John Borbridge, a Tlingit from Juneau, has served many leadership roles in the Native Alaskan community, including vice president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, president of the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indians of Alaska, and president and chairman of the board of Sealaska Corporation. Borbridge was instrumental in the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement, serving as chief lobbyist for Southeast Alaska and for Alaska Federation of Natives.
Ronald Spatz: Describe your background and involvement with the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
John Borbridge: I was born in Juneau of a Tlingit mother and father, and I've pretty much lived most of my life in Juneau. I became a teacher and coach there, and after a few years, came up to Anchorage and became a Native Affairs Officer for the Indian Public Health Service. I was asked in 1965 by the tribal elders and chiefs, who had gathered in Juneau for a very important meeting, to represent them in Washington, D.C. I traveled to Washington, D.C. 37 years ago, and that pretty well began my active involvement in Native affairs, and for that matter, ANCSA, or the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
Ronald Spatz: What was the promise of ANCSA for you 30 years ago?
John Borbridge: I think the promise of ANCSA can be assessed in part by the three primary objectives that the Alaska Natives sought: land, protection of the subsistence rights, and compensation for lands to which their aboriginal title would be extinguished. The loss of lands due to selections by the State of Alaska under the Statehood Act was stemmed, and we received title to our lands. However, one of the unforeseen consequences was that we were required as a Native people to spend tens of millions of dollars in litigation to ensure that what was promised was in fact delivered.
I think the other matter, subsistence, was one in which the promise of the Congress was so complex it took a little while longer for them to deliver on that. Finally, we worked for the passage of Title VIII, the subsistence title of ANILCA, the Alaska National Interests Conservation Act. As a consequence, we received protection of our subsistence lifestyle, although it was not directed at us as Native people. It was directed at us as rural-situated Alaskan people.
Ronald Spatz: Has ANCSA fulfilled its promises and if not, why not?
John Borbridge: I think they've fallen short. I'll start on this basis -- Is it a perfect act? No, simply because, (1) it has been amended a number of times, and (2) in the implementation of the act a great deal of money has been expended by the corporations to ensure that the promise of ANCSA was delivered. I think another way the act has fallen short of its promise is, even 31 years after the passage of ANCSA, not all the titles to lands promised under the act have been delivered. It clearly falls short in those respects.
I don't want, however, to inadvertently overlook the fact that it sought to do justice. Justice is rarely ever a perfect thing. It so often is a matter of compromise. In this instance it sought to do justice and it sought to recognize that the Native people took their grievances and their desires to the Congress of the United States and through a very sophisticated, persistent effort they brought about the passage of the Claims Settlement Act, one of the largest and most complex acts ever enacted by the Congress.
Ronald Spatz: Were there unintended consequences of ANCSA, developments that no one foresaw or you couldn't anticipate?
John Borbridge: In part, the expense of getting underway with ANCSA. There is no question that many of the people who were entrusted by virtue of their roles in federal agencies were not always enthusiastic about fulfilling their roles. That is the blunt truth of it. They disapproved of what ANCSA did, and in some instances, they managed to drag their feet. Even though it's been 31 years, it's a little difficult to suggest I've arrived at any final conclusions. I really haven't.
Ronald Spatz: Do you have any specifics about who was dragging their feet or any particular instances that you would want to share?
John Borbridge: Well, I'm talking in general about most of the federal entities within the Department of Interior. One complaint I have is that the Bureau of Land Management did not successfully seek a greatly expanded budget so they could discharge their duties of processing the land rights and land selection rights of the Native corporations. I think they should have had more people and more money, and treated this as a priority.
Ronald Spatz: Has ANCSA changed Alaskans, particularly Alaska Natives?
John Borbridge: It has involved us on the business side of things, and so it has expanded our intellectual horizon. It has been a challenge for leaders to communicate their experiences to people in the villages and also to recognize the people in the villages, who have a lot they can teach the directors and elected officials of the corporations. I think there needs to be more interaction.
In terms of unanticipated events, a big one is the number of lawsuits. For example, lawsuits have sought to clarify aspects or provisions of ANCSA. One example is 7(i); it turned out to be very simple in concept. There would be monies that would be shared, so that when Corporation A realized money from resources, monies derived from those resources would need to be, under the provision of ANCSA, shared with the other corporations. The idea being that the resource-rich corporations would not be rich while neighboring, resource-poor corporations were not enjoying the same kind of success. So I think that 7(i) was intended by the Congress to try to even things out.
Ronald Spatz: Looking ahead to the future, what do you see that ANCSA holds? Where do you see the future heading?
John Borbridge: Any forecast of what the future may hold requires there be at least a minimum effort to understand what brought things to pass and what the past holds. History makes very clear that the reason ANCSA came about was because of the strength of the claims to land. Native people's assertion was based largely on aboriginal title, and aboriginal title is only certifiable by tribes. Aboriginal title was not adjudicated in a court of law. Nonetheless, Congress and everyone else recognized this was at the root of these claims. Congress felt it was imperative to settle.
One of the things that will directly impact the future is the necessity for corporations to have more understanding about how and why ANCSA came to be. The value system that is enjoyed by the tribal governments says that a tribal government is forever. Members die and members are born, and tribal government continues. The value system of the tribes says land is forever. It's not to be sold, it's not be used to make a quick buck, it's not to bail yourself out of a poor corporate decision with respect to a chancy investment. Land is something you never let go of; it's at the very root of a tribe's existence. It's imperative that the corporations and tribes understand one another a little more. We need to have conversations where, instead of talking about problems, we ask: what do the directors in the tribe think about the land? What are you thinking about when you say you need more collateral through the use of some of our resources? We need the kind of exchange people have when they're not under pressure.
If land was at the root of what we sought in terms of a just claim, it certainly is at the root in terms of our ability to continue to enjoy the act of justice done by Congress. No one pretends it was a perfect act, as very often acts of justice are not perfect. They seek the right thing, and it's up to us to help the Act realize its matter of justice.
Ronald Spatz: A last question: What is your favorite ANCSA story, your favorite anecdote?
John Borbridge: Oh my personal favorite is when Governor Hickel was appointed to be Secretary of Interior in President Nixon's cabinet. He became a secretary-designee and there were hearings held in the United States Senate. Hickel, due to various controversial utterances was very much in the news. He was hot in Washington, D.C., so when Emil Notti and Eben Hopson and I went back to D.C. to represent the Alaska Federation of Natives, what we sought to do was work with the Senators to receive promises to work for a just land claim settlement. We wanted to ensure that the Secretary didn't take any actions that might be harmful to a good settlement. So, the three of us were on the Hill and the hearings were being held in the Senate Room. We walked in the Senate Room, and there were all these lights blazing from the television cameras that were set up. Police were posted at the door, and just about all the seats were filled except those at the very front, which were reserved for VIPs. As we approached the door where the police guard was, Willie Hensley said to Eben Hopson, "What do you think about the hearings, Senator?" The fact was Mr. Hopson had been a state senator, and you could just about see the ears of the policeman perk up right away. He turned to us very quickly and said, "Senator, will you follow me and bring your party?" So of course, Willie Hensley and I followed Eben Hopson, who was following the policeman, and we were taken to the front row and seated amidst a lot of speculation. People were wondering, "Who are these power brokers?" That's my favorite story.