Ronald Spatz: When you look back 30 years, how would you assess the effectiveness of the Alaska Native Delegation?
William Van Ness: It was absolutely remarkable -- one of the most remarkable things I’ve seen in my 30-plus years as a lawyer involved in a lot of issues in Washington, D.C. and a lot of Native American issues, Lower 48, Canadian issues, and Alaska issues.
Something very strange happened in the late 1960s. You had a bunch of young men and some women, but mostly men, who were 18 to 23, 24 years old. Only one of whom, as far as I knew, had a college education, and that was Willie Hensley. Some of the others had high school educations, usually from one of the boarding schools in the southeast or the Lower ’48 states. A lot of them had grade-school educations or partial grade-school educations, but these people were savvy. They had good judgment. They had great political skills. They were capable of hitting the ground running in Washington, D.C., and dealing with the top lobbyists and lawyers for the oil companies, Senators and Congressmen, highly trained staff, lawyers and economists. And they held their own.
They had a unity of purpose. Yes, they had lots of fights among themselves about policy issues, but they knew they had to present a united front so they hashed out their differences in hotel rooms and hallways and resolved their issues to, by and large, present a united front.
Some of them were very angry, and it didn’t take much to get that anger to show, but that was good, because it told Congress and the public there were some powerful forces at work. Charlie Edwardsen is a friend of mind. He was an angry young man, very articulate and very bright, but people didn’t want to take Charlie on whether it was in the context of the meeting in the hall or across a hearing room table, because his anger was kind of frightening to people. It made them step back a little bit.
When you mix that anger with the eloquent views of Willie Hensley or John Borbridge talking about the constitutional aspects of their issue and addressing elemental justice, it made a nice mix. It was truly remarkable that this group of leaders in the Native community came to the floor and not only got ANCSA adopted in face of horrific odds, but also went on to establish regional corporations and set up village corporations. In addition, they began the land selection process with the oil industry for the Trans-Alaska pipeline with the governor and the legislature.
These things were more than complex. From the standpoint of a lot of the regional corporations and their leaders, things like a land title, a deed, and a title search were foreign. There was no concept of those things in their culture. They’d never heard of them. Stock ownership, dividends, voting rights -- all of that was totally Greek. These were people, in many cases, that by and large still spoke their Native languages. If you were more than 35 or 40 years old, that was almost a truism. It was younger people who spoke English, and they were dealing with a whole range of economic and legal concepts and terminologies that were totally foreign to anything in their experience. But these young men and women were able to surpass these hurdles and set up a program to educate their people -- their shareholders -- about these concepts and why they were important. It was absolutely remarkable. I’ve never seen another time in history since then when you had the emergence of a group of leaders with qualities that met the needs and demands of the time.
These people are now in their 50s and 60s and about ready to retire from the scene. We’re going to be looking for a new crop of leadership, and hopefully they will have the skills to adapt to the new problems that are emerging and the opportunities that are becoming available.
Ronald Spatz: Looking back again, what were the biggest obstacles either coming from the state or coming from Washington?
William Van Ness: There were a number of obstacles. One I’ve already addressed, and that was just the question of getting the story told. This is a complex story, and Alaska Natives did a lot to get it told -- graphic pictures of who the people where, what kind of housing they lived in, what aspirations they had, and what educational opportunities existed -- which were very, very meager. They also showed what their aspirations were as a people, for themselves and for their elders and for their children.
Education was a major obstacle. Coupled with that is the fact that Alaska is a difficult place to get to, especially rural Alaska. It’s not easy to get Congressmen, Senators, and White House officials to Alaska to see things on the ground to enrich their understanding, which is really what they needed to do. It was a difficult thing to do, and the Alaska delegation put a lot of effort into it. Ted Stevens still does. His annual fishing derby in Kenai draws seven to 10 members of Congress up here. He always tries to get different ones, and he tries to get them off the Kenai River and into some other aspects of Alaska while they’re here. That’s an ongoing process.
Another problem was dealing with the oil industry, which after the discovery of Prudhoe Bay, had some totally unrealistic objectives and goals. They wanted that pipeline built and they wanted it built right then. The state government and the oil industry together kind of made a mess of things. As a result of the litigation, they were stopped with hundreds of thousands of tons of pipe from Japan stacked on the ground and rusting for many years. It took a couple of years for the oil industry to get its act together and discover that they really needed to be supporting a just and good settlement for the Alaska Native people. It was the only way they were going to get to develop the oil resources. Once they did that, they did a pretty good job. They hired a lawyer named Bill Foster who had worked for Senator Bartlett, who did an excellent job of that.
Another problem was that we were dealing with a Republican administration while the Democrats, by and large, tended to be more generous in dealing with socio-economic issues, whether that meant land grants or money. That’s just kind of the history of the parties. The Republicans, on the other hand, were a little bit more parsimonious about giving away public lands. More importantly, there were a lot of westerners on the committees, both in the House and the Senate. Westerners always went to the House and Senate Interior Committees, because they controlled the public lands, they controlled the water resources and that’s where their constituent interests were. This was fine except that they were also in charge of Indian policy on those committees, and the history of federal Indian policy played a very big role in the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement. ANCSA was a marked departure from prior policy and relationship with Indian tribes in the Lower 48 states, because ANCSA repudiated that history of reservations, tribes and the trust relationship with the Secretary of Interior. This was largely because the Native leaders in Alaska looked at that history and visited the reservations, and they didn’t like what they saw. They didn’t want to replicate it. Instead, they wanted to have a more modern form of control and organization, and they chose the corporation for that. They chose to get their land titles in fee simple interest.
