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History and Culture

Home  >  History and Culture  >  Ancsa at 30  >  Interviews
Joseph Upicksoun

Joe Upicksoun, from Barrow, served as vice president and then president of the Arctic Slope Native Association. An AFN board member, Upicksoun was against the passage of ANCSA.

Ronald Spatz: How did you get involved with ANCSA?

Joseph Upicksoun: I was aware of what was going on in 1966. I was still employed by Federal Electric Corporation on the Dew Line, but I did come in and was lucky to be at whatever was going on in the Alaska Natives concern about land.

Joseph Upicksoun
Eventually, when I left the Dew Line, I settled in Barrow and got involved locally. My children were in school, so it was incumbent upon me to be involved with whatever the school board and the advisory school board did to make sure that our children received the type of education that my wife and I wanted them to have.

Small civic activities like that led to other things and, eventually, I went to a meeting for the Inupiaq people in Barrow. At that time, Walter Ahmoagak was president of the Arctic Slope Native Association. Tom Brower, Sr. nominated me, and I in turn nominated him. As a result, I got elected in 1968 as the first vice president. The following year, I become the president of the Arctic Slope Native Association, and have been the president since then.

What had been done prior to my becoming involved was explained to me, so I knew where we were at, and the feeling I had towards how the federal government funded Bureau of Indian Affairs' programs. I became involved as joint manager of various utilities where we had a contract with Bureau of Indian Affairs, but there was a limited amount of funding and it was not enough to deliver quality utility service and quality maintenance for the Bureau of Indian Affairs installations.

I started thinking in my mind, "How does the federal government get its money?" In the words of the great economist Scotsman Adam Smith, I thought, "Land is the final source of all capital."

I was one of the fortunate associations that had an American Indian lawyer, a Tlingit by the name of Fred Paul who was known for being an authority on American Indian law. I learned from him how treaties and reservations worked for the Indians in the Lower 48.

Here in Alaska we were involved in buying 56 and a half million acres of land that we claimed was ours by aboriginal title through use and occupancy. We went with that; that was our main theme. We went with it all the way. We weren't concerned about money, because once we had land, once we were able to develop it for economic reasons, we could get the money.

It was explained to me that, in the Tee-Hit-Ton Case, the United States Supreme Court had given only Congress the authority to expropriate aboriginal rights without compensation. No third party had the power to do that, not even the Secretary of the Interior could do that without statutory authority. Our aboriginal title meant we owned the land until Congress extinguished that aboriginal title.

This is what we maintained all the way through, and clearly, the Aboriginal title distinguishes between the treatment of Indians in the Lower 48 and Alaska Natives. There were some successful law firms that defended the American Indians on treaty cases. They said it was easier to represent American Indians on treaty violations than it was to establish aboriginal title. With that, we still believed Congress was the only body that could extinguish our title and not pay us for it, but they also had the authority to convey lands to us.

We had another route, too, which we were ready for, and it was the Edwardsen v. Morton lawsuit -- we could sue the court for trespass activities on our land. We left that plan on the back burner, because once you file a lawsuit, you have to maintain it and that takes a lot of money that we didn't have.

On one hand, the federal government had a lot of money to employ lawyers and bureaucrats to keep putting obstacles in our way, and on the other side, the state government had their attorney general with his lawyers and funding, too. They had all the money to do what they wanted, but Alaska Natives didn't have that kind of money. We had to rely on the Bingo games held in our communities every couple weeks to make enough money to travel, and we applied for grants. We were able to apply for an $85,000 grant, which we successfully received. During my involvement with ANCSA, I felt a purpose in working with our people and establishing an aboriginal title and our legal rights.

Ronald Spatz: Why did you vote against the passage of ANCSA?

Joseph Upicksoun: On December 18, 1971, at the Alaska Pacific University, there was a meeting that we, the Alaska Federation of Natives held. Those who were involved in lobbying the Alaska Native Land Claims effort were there to hear the President of the United States, Richard Millhouse Nixon, announce he had signed the bill.

We had good reasons for voting no. One was that there wasn't enough land. Forty million acres was not enough land for us anyway, especially those of us who live in the Arctic and rely very much on the yield of the land and sea.

Secondly, the distribution of the proceeds of the settlement on a per capita basis. The Arctic Slope Native Association had always, by population, been five percent of the Alaska Natives, so we had five percent of the vote. Southeastern Alaska and the Yup'iks with their large number of votes held us back. We couldn't continue to fight with that many votes against us.

Then, of course, we had some objection to how southeastern Alaska, even after the court settlement that brought in 7.2 million dollars. They were only getting 25 percent of the settlement. There were other things, too, that we did not mention in that telegram to the president, and one was that we wanted to protect the integrity of the Edwardsen v. Morton lawsuit. We still had that.

Ronald Spatz: How did the other leaders react when you voted no?

Joseph Upicksoun: The other associations had always maintained that each association was entitled to express its own opinion, its own vote.

Ronald Spatz: So they weren't upset?

Joseph Upicksoun: No.

Ronald Spatz: Thirty years have passed. How do you feel now? Have you changed your opinion about ANSCA?

Joseph Upicksoun: No, I don't. For economic reasons, it's all right. We had white man tools, a for-profit corporate concept. It has its covenant, the articles of incorporation, and can do business. It has shareholders, which are identified as the Native people, and of course the books were closed for anyone to register on December 18 of 1971, which left the After-Borns with nothing up until 1988 when ANILCA came out and we were able to maintain the status quo or enroll our After-Borns.

We chose and directed management to start enrolling our After-Borns and issue Class C stock to them, so they will get their hundred shares. As long as they're alive, they will benefit from whatever the corporation issues in terms of dividends, and if they pass away, their shares revert back to the corporation. That was the only difference between the Class A shares, which could be willed to whomever was designated as heirs. Those are forever.

Another thing was, as you work with a bill long enough, you start questioning, "Why are they making new laws when the United States Bureau of Land Management already has existing public land policies and laws?" I questioned why Congress had to put in special laws for us when I knew that if there were white shareholders in a corporation, they would have objected to duplicating what is already a public law in the Bureau of Land Management and Department of Interior.

Ronald Spatz: What would you say to people who take the opposite view, and say 40 million acres is enough. What would you say to them now?

Joseph Upicksoun: The 375 million acres that comprised all of the state of Alaska was divided into different ethnic groups, different areas, different regions, each coming in with their share filing their land claims.

For example, Arctic Slope happened to have 56 and a half million acres, which was 14 percent of all of Alaska land. The other regions also had certain amounts they came into the Alaska Native Land Claims with, and they had their certain portion of the whole state of Alaska. What we did with the 40 million acres was that we wanted 14 percent of that, that's on the land side. On the money side, we didn't care about that, because money comes and money goes, and we could make our own money by developing our own land.

After the Department of Interior made their land selections, we had very little land to select from. Well, in the first place, the Arctic Slope Native Association didn't recognize any of those executive order land withdrawals like the NPRA and the Alaska National Wildlife Range, because they were executive orders, they were not proclaimed by Congress.

The only one real Indian reservation we have in Alaska is the Tlinget and Haida and that was an executive order plus it was proclaimed by Congress. The 16 million acres of Tongass National Forest was also proclaimed by Congress, which meant that Congress did its thing in extinguishing aboriginal title. But there was also a taking that left the Tlingit and Haidas with 2.6 million acres.

Ronald Spatz: In almost 30 years, have you seen a change in values or a change in Alaska Natives?

Joseph Upicksoun: In the Arctic Slope, we always felt that after the ANILCA, when we were able to include even the After-Borns, it made our children feel proud of being part of a settlement. They're shareholders in our regional corporation. It gives them a lot of pride to identify themselves with a very successful corporation.

Ronald Spatz: What do you see in the next 30 years? Are you optimistic things will get better, or are you pessimistic?

Joseph Upicksoun: I have a lot of confidence in our young leaders. They have feelings about their corporations. They want them to succeed, and they want to become involved in them.

The leadership we have now is realizing that tribal councils under the Indian Reorganization Act have permanent relationships with the federal government where the government protects the hunting and fishing rights. We always have the ability to harvest the land, rivers, and seas. One has to distinguish between economics and the subsistence lifestyle, and know the definition of what economics is and what subsistence really means. The way any ordinary dictionary explains subsistence is as a total absence of economics, see. I grew up and did not know what money was because my dad was a very good provider, and we came out very happy, healthy kids who were well fed and well groomed, all without any money. Of course, they were able to trap fur. But, once economics enters the subsistence lifestyle, then trappers are regulated, so they can only trap during certain seasons. It's sort of a golden rule that I adopted: "He who has the money makes the rules."

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