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History and Culture

Home  >  History and Culture  >  Ancsa at 30  >  Lecture Series
Lecture Series, Number One  -  Page 2
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Tom Richards: Our first speaker today is a gentleman from Bristol Bay. He was born in the village of Naknek. When I first met him, he was a student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He was very active in the events leading to the settlement of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

And once ANCSA was established, he became the first chief executive officer of the Bristol Bay Native Corporation. I’ve seen him many times over the years. He’s been a very effective legislator both in the Alaska House of Representatives and in the Alaska State Senate. He’s been an advocate for rural Alaska, an advocate for economic development throughout Alaska, my friend Nels Anderson, Jr.

Nels Anderson, Jr.
Nels Anderson, Jr.: Thank you very much. In Native villages across the state, when they start out their meetings – at least in the last hundred years – they always give thanks to their Holy Spirit for being here. So I call upon the Holy Spirit to bless us and keep us safe and that we may all be blessed by the stories we tell today.

I just wanted to say a couple things about Howard as well. He touched my heart deeply as a young man. I remember going up to his office and meeting with him, and I couldn’t believe that this was the man who was revolutionizing politics in the state of Alaska. As Tommy said, he was very soft-spoken, and I couldn’t believe he was the guy. I asked him a few questions, and I said, “What inspires you? How do you do this? How do you write these most powerful, moving news items that capture everyone’s hearts?”

He said that, having grown up in the villages, he had met many people across the state. He was very well traveled and so he knew the hearts and minds of the people, and because of that, he could speak for them. He was the most powerful, eloquent spokesman I have ever come across in my entire life.

I asked him, “I wrote something, would you print it in your paper?” and he said, “Sure.” I wrote a little something and he printed it, and I couldn’t believe it. I almost fainted when I saw it; it was the first time I saw my name in print, and it just floored me. I went up to see him to thank him for printing it, and I said, “You know, Howard, I don’t know how to tell you this, but I think this is the turning point of my life, because this is the first time that I was ever really allowed to express something deep inside of me that people would read. I was thinking, ‘Man alive, people are reading this little thing that I wrote!’” I put my heart into it, and I think he felt it. I’ll always be thankful to him for that.

More importantly, I think what Howard did was really glue the Native people together with that newspaper. He was the glue that kept us focused on the big picture. When we were working on the Claims Act, we organized ourselves into a structure that was fairly typical of a military structure. There were policy makers, like Emil Notti and John Borbridge, who thought things through very carefully and enunciated what they saw. Then there were those of us who were at the strategy or tactical level, and we would take what the policy makers said and try to implement it.

* * *

I remember having a conversation with my daughter, who recently graduated and got her masters degree in business administration from UAA. She was in third grade, and challenged me to go and speak to her class. She said, “Our teacher says this land belongs to the United States. You come and tell the students whose land this is.” Well, what was I supposed to do? I said “Okay, I’ll go and do it.” I went up to the class, and I was sitting in front of these young, young people, thinking to myself, “What can I possibly say to them to make them understand what I feel in my heart when I look across the land?” Basically, that’s what I did say to them.

When I look across the land, when I see the mountains and the trees and the rivers and the lakes and the game and the fish and the birds, they’re mine. They were handed down to me from my ancestors, from way back when, before recorded history. I have a hard time describing this feeling in my heart.

There are some people, like Willie Hensley, who wrote that great paper on the land status of the Native claims, that we needed to make a stand at some point and say, “Yes, this is our land, let’s fight for it, it is ours.” I heard him make that statement in the log cabin in the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce building. Three of my elders had come in from Bristol Bay while I was going to school at the University in Fairbanks, and they invited me to go down and listen to this guy talk about the Claims Act.

At that time in my life it was just a foreign idea, but I wanted to listen to him. Harvey Samuelsen was one of our great leaders from the bay, Walter Noden from Bristol Bay, Herman Schroeder, Jackie Knutsen -- a large number of people from the bay area who encouraged me to go and listen. I went and heard Willie make his pitch about claims, and everything just kind of fell into place in my head—all the things the elders had told me when I was growing up, all the things I heard people say about land began to come together in a legal context, not just an anecdotal context.

But the anecdotal context was more important to me. What I felt in my heart was more important to me than the legalities of the situation, so I never got into the legal technicalities of any discussion. I got into the tactics and the strategies to make this happen, because I love to do that. I love to make things happen.

We needed leaders, like Joe Upicksoun, from all over the state to come together. I would just listen to them, and then say, “Okay, I think this is what they mean,” and I’d write it down. Then the younger ones around the table, like Phillip Guy, Brenda Itta, Frances Degnan, and Tim Wallace, we’d meet after they’d met and we’d say, “Okay, this is what we think they said” and then we’d bring it back to them and say to the whole board, “This is what we think you want done.” They’d discuss it, and then that’s what we’d do.

When people ask me, “How did you do it?” When I look back, and 30 years have gone by, I think that if we had known what mountains we would have to move and the numbers of minds we would have to convince and the sacrifices we would have to make, I don’t think half of us would have even tried. Back then we were just dumb and happy. We just figured we could do it!

When we were going through this process, there was no communication out to the villages. There were no phones. The only way you could ever communicate with Anchorage was through using the cannery’s radio phones if the weather was good. People would write letters, but it would be forever before they got delivered. The Mukluk Telegraph probably worked more effectively than the United States Postal Service back then. Communications were a very difficult thing. People would come in from all corners of Alaska, into Anchorage or Fairbanks, and share what they had learned from the previous meeting, and then try to figure out where to go next.