The problem was that they were asking for a large amount of money and 40 million acres of land. If you were a Senator or a House member on one of the two committees looking at that, you had to look at it as a precedent. Now, does this mean that if I’m from Arizona or New Mexico that the Navajos, who I settled with years and years ago, are now going to want to come in and reopen their settlement and say that they ought to get the same equivalent acreage on a per capita basis? That became a very big stumbling block throughout the process in both the House and Senate. Many Senators, when they spoke in private, weren’t put off so much by the amount of money or the amount of land, but they were deeply concerned about the precedent and reopening deals that had already been concluded with other tribes.
Ronald Spatz: What do you see happening in the next 30 years?
William Van Ness: I’m not sure I can see that far ahead. I think let’s go back and make some judgment about the first 30 years. Was ANCSA a success? I believe that it was. It was, as I said earlier, a total departure from prior policy. I think the pragmatists who were there at the time ANCSA was created knew there were going to be some very successful corporations. They also knew that some of them weren’t going to be successful. That’s just kind of the law of averages. But secondly, looking at the resources that some of the corporations had, they were distributed very unevenly. The North Slope, of course, had oil and gas. Other areas, like NANA, had minerals, and southeast had timber. But some of the regional corporations didn’t have much, so it was predictable that there would be successes, and there would be some failures or near failures. Section 7(i), the 70 percent revenue sharing provision, was an attempt to level that out and more equitably distribute those resources as they went forward.
I think, looking at it today, it was very successful. I think it was very fortunate and wise that the Native people were given control over the resources, the assets, given the ability to become a success or to have some defeats. I think it created a sense of responsibility in them that they wouldn’t have had otherwise, and a sense of independence and purpose, and a sense of being able to determine their own destiny. I think this was all very good.
Where will they be in 30 years? I think it’s been a vast and important learning period -- the experience of adapting to this new economy, new technology, new opportunities, new ways of decision making. I think they’ve picked that up and they’re certainly up to, if not ahead of in some cases, everybody else in the country. I’m confident there will continue to be many successes, and I’m optimistic.
Ronald Spatz: American Indians, in general, have been treated poorly, and many other under-represented groups do not feel that America has delivered on its promises to them.
William Van Ness: Right.
Ronald Spatz: Did racism and prejudice play a role in the ANCSA process?
William Van Ness: I don’t think that it did in terms of numbers. Let me tell you a story that captures my views on this. We held the first hearing on the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement on February 8, 1968, here in Anchorage, Alaska. We had 1,400 people signed up to testify. It was a three-day hearing. The first day we ran it during normal hours. The second day we started at 7:00 in the morning and ran until 10:00 at night. The third day, I think, we started at 6:00 in the morning and ran until we were exhausted. People had to be there when their names were called or they didn’t get to testify. We had a three-minute rule for testimony, so we heard everybody.
One of the things that just totally shocked me as a young, very idealistic lawyer was walking down one of the main streets here in town where handwritten signs taped to windows of bars and cocktail lounges that said, “No Natives Allowed.” That was shocking to me, you know. I couldn’t believe it, but there it was.
So, you know, race was an element in terms of the political dynamics. I think it fell away fairly quickly. A lot of the function of that was the fact that this leadership, the young Native leadership that represented the issue, who epitomized the Native people in the eyes of Washington, D.C. and the American media, were such a charming, gregarious, intelligent group. They really put forth a face that was good, so most people, didn’t let race be a factor in terms of their decision-making.
Ronald Spatz: What’s your favorite ANCSA story?
William Van Ness: There are a lot of ANCSA stories and that’s what makes it difficult to have a serious discussion or interview like this, because there are so many rabbit warrens to go down in terms of funny things that happened, improbable things. I don’t really have a favorite, but I do have one that I think kind of epitomized this issue -- that was when we initially organized the Senate Committee in January 1968.
The chairman called a big meeting. The Senators all came, and they went over the agenda for the year, setting their priorities. Mike Gravel had just been elected to the Senate the previous November, and Ted Stevens had just been appointed to Senator Bartlett’s seat when Senator Bartlett died. Governor Hickel appointed him. These guys had a history. They both served in the Legislature; one was a Democrat and one was a Republican, and they didn’t agree when they were in the Legislature together, and they didn’t agree on how to go about reaching a settlement on the Native claims issue.
Now, the tradition in the Senate was that if you’re a freshman junior member, you sat up at the far end of the table and you didn’t speak. You were there to listen and hear what the seniors had to say. Well, they got it backwards. And so they spent a good part of the executive session arguing with each other in louder and louder voices. The chairman finally banged his gavel and put them in their places and told them that was to be the end of it. Well, when they got up at the end of the meeting they were still yammering at each other, and I walked over and got between them as they went out the door. They both had their dukes up a little bit and the animosity spilled over. They never really got that deal worked out. There was always tension and rivalry and disagreement. It was interesting to watch, and in some respects it was useful, because they were competitive. In terms of ideas, concepts and working for their constituents, some good came out of it.