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History and Culture

Home  >  History and Culture  >  Ancsa at 30  >  Lecture Series
Lecture Series, Number One  -  Page 4
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Senator Mike Gravel: Admiral Halsey said there’s no such thing as a great person -- great man, great woman -- but there are extraordinary times that call for extraordinary actions from ordinary people. To me that’s what brought the Native Land Claims Settlement. It was a lot of people playing a lot of different roles. But as a group, the most significant persons were the Natives themselves.

I had a certain role to play, whether it was intentional or circumstantial, doesn’t make any difference, it had an effect. I think that applies to a lot of people. With respect to the Native Land Claims, if I were to think about when it came into my field of vision, I would say, surprisingly enough, not until I was elected to the Senate.

Mike Gravel
I became sensitive to the issue after I got on the Interior Affairs Committee, chaired by Scoop Jackson. It was Scoop Jackson who was the wheel horse who’d been sent to bring about the settlement.

Before I was even sworn in, I went to visit Stewart Udall at the Interior Department. If there was anything he was really proud of it was the fact that, boy, he laid down the land freeze. He could make something happen.

He was right. I didn’t understand it then, we spent all the time talking about the land freeze, but what he did was to bring on an executive order that, of course, Lyndon Johnson bought into that forced the issue, forced the Congress to take some act and force the Alaska community to coalesce, not just the Natives, but for everybody to coalesce and try to bring about change, whatever that change may be.

The histories of the American Indians and the Alaska Natives are different. For American Indians, it was genocide. That genocide never visited Alaska, and of course, that’s one of the blessings of the fact that it was a distant land and that there was not a race across the continent to take Indian land. That blessing translated itself into a whole different attitude in looking at the problem.

In 1969, a year before we really got into the Native Claims Act, the court agreed on a settlement for the Tlingit-Haidas, and it touched something in me.

It went to the Congress committee, and I was appointed to the committee on the court case, along with Ted, because we were from Alaska, not that we had any seniority. I made up my mind that I would oppose legislation that allowed the intervention of government power with Natives’ land and money. So, in this Congress committee, I proceeded to filibuster. I can be quite tenacious, and I was not going to give up.

Lo and behold, John Borbridge come into my office and he said, “Senator, you gotta give in, we’re bleeding to death, we need that money.” I said, “You’re making a mistake.” Of course, I owe my political career to the Native community of Alaska, pure and simple. I never would have got elected if it had not been for them – so, I caved in. I said, “Okay, I’ll cave in.”

About six months later, I saw a member of Congress at a cocktail party. He came up to me and says, “God damn it, you know, your colleague was the worst S.O.B. I’ve ever met in my life. He tied us up for a week and a half over the Tlingit-Haida settlement.” He was saying that to me, blaming it on a Republican when it was actually Democrat.

But that made it so all the key members of the two committees in the House and in the Senate never raised the question of who would control the money once the Native Claims Settlement was made. To me, that’s extremely significant.

I ran for office, which was totally accidental in a sense that the Democrats controlled everything -- the Senate seats, the governorship, the legislature. But I was an ambitious young Turk, and I had to find a way to get through the line, to get in by doing something unconventional. I figured I would go door-to-door in the larger communities and in the Alaska Native villages.

I campaigned in villages, and in 1966, I almost won. Everybody could see that what caused my almost-win was that I carried 80, 90, 99 percent in the villages. Now that’s edifying to anybody who looks at government and politics -- because people running for office learned the importance of the rural vote -- it caused the awakening of the sleeping giant in Alaska Native communities. ... The circumstances of the moment made people say, “Hey, there is a giant out there and we need to be paying a little more attention to it.”

It’s no coincidence that in 1966, the first AFN organizing meeting was held. That’s when Native Alaskans slowly came together and really started to sacrifice money out of their own pockets to go to Washington. They began the get in the faces of members of the committee -- Scoop Jackson and others -- that began to develop that passage of the claims act.

I was in office for about a year and a half, and many of you recall that in the House they talked about a land claims settlement of under a hundred thousand acres, while the Senate side talked about a land claims settlement of about four million acres. And, of course, the Natives were talking about 40 million acres. I’m very proud of the fact that I was the first public official in Ketchikan -- I was in Ketchikan at the time -- and made I an announcement that I would support 40 million acres.

I expected a deluge from the non-Native community, but as luck would have it, Wally Hickel came along right after and made me legitimate. Hickel was able to persuade the president to buy in to the larger number, and so that, in my mind, is where finally I played a key role. Then Hickel set the stage. The rest was working out the details.

I can recall sitting with the committee, discussing elements and talking about the corporate structure. We Caucasians know that corporate entity as the economic device for bringing people together for economic activity. It was a natural for us to think in terms of a corporate structure which was essentially totally foreign to the Native cultural structure.

