 Indians or Indian tribes or was it different? What was the role of the Organic Act? What was the role of the Russian ownership in Alaska or sovereignty in Alaska?

It was a very confusing situation, and I told the Senator after I'd looked at it for four or five months and after I'd consulted with the Library of Congress, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Department of Interior, the State of Alaska and others, that it was largely a clean blackboard. There was hardly any information at all on the subject. I told the Senator, in my judgment, we couldn't legislate on the situation in that kind of a vacuum. We had to have at least some essential facts stipulated and pulled together. He agreed.

My recommendation was to hire a think tank like the Rand Corporation and have them dedicate some people to really doing the literature search and pulling together what was available. He agreed, but said he first wanted to consult with Senator Bartlett.

He sent Senator Bartlett a copy of my recommendation, and Senator Bartlett was astounded that we were thinking about hiring a think tank corporation. He said that was not the way to go, that we needed to consult with people who knew something about Alaska. He recommended the Federal Field Committee for Development Planning, which had been created during the Johnson administration to deal with the reconstruction of Alaska after the 1964 earthquake.

We talked to those folks and commissioned them to do a study. I think that was in April of 1968. They completed the study in just six months, and it was an amazing document -- approximately 575 pages of maps, statistics, social economic history, and legal history. It was a remarkable document, and we printed a lot of copies.

In my judgment, the "Alaska Natives and the Land" document jump-started the issue. It resolved all of the factual questions that committee staff, senatorial staff, the White House, and the media brought up about the issue. It got us off to a great start, because we could simply point to the facts. The implication was that a lot of careful thought and work had gone into it, and it had. It was a good launching pad for the issue.

The reason "Alaska Natives and the Land" was such an important and successful document was the very high quality and excellent staff work that went into it. Joe Fitzgerald was the executive director of the Federal Field Committee. On his staff were Dave Hickok, Ester Wunnicke, and Bob Arnold. In addition, Doug Jones and Arlon Tussing, an economist who was a professor at the university, played an important role in it. They were all long-time state residents. They were sympathetic to the interests of the Alaska Native people. They were knowledgeable about the state's economy. They were knowledgeable about the oil industry that was becoming such a major force in Alaska, and they were students of both cultural and archeological history of the Native people of Alaska. They were also people who understood what the transition from village life in rural Alaska to the 20th century meant in terms of values, cultural change and adaptation to new technology. They understood it was going to be a jarring transition in terms of emotional impact and social value. It was fortunate that such a talented group of people was brought together to provide the basis, the foundation, and indeed the springboard to what ultimately became the settlement legislation in 1971.

Ronald Spatz: What was the promise of ANCSA 30 years ago?

William Van Ness: It depends on who you talk to, or who you talked to 30 years ago. For the oil industry, the promise of ANCSA was that it was going to remove a huge impediment, ensuring that the status of the leases they had on tentatively-approved state lands at Prudhoe Bay could withstand legal challenge. There weren't really any questions about that issue back at the time. The Native leadership that was pushing for the settlement was raising those questions, and the oil industry muddled around for a couple of years before finally concluding that, yes, what was really in their interest was to get this settled no matter what the price, in terms of acreage or dollars. The settlement was in their interest, but they didn't come to that realization until mid-1970 or early-1970.

Another stakeholder was the state, and its position changed with administrations. It changed within single administrations, like Governor Hickel's administration. He had a number of different views, depending on which point in time you talked to him. Governor Miller, who succeeded him, had a totally different set of views, and Governor Egan had a differing set of views on it. It was time sensitive, and it was also a function of to whom you were talking.

To the Native people of Alaska, the promise differed in terms of what region you were from, whether you were an Inupiat Eskimo of whether you were an Aleut. It was also different in terms of what your self-perception was. The Inupiat Eskimos in Alaska, in the North Slope of Alaska, had the view that this was their land, all of it, the whole of the North Slope. They viewed any settlement that granted them less than all of their land as a taking of their property.

Others viewed it differently. They saw an opportunity to (1) get recognition from both the federal and state government as a matter of status; (2) become land holders, i.e., have a legal deed and title to the land in which they had their homes and their villages and that they used for subsistence hunting; and (3) the money side of it was very important, because rural Alaska and Native Alaska was a very poor place to be. In the 1960s, television was being introduced. There was a lot of technology available, but it all cost money and money was a precious commodity. Life was very primitive in these villages, as it still is in some of them today. The money side of it had great promise in terms of improving the quality of life and creating opportunities for children in terms of education and other things.

Many people felt that ANCSA was Nirvana. It was going to be wonderful. And it certainly didn't turn out to be Nirvana and totally wonderful. One of the aspects has been that the Native people of Alaska, every two years, get to revisit the issue. We have the Technical Corrections Act to further amend ANCSA in response to problems or opportunities. It's kind of like having the doctor visit you every once in a while to keep you in good health. Some of the tune-ups have been minor; some have been major. Senator Stevens, for example, got the NOL, Net Operating Loss, provision adopted at a time when a number of the corporations were in serious financial trouble, and the ability to sell their net-operating losses to profitable top-100 corporations in the state, generated a lot of revenue, kept a number of them out of bankruptcy, and enabled a number of them to further capitalize themselves and go on to invest in new enterprises.

Ronald Spatz: What about the cultural side of things? Do you think that bill, even from its inception, addressed the cultural needs of Alaska Natives?

William Van Ness: As I indicated when I talked about going back to 1966, when Senator Jackson tasked me with starting to move the issue as a staffer on the committee, there was so little known about the number of people, where they lived, how many villages there were that had 25 or more people living in them. The early effort was to just marshal those essential kinds of facts and to have sensitivity to the cultural side of the issue. The cultures were different between the Native groups. I don't want to pretend that we were at the same level of sophistication. As we got deeper into it, and as the Native leadership came down to D.C. more, we came to better understand their life, their world, their cultural values, the importance they placed on retaining cultures and languages, and passing those things on to their children and grandchildren. There was sensitivity to that and an effort to preserve it.

But that effort, by and large, was to set up corporations so they could be successful and generate profits and then they could decide how best to preserve their language, culture, and traditions and how to pass all that on to their children. That's not really a Washington, D.C., kind of a job. You can't do it through laws or through regulations. It just doesn't work that way. It has to come out of the people. They have to do it, and they have to adapt to it and save that which they want to save. But, yes, I think there was sensitivity and there was a desire to provide the tools and the ability to do that if that's what they choose to do.

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