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History and Culture

Home  >  History and Culture  >  Ancsa at 30  >  Interviews
Marlene Johnson

Willie Templeton: Tuesday, June 7th, 2005 and this is Willie Templeton and I will be interviewing Marlene Johnson. The first question is: Please describe the background of your involvement in ANSCA.

Marlene Johnson: In the early '60s I was elected to the Tlingit-Haida executive committee for the Tlingit-Haida Central Council. I was on the executive committee so I traveled with the executive committee to Washington D.C. Our leader was John Borbridge and I worked visiting the different congressional people, different organizations to explain what our desires were for the land claims and meet with the other Alaska Native groups from around the state.

Willie Templeton: Once the land claims was passed did you have continued involvement with ANSCA and Sealaska?

Marlene Johnson: Yes, I was one of the five incorporators of Sealaska and served on its board for many years. I retired from the board in 1995. After they hired Byron Mallott as our CEO I became chairman and I served about 12 years --from about 1980 to 1992. I have not been on the Sealaska board since '95 but I have continually served on the Sealaska Heritage Foundation since its inception and still do.

On another note, I also was one of the incorporators of Hoonah Totem Corporation which was our village corporation for the village of Hoonah. I served on its board for a number of years, then after a while they got in financial trouble, I went back on the board and I served there until about 1990

I've been involved with the land claims and our regional corporation and our village corporation continuously. I left the village corporation board and I helped found and have served on the Hoonah Heritage Foundation's board of trustees since its inception and I still do. So that's primarily my involvement.

Willie Templeton: You mentioned about the Sealaska Heritage Foundation and the Hoonah Heritage Foundation. What do those foundations do? What are their purposes?

Marlene Johnson: They both pretty much have the same basic goals and strategic plan-- Sealaska, of course, on a much bigger scale. Both perpetuate the culture-- to save and teach the language and also to educate. Sealaska has a very large educational scholarship program. Hoonah Heritage Foundation, on the other hand, is based just on the village. It awards educational assistance grants, social assistance grants, and vocational assistance grants. It also holds planned workshops every year to teach the young people and others that don't know about the clan system of our culture. We also hold youth leadership programs and work with both the high school and with the elementary school, but primarily the high school. Finally we record -- we've been recording our culture and researching and doing interviews and that kind of thing for the last 10 years.

Willie Templeton: Thank you. The next question I'd like to get to is: What was the promise of ANSCA 30 years ago? Has it fulfilled the promise? If not, what has happened and why?

Marlene Johnson: I think the biggest promise and the most important was that we would retain a portion of our land, having fee simple title--that the native community would control part of our lands. Of course, the money was nice to get for that compensation for those lands that they would not give to us and they got it very cheap. But having the land has proven to be the most important part of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

Willie Templeton: When you mentioned fee simple title that means complete control over the land without Secretary of the Interior oversight?

Marlene Johnson: That's correct. He had oversight for a few years under ANSCA, you know; he had to approve a lot of what we did. And, in fact, Sealaska had to approve the things the village did for a few years. I did not think that we could take it on by ourselves at that time but time has proven that we can and for the most part the Alaska Natives have done a very good job.

Willie Templeton: Where there unintended consequences of ANSCA, developments that no one foresaw?

Marlene Johnson: I don't know if it was totally unintended, it was unrealized. I think we had not thought it through very well this issue of subsistence. I don't think we understood totally the consequences of giving up. We should have kept that fishing and hunting right right in land claims and we didn't.

Willie Templeton: The 1987 amendments, are they commonly known as the 1991 amendment where they were trying to address 1991 issues?

Marlene Johnson: Right. That's what they are.

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

Marlene Johnson: Well, I think the Alaska Natives have changed. Certainly they have become very politically astute. They're very good at the political game. They beat the most seasoned politicians at their own game. In fact, they learned how to deal with both state and federal laws based at the village level and at the regional level.

