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History and Culture

Home  >  History and Culture  >  Ancsa at 30  >  Interviews
Tom Richards, Jr.

Willie Templeton: Please describe the background of your involvement in ANCSA

Tom Richards, Jr.: Initially, I was an interested observer. Howard Rock, Tundra Times editor and publisher, was a long-time family friend. My father was Vice President of the Tundra Times board of directors when the newspaper began publishing in 1962. Throughout the early and mid-1960s, I read the newspaper's reports on ANCSA issues with interest. In 1968, I became a staff writer for the Tundra Times, covering primarily ANCSA issues from Washington, D.C., and Alaska. In 1970, I was also appointed congressional intern for U.S. Representative Nick Begich. Between 1970 and 1972, a group of Alaskans living and working in Washington, D.C., formed an organization to provide advocacy and support services to Alaska Native organizations on ANCSA. I served as president of this group, called Alaskans on the Potomac. Following enactment of ANCSA, I monitored implementation of the settlement act as Tundra Times editor and also reported on related issues as Washington, D.C., news correspondent for the American Indian Press Association. I also dealt with ANCSA issues during the 1970s and 1980s as a staff officer for tribal organizations in Interior and Southwest Alaska, and in the Alaska Area Office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. I have addressed ANCSA in several book writing projects. I wrote several chapters as contributing author for the first published history text on ANCSA. In the early 1990s, I wrote a second history text for use in teaching ANCSA to high school students. I am currently working on a third text, for which I have completed two drafts, and am beginning to write a third draft.

Willie Templeton: What was the promise of ANCSA 30 years ago? Has it fulfilled the promises? If not, what happened and why?

Tom Richards, Jr.: The primary purpose of ANCSA was to settle unresolved aboriginal land claims. Increased pressure to do this came because the State of Alaska had begun to select traditional Native lands for ownership under the Alaska Statehood Act. Major oil discoveries on the North Slope of Alaska provided further impetus. ANCSA authorized grants of land to Native corporations, which have established a number of businesses in the resource management and development and service industry sectors. The primary promise of ANCSA, providing title on lands to Native entities, has not been fulfilled. Delays have been experienced because of the bureaucratic process, land use conflicts arising from the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, and from natural and understandable lags in developing Native management experience relating to learning curves. Other difficulties include conflicts involving public issues, such as subsistence hunting and fishing and the tribal status of Alaska Natives, and because of differing opinions about how to pass ownership of ANCSA assets to future generations. Some expert observers say it may take 100 years or more to resolve some issues, such as land title conveyances and establishing management regimes to govern land use and management of fish and game resources.

Willie Templeton: Were there unintended consequences of ANCSA developments that no one foresaw?

Tom Richards, Jr.: Unintended consequences of ANCSA include ongoing disputes over subsistence rights because of the ANCSA provision extinguishing Alaska Native hunting and fishing rights, confusion about Alaska Native tribal status because ANCSA is silent on this issue, and deep-rooted controversy involving some Native corporations because of varied shareholder expectations and desires which sometimes have fostered chaotic management shifts.

Willie Templeton: How has ANCSA changed Alaskans, particularly Alaska Natives? What values of Alaska Natives have been changed or challenged?

Tom Richards, Jr.: In some cases, ANCSA has caused transformation of many Alaska Natives from impoverished social liberals seeking redress of historic claims into conservatives wanting to protect property rights and lessen government regulation of business management practices. There is some irony here, because much of the opposition to ANCSA came from conservative political and business interests, while advocacy came from national liberal political leaders. In some areas, ANCSA has contributed to a devastating impact on rural and village economic sustainability. The rural ability to influence public policy has been eroded because of Native outmigration to urban areas for work with ANCSA corporations. In some regions, villages have no economic viability and function more as retirement communities than traditional Native settlements.

Willie Templeton: What does the next 30 years hold? Is ANCSA a model of societal engineering in need of revision or is it perfect?

Tom Richards, Jr.: It is neither. A complex matrix of oddly-related circumstances and events caused ANCSA. It is bitterly despised by some groups and beloved by others. However, ANCSA is significant because it has created economic conditions which are far better than the impoverished status of many reservations in the Lower 48 states. It is also much more favorable than the consequences of having no land settlement, such as in Hawaii, where that has been no meaningful action to settle claims of Natives. ANCSA has had spotty success, which has created a large gulf between haves and have-nots. This gap needs to be narrowed if ANCSA is to be considered a success. It may take the wisdom of Solomon to do what is necessary, which is to sustain cultural assets and values while at the same time, provide economic opportunity for new generations. ANCSA corporations will need to become competitive with more conventional economic enterprises, and will have to survive on their own abilities. To date, much credit for success has come because of efforts by Senator Stevens to arrange bail-outs, Native corporation set-asides, and preferential treatment in government contracting and procurement of services. ANCSA corporations need to become adept at engineering business opportunities and less dependent upon political solutions to business problems. We wish Senator Stevens long life, however even he admits that the World War II generation is quickly fading from the scene. ANCSA is characterized by an ongoing geo-political revolution and, in a sense, is involved in a war between traditional management regimes and new economic methodologies. Resolution will not be swift or easy. Sometimes I think that we will still be dealing with these issues in future incarnations. Plato explained, "Only the dead have seen the end of war."

Willie Templeton: What is you favorite ANCSA story?

Tom Richards, Jr.: There are so many, I'll briefly offer three from which the reader may pick and choose. One is about a visit to Anchorage by a village leader from Southcentral Alaska for an early AFN convention, at a time when few delegates had much money. By accident, he wandered into the Petroleum Club. The maitre d' challenged him at the door. He told the fellow that this was an exclusive club for people in the oil business. The village leader thought quickly, and then replied, "I am in the oil business -- the seal oil business." He was admitted to the club.

Moving to another venue, the year before ANCSA was enacted, President Nixon invited Alaska Native and American Indian tribal leaders to a White House reception. The invitation said dress was either formal or semi-formal. A village leader from Southwest Alaska noted this, shopped for appropriate attire, and showed up at the White House dressed in a T-shirt adorned with a printed tuxedo and bow tie, and wearing new tennis loafers. He was likewise admitted.

The last story was about my attendance at the AFN board celebration at the Capitol Hill Hotel the day enactment of ANCSA was finalized. It was a wonderful celebration, following many years of intense lobbying and surmounting seemingly impossible obstacles. I recognized a gentleman who had been very helpful to Native interests in dealing with key members of Congress. Claude Desautels was a prominent oil industry lobbyist. As the evening wore on, I repeatedly thanked him for his efforts on our behalf. He looked amused, at first, then distraught, and then finally told me, "I am not Mr. Desautels. I am the maitre d'." There are hundreds of such stories. ANCSA was contrived in an atmosphere involving people from so many cultures that some confusion was to be expected. I am grateful to the University and the Native Studies program for the opportunity to discuss these events and activities.

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