Even to this day, I don’t fully understand how we could have done anything different. I still think that one of the shortcomings of what we did was not providing for future generations. But again, the politics of it were very simple. Everybody in the village and at the regional level was going to get a job. We did the best we could. The one thing I can be proud of in Congress was that within the committee there was a sincere desire to do the right thing. We knew that we weren’t smart enough to do the perfect thing, but we tried.

Somebody mentioned that the Claims legislation is a living document. It is! It’s like our American constitution. It will need tweaking, it will need change, because life is change and circumstances change. This generation may not be called upon for the work that was done in the watershed years, but certainly as you go forward, you will want to make some changes that will make the settlement more equitable over time. I hope you will do that.

What you have now are people coming forward who have experience, who can look back, who can analyze based upon their life experiences and give a different flavor to how it was done, and why it was done and all of that, and I think that that’s what’s going to be the treasure and watershed of these seminars is mining this for the future.

I would hope that there would be a good text and it would be mandatory in the Alaskan educational system that everybody take a course in Native settlement, because it’s so much a part of us, that if you don’t we will never have an opportunity to heal the fissures created from what has taken place.

The discovery of oil was very influential to the success of the Native Claims Act. We would never have gotten statehood if it weren’t for the discovery of oil. The statehood act had a confusing element with respect to Native lands, which added to the problem of taking title. After that came ANILCA, which was snuck in there too. I call it D2 because that was the section we lived in, and I filibustered that piece of legislation for years against my own Democratic administration.

We would not have had the success of the Native Land Claims had it not been for the discovery of oil in the North Slope, which was a major discovery. We would not have had the benefits of the North Slope had it not been for the pipeline.

When I was pushing for the amendment to build the pipeline, I thought we were just saving time. Not so, because legislation was coming through the D2 lands. That was where the environmental community drew the line in the sand, and pushed for what I call “the locking up of Alaska.”

Many who opposed the Alaska pipeline opposed it not as environmentalists but as preservationists and there’s a very significant difference. That’s what brought the problem that we have today -- the preservationists didn’t do the battle on the D2 lands.

I can graphically recall sitting in my office, talking to a couple of Native leaders, and saying to them, “You people have made a deal that the only land in Alaska available for exploitation will be Native lands, and the rest of the Alaskan community can go to hell.

The Natives made that deal. The southeast Tlingit-Haidas made the deal also. They got 40 million dollars for it, and of course that’s come around full circle and now they’ve got nothing. So they made their deal, it didn’t last very long. The Native community made a deal and it lasted, but that’s the source for the problem you have today. You can draw the line, but as you look at the map of Alaska, from the Bering Sea to the Canadian border, there is a government regime that locks all of that up, except for the 50-mile right of way around the Alaska pipeline.

When people are frustrated and they feel they’ve been denied something, it crops up in a lot of different ways. It crops up in unfairness. It crops up with racial hues. It just crops up. Until Alaska can find a way to reconcile the use of land to the majority population of Alaska that the Natives enjoy with their land, we will have the fissures in our economic community, in your social community, in your psychological community. That was a deterrent not at the time of the Native Land Claims because all was done was just. It may not have been perfect. It may not have been the most. But clearly, I can give testimony, that it’s probably the best we could ever have gotten out of that period of time and that was because of the committee leadership we had in the Congress with Scoop Jackson. I say Scoop and not Aspinall, because Aspinall was not nearly as generous as Scoop was in that regard.

I say this not to defend or to attack the environmental community, because I think the environmental community was well balanced in this. Alaska has always been the football of the preservationists of the nation, and they use it to raise untold sums of money so that they can prosecute their different views as to how our society should be operated economically. I don’t think that they enjoy the broadest vision as to what’s possible with intelligent, rational human beings.

I would leave you with that in your charge and say that I am delighted to have had a role in the land claims. It seems during the decade of the ’70s, which was of course the decade of the environmental ownership of the nation, and I played a very unusual leadership role. Every time I would turn around, it was a national issue. The Natives were a national issue, oil was a national issue, land was a national issue, and I know that Nixon feels that the -- Native lands, ANCSA, the D2 Lands Legislation was a high point of his presidential accomplishment. That high point has yet to be corrected with a more balanced hand, and that’s what I think our society in Alaska is capable of bringing about over time.

And that time will have to rest upon educating the young. Educating, I don’t mean just the young Natives, I mean educating Alaskans about our Native Alaskan history. They, like us, came here over the land bridge of the Bering Straits. They were here earlier and they had rights because they were here earlier, and those rights have been recognized. They need to be redesigned as we go forward with some knowledge and change.