We didn’t have very good airline services, so a lot of the pilots donated their planes and money to fly people in; they’d go pick people up and bring them in to a central area, so that people could discuss things.

My question to the elders was, “Where did you get this idea that the land was yours?” The older people, way back, they always said, “This was ours, and we’re sovereign over it.” I had no idea how to turn that thought into an action that would make the whole world understand that we needed to do something about land claims.

People from around the state would gather together, and then they’d decide what their policy was going to be and we’d move forward. So we go from 1966 when I first heard Willie, all the way up to 1971 when the bill was passed. People in villages would have little bake sales, and other little fundraising activities, to raise money as best they could to try to get a delegate into the AFN meeting. That happened all across the state.

People would go to the meetings and take money out of their own pockets. I mean they believed in it so much and I admire those people. I can’t name them all, because I don’t know how many actually did that, but I would say half of the people involved in the Claims Act came on their own dime. They didn’t ask for anything from anyone, mainly because there was nothing for anyone in the villages to give. Back in those days, there was very little money.

To make a change of such great significance without money, it has to be centered around the dedication and the spirit of the people. They had to feel so right about it, that this was something the United States government had to do in order to try to make things right.

As far as I’m concerned, the battle is just half done. There are things left that need to be done. I think what’s really important today is to have young people gain an understanding of who made this thing happen and what the forces were that culminated to bring it to happen. There are better people than I who can paint that story for you, but there are a number of things that come to mind:

(1) Statehood. 1959. The State of Alaska went out on a land selection spree, and that really upset a lot of us because they were picking the best land. We didn’t like that, but what could we do about it?

(2) Discovery of oil on the North Slope. The oil guys wanted their oil. We had a Secretary of Interior who froze all the land. Of course that got the oil companies’ attention, and ours too, and we said, “Hmmm, we might have an advocate back there who really knows what’s going on.” Until some reasonable settlement could be arrived at, there would be no pipeline. All of a sudden, the money people became strong advocates, lobbying to get us our land.

(3) There were a few people who were going to school, who were learning, who had gotten an education, who could read, who could understand treaties and the law, and get a little bit of understanding of what white people were using to fight against us. As we gained more knowledge and expertise, and as we gained more sophistication in the area of lobbying, we became more and more effective.

In order to put together a really good organization, you had to have money, so a lot of people went out and got money. The Tyoneks gave money. I think people loaned money that probably was never paid back. The Yakima Indians loaned money. The National Bank of Alaska loaned money on a guarantee from the Tlingit and Haida Central Council.

That forced me to get into the banking side of things, and that’s how I got to know Elmer Rasmussen very well. I’ll always be thankful to him and all those others -- Robert Jim of the Yakima Nation and the Tyoneks -- who stepped forward when we really needed it. When the Claims Act passed, I was treasurer of AFN, and I was making my presentation to the convention -- the people who are our ultimate bosses -- and I gave a financial status and I only said three words. Don Wright or somebody introduced me, and he said, “This is the treasurer, he’s going to give a report.” I walked up to the mike and I said: “We are broke,” and I walked away.

That was it, because we were. We used up every dime and nickel to lobby. The people who loaned us money must have been a little nervous at this point, thinking, “Well they’re broke, how are they going to pay us back?” We got a few bucks from the federal government, we got a little bit of land and when all the regional corporations got their first infusions of funds from the Claims Act, they all stepped forward and paid everything off, so I could walk away with a clean conscience. As far as I know, everyone who loaned us money got it back.

Looking back, I really got to know a lot of people very well, but there’s one guy who I really admire tremendously, and that’s Emil Notti. He who had the difficult task of melding the different cultures of the State of Alaska together to formulate one cohesive voice. Emil was able to secure the loyalty and trust of every Native person across the State of Alaska, and I have to give him a lot of credit. I give Willie Hensley, of course, the credit that was a spark to really wake us up. I give credit to Howard Rock for producing the information so people could read it and become motivated to do what we needed to do.

Emil was in the trenches every day, and people probably cussed him out and called him every name, but he stuck to his guns. He kept everybody focused on the big picture. I know he had a lot of good advisors. He had good and bad advisors; I know that. But he could tread the treacherous waters and navigate them, and he pulled us through some very difficult times. There were times when things almost fell apart, and I think you probably remember them. I give a lot of credit to Emil. I’ve always respected him and I really dearly love the guy.

I think it’s really important for the Native community to really become involved in their government, in their local politics, to get their education. I’m talking to young girls: build an intellectual convent for yourselves, and stay there until you’re done. Guys: don’t get hung up with the girls neither. I’m not kidding you. I mean don’t let your hormones rule your brains, because you’re really going to need them. In the future, your brains are going to be so important to us, all of us -- Natives, Whites, everybody -- so finish your education.

It took me 16 years to get my bachelor’s degree, and I’m just forever grateful for having done it because it opened up so many doors for me. Many times a door was closed and I always thought, as a typical Native guy, ticked off and everything else, “Oh, it’s the system and it’s the white guys,” but no, I didn’t have the qualifications. I didn’t have a piece of paper that said I could do it. I knew I could do it, but that was the thing that was my stumbling block. I’m saying to you, get your education. Please do it. If you don’t do it for yourself, do it for me. Do it for my granddaughter.

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