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History and Culture

Home  >  History and Culture  >  Ancsa at 30  >  Interviews
Senator Mike Gravel

Mike Gravel represented Alaska in the U.S. Senate from 1969 to 1981. He served on the Finance, Interior, and the Environment and Public Works committees, chairing the Energy, Water Resources, and the Environmental Pollution subcommittees.

Mike Gravel: My name is Mike Gravel. I'm a former U.S. Senator from the State of Alaska. I served two terms in the United States Senate, and in my first term, one of the watershed pieces of legislation that was enacted was the Alaska Native Land Claims.

Ronald Spatz: What was the promise of ANCSA 30 years ago, from your perspective, and has it fulfilled its promise?

Senator Mike Gravel
Mike Gravel: It has probably 75 to 80 percent. The promise of ANCSA was the ability to place wealth and independence in the hands of the Native community, so that they could work their economic will to their own benefit. It has done that. It's created jobs. It's brought wealth to the communities. There's a lot more to be done, because there have been some inequities in the distribution of it, but, by and large, I think it's been a successful undertaking.

Ronald Spatz: Where has it not been successful?

Mike Gravel: Well, some communities have not been blessed with resources, like let's say the North Slope or some in southeast Alaska. As a result of that, they do not have an economic base from which to operate, and I'm thinking primarily of Calista. Calista's always had great difficulties in that regard. Now Calista may wind up, some day, to be a great wealthy area, but it is not right now. So as a result of that, the people who live there today are not enjoying the benefits of the claims legislation that they should be enjoying.

Ronald Spatz: What would you say to the folks who said they didn't get enough at 40 million -- even though that was larger a settlement than anything that had come before it in American history?

Mike Gravel: Forty million acres was really beyond anybody's imagination in the Congress. In the House, they were talking about a hundred thousand acres. In the Senate, maybe four million acres. When you talk in terms of 40 million acres, it was really way, way out there. Because of the convergence of certain attitudes and tactics and efforts, 40 million was accepted, and I don't think that there was a prayer that anything beyond that would have brought about a resolution of this situation.

Ronald Spatz: Do you see the 40 million as a just settlement, as opposed to a pragmatic settlement?

Mike Gravel: Just is a relative thing. Just for who? Is it just with respect to the Alaska Natives as compared to the Natives in the southeast and in the United States? It's more than just. Is it just compared to the wealth that the state offers? That's open to question. When you see the wealth on the North Slope, which is not visited, except through a percentage formula, to the other Natives who are greatly in need; justice becomes very relative to the judgments you make at a particular point in time.

Ronald Spatz: Were there unintended consequences of ANCSA? Developments that you or no one else you know foresaw?

Mike Gravel: The unintended development, from my point of view, was the realization and the adjudication in Congress of the D2 lands issue. We knew that was something that had to be dealt with to really define some of the regimes that would take place in the rest of the land of Alaska. I don't think, at the time, we realized that it would be so extreme as to lock up Alaska. Of course, I filibustered that legislation for three consecutive years. I was eventually rolled over and it became law. I think it was a big mistake.

I have great respect for President Carter, he views that as one of his great presidential accomplishments. I don't think it's an accomplishment at all. I think it hurt Alaska, and I think it's planted the underlying seeds of disunion that remain in Alaska. That is the 40 million acres that the Natives own can be exploited and developed, with the proper environmental safeguards -- but the rest of the land cannot be. So, by and large, the non-Native community is denied the opportunity to exploit the great wealth of Alaska for the benefit, not only of Alaska and the United States, but the world.

Ronald Spatz: From your perspective, has the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act changed Alaskans, particularly Alaska Natives?

Mike Gravel: It's certainly changed the economic underpinnings of the Alaska Natives. No question about that. With respect to the non-Native community, because of the lock up of the rest of the land, it has created an economic fissure and a discrimination against the possible land use by non-Natives. That is an underlying problem, and until it's addressed, you will continually see the fissures that exist between the Native community and the non-Native community. The non-Native community has the power of numbers in the state democracy.

Ronald Spatz: What do the next 30 years hold? Does ANCSA as a model for social engineering need revision?

Mike Gravel: I think, and thought so when we enacted it, that ANCSA is an ideal model for social engineering. We see it in welfare and other programs for the disadvantaged, where the government doles out the goodies and keeps control. Of course, with ANCSA, and I'm very proud of the role I played in this regard – I felt very strongly that once the Natives got their money and their land, it was theirs and they could do what they wanted with it. I think that device, of setting up corporations that are well funded and that have an economic base, is the ideal way to treat disadvantaged populations throughout the country and throughout the world. Because once you get the basic underpinning, you can last for a period of time. I'm not talking about a year or a month, I'm talking about underpinnings that can last for a generation. That's what we did with the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Those underpinnings are there for many generations, and they will grow.

Ronald Spatz: What's your favorite ANCSA story?

Mike Gravel: I think the story of Congressman Haley. I had filibustered with the Tlingit/Haida money portion of it, so once the Natives got their money, they could do what they wanted with it. The precedent before that was that the BIA would dole it out and have control. So I filibustered this in a conference committee for, oh, several weeks, and then finally gave up when the Natives didn't want me to continue. But, after that was done, it was such a vitriolic battle in that committee that it never came up again during the ANCSA deliberations.

Congressman Haley was a Democrat and I'm a Democrat, and I saw him at a cocktail party six months later and he said, "You know, your colleague Ted Stevens is a mean S.O.B. You know, he just tied up our committee forever on his views." Of course, he was talking about me, but because I was a Democrat, I obviously could do no harm, and so he attributed the filibuster to Stevens. That, I think, is the most humorous anecdote of the whole period.

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