Sam Kito served as chairman of the Alaska Federation of Natives, president of the Fairbanks Native Association, executive vice president of Tanana Chiefs Conference, Inc., and executive vice president of Doyon, Inc.
Ronald Spatz: Can you provide a context for your involvement with the Alaska Native Settlement Act?
Sam Kito: I was born in southeastern Alaska and graduated from high school in Petersburg and tried college, but it wasn't for me. I went into the service, and when I got out I went to school in New York to become an electronics technician. I then came back to Alaska in 1962. I left Alaska in 1965 to go to Kennedy Space Center to work on the space program as a communications specialist. In 1967, I was transferred to Fairbanks when RCA lost its contract, and I ended up working at a NASA satellite tracking station outside of Fairbanks.
When I arrived in Fairbanks in 1967, there were a number of Alaska Natives working at the tracking station, and two of them became very good friends of mine, Morris Thompson and Al Adams. It seemed that we were working 12-hour shifts, and for the first year about all we did was work. One day I was approached by Ralph Purdue, who was president of the Fairbanks Native Association. He wanted to know if I wanted to go to a meeting. When I got to the meeting, they appointed me chairman of the Education Committee. That began my lifelong involvement in education in the State of Alaska.
So I went from chairman of a committee on education for Fairbanks Native Association, to president and board member. Then in 1970, I quit my job at RCA and took the executive director's job at Fairbanks Native Association, FNA, and stayed there until the Claims Act was just about implemented in 1971. I was executive director of FNA, and then I moved to executive vice president of Tanana Chiefs working with John Sackett.
Upon passage of the Claims Act in 1971, I was involved as one of the incorporators of the Doyon Corporation. I moved over to Doyon as executive vice president serving with John Sackett. So, that is the short summation of my involvement.
Ronald Spatz: Has ANCSA fulfilled its promise as far as you're concerned?
Sam Kito: I look at it with a different perspective than a lot of people, I think. It was moving in a direction that I thought was a positive one, because in reflecting, in all my travels throughout the United States and in Alaska I haven't seen anything that resembled the drive towards economic independence as the Claims Act did, except maybe the revenue stream from gambling on reservations in the Lower ‘48. I believe it's fulfilled most of its promises. Looking back, the ones I think that we could have changed would have been to enable some land-based tribes protection of the lands. I've seen too much land being transferred. I don't think you ever get away from it, but I think that mass selling of lands by townships in the Prince Williams Sound area caused me a little concern.
Ronald Spatz: Outside of economics, how has ANCSA worked in human terms?
Sam Kito: The human side of the equation has to be driven by people's involvement, and I think that it's very difficult to bring the culture back. As much reading as I have done, and as much history that has gone before us in the whole world, I have never seen a culture resist Western civilization. I think that once Western civilization starts encompassing a race of people, it consumes them eventually. The only people it hasn't totally consumed, but they're being consumed I think now, are the Jewish people. When I was chairman of AFN, we brought a Rabbi in to talk to the convention as a primary speaker. He let the people in Alaska know that you can preserve what you want to preserve, but it takes active participation on the part of the people. I don't think you can have educational institutions revive a language. I don't think you can have educational institutions teach a language that is being lost. Not that you can't learn a language in an educational institution, but if that language is not used in a community, you're running up the wrong road. If those kids don't use it outside of class in the community, and the parents aren't involved, I think you have major problems. I believe that the human side of the Claims Act means people are expecting something to be done for them. I think the act allows you to perpetuate stock to your next generation and the next generation by allowing active participation. If they don't participate, like a lot of people do, you can't say it's a failure, but in terms of whether everything is going to be a success, there's never 100 percent.
Ronald Spatz: There's a kind of sadness in your voice. What I'm hearing from you is that the battle, on the human side, was almost lost before, so ANCSA addresses what's left. Is that how you feel about it?
Sam Kito: I believe that's the case. You can take the Claims Act as a beginning for the Alaska Native people with a base in land. But as far as expecting that the corporation is going to perpetuate a culture, I think that's asking too much. It takes the people to drive it and it takes the people's involvement.
Ronald Spatz: Has ANCSA changed Alaskans in any way?