One of the toughest parts of land claims is that the very small villages have had small amounts of money but very large land holdings and to comply with all the state and federal regulations has been difficult. But I think that for the most part Alaska Native corporations, Alaska Native people, have become a very powerful economic force and I see the change in the young people coming out of college with various different kinds of degrees and professionalism that I don't think anybody foresaw. I think we've made giant steps there.

Willie Templeton: Following this theme of a powerful economic force, what are your observations of how Alaska Natives were treated, let's say in the '40s and '50s as compared as to how Alaska Natives are treated today?

Marlene Johnson: Well, you can't even compare. I'm a kid of the '40s and '50s so let me tell you. I spent a lot of my recesses back in the '40s and -- not so much the '50s -- but the '40s, writing on the blackboard, "I will not talk Indian." If I got caught saying anything in the native language we were severely punished and it was absolute discrimination. I mean, here in Juneau in the 1940's and early '50s there were signs in the bars and on there that said "no Indians or dogs allowed" and in the theater we sat in one section and the white people sat in another. I mean, absolute discrimination and, of course, they'd not get away with that today. Thank goodness. Our kids today are for the most part respected just for who they are and what they can do, not by the color of their skin. There is still discrimination, I'm not saying there's not but, for the most part, we've come a long ways.

Willie Templeton: In your observations would you say that native kids today are more proud of being Native than let's say native kids in the '50s?

Marlene Johnson: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. You know, that's we're doing at the Heritage Foundations and one of the things I've been working on for the last three years -- just almost on a volunteer basis, half time -- is the youth leadership-- teaching them who they are and to be proud of who they are as a Native person, to be proud of who they are, where they come from. When I was growing up I would -- if I saw my teacher coming in I would ask my mother not to talk Indian. Please don't talk Indian in front of her. I mean, now we're teaching Indian in the schools. Now we're teaching Indian in college. That's the difference.

Willie Templeton: Is it fair to say that because of economic force and of the success of the corporation that the youth today may feel more empowered?

Marlene Johnson: Oh, absolutely. They get respect. People respect them. People are -- they're able to -- they go to school, they get good grades, the teachers like them, they shine and because of who they are and what they can do. This would not have happened had BIA still had us under their thumb. Being independent has been very, very good for our people.

Willie Templeton: Thank you. The next question: What does the next 30 years hold? Is ANSCA a model of societal engineering in need of revision or is it perfect?

Marlene Johnson: Well, it's certainly not perfect. Ask any shareholder. But, you know, even if it's not perfect it's the best thing that's ever happened. I mean, we all like to sit and tell about the bad parts, but I don't think that there's ever anything perfect. ANSCA has been good for the Alaska Natives. I think for the next 30 years you're going to see continued growth both in economic force and political force. I think that people are going to continue to respect the corporations and what they can do and what they bring to the table.

I mean Anchorage needs to take a look at what they would be without the Native corporations based there. It just would, you know, it just absolutely shock people if they really realized how much the Native corporations bring to that city.

I think it's going to continue to grow and I think we're going to see more and more young people highly educated doing things that they wouldn't have ever have thought they could do a few years ago.

Willie Templeton: A final question: What is your favorite ANSCA story?

Marlene Johnson: I got to tell you. I cannot tell you what my favorite ANSCA story is. I couldn't put it in writing.

Willie Templeton: Okay.

Marlene Johnson: But there are some good ones. One of the evenings -- and this isn't my favorite -- after dinner we were having a debate amongst the whole wonderful group. I know that the Fairbanks Native Association was there and the Arctic Slope people were there and Sam Kito and all of the players-- Don Wright was there. Anyway, a number of us from Southeast and South Central were there and we were having a debate about what we were going to do -- kind of planning the next days activity, plus debating what we thought we should do and needed to do and a couple of guys got into a heated debate. One of the Alaska Native people was so mad after this argument and he fired one of the attorneys. The attorney looked at him and looked around. I remember saying, telling him, calling him by name and saying, you can't fire him, he doesn't even work for us. He didn't, he worked for another corporation, another area. But it was one of our delegates that fired him.

Willie Templeton: Thank you.

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