Sam Kito: What changes somebody is the internal drive that you have, and if you want to succeed. In those days, moving meant success. I have five children -- one was born in Anchorage; one was born in Petersburg; one was born in Merritt Island, Florida; one was born in Fairbanks; and the last one was born in Anchorage again. So I went full circle. Each time I moved, I was stepping up the ladder so to speak, with promotions. Now people don't do that. A lot more people are willing to stay at home and earn less and be a little happier maybe. I think that it's the internal drive in an individual that makes a difference.
Ronald Spatz: So do you think that ANCSA helped build community?
Sam Kito: I believe it did on the economic side. I think it's opened some doors and allowed Alaska Natives to be involved in more economic- and social-driven programs just because of the economic muscle that the corporations have.
Ronald Spatz: You were saying that people don't move as much, which could be a good thing if people stay in their communities if they feel it's worth it.
Sam Kito: I think that the local hiring provisions that these corporations have are pretty good. They've developed some job patterns where people can go out and subsistence live in the summer and work in the winter or one month on and one month off and be able to go back to their villages and communities. So yes, I think the economic and social climate has changed substantially in the last 30 years.
Ronald Spatz: Looking ahead to the next 30 years, are you encouraged or discouraged?
Sam Kito: I'm encouraged. I've taken a less active role in the last five years. I've been more involved in the business side of my life, and not so much with the corporations or AFN. It's just that sometimes it's good to step back and let somebody else move in.
Ronald Spatz: There's a whole new generation that's kind of waiting to take the reins?
Sam Kito: Well, if I had any advice for them it would be, "Don't wait to take the reins, push them out of the way." You know? I mean people have been there for quite a while and you need a new vision and that's why we elect presidents and senators every four or six years and give them two or three terms. We don't want a dictatorship. You have to come up and challenge whomever is in there if you think you can do a better job, and there's nothing wrong with that.
Ronald Spatz: What's your favorite ANCSA story?
Sam Kito: Oh, there are so many of them. I could talk about Roger Lang and how he was able to deal with Assistant Secretary Harrison Lush and Secretary Watt on the rewriting of the regulations for how we were going to select land. I could talk about Byron Mallott going to the first convention in 1966 and working for Community and Regional Affairs and getting thrown out of the meeting. He went back to Yakutat and came back to the meeting representing the five chiefs of Yakutat and they couldn't throw him out. There's a whole series of them, but those are just probably the ones that come to mind.
Ronald Spatz: Can you tell us the one about Secretary Watt?
Sam Kito: That involved me and Roger. They had appointed me to represent AFN at a meeting, it was a Land Use Planning Commission meeting, and he was the chair. Roger and I were at the table, and Roger noticed that at the head table where the secretary and the governor were sitting, there were pitchers of water, and the rest of us were out on the T of the table and we didn't have any water. So Roger said, "Where's our water?" I said, "You've got to walk up there and get it." Whereupon Secretary Watt got up and carried a pitcher of water and poured us all water, which I thought was very human of him.
Ronald Spatz: It was kind of a surprise?
Sam Kito: To see somebody of that level get up and pour water, yes it was. I think it surprised a lot of people. He was a pretty hard, conservative person, but he had a heart. You know, people still have a heart.
Ronald Spatz: Is there anything that you would like to add?
Sam Kito: If I was going to add anything, it would be to tell the youngsters to step up and move forward and push people out of the way. I can tell one story about how it works, how people can succeed. When I became president of AFN, I moved in after Roger Lang left. I was there for two and half years, I guess. When I came in I changed the office structure. At the time, Janie Leask was the secretary, and she came into my office and we were talking about restructuring. I said, "We're going to have just one secretary for everybody, so that leaves you coming to work in my office as my executive assistant." Whereupon she said, "Well how long do I have to decide?" I said, "I'll give you about an hour."
She came back and said, "What happens if I can't do the job?" I said, "Janie, that's the easiest part of it." I said, "I'll fire you if you can't do the job, but I think you can do the job. You have to figure out if you want to go up or you're going to go sideways or you're going to go down. So you have a chance to go; if you want to, take the chance and go up." She took a chance and went up and she went all the way to the top. She's still up on top until somebody pushes her out of the way, just like me.
Get out of the way. That's probably the message to the next generation. Don't wait for them to give it to you, take it from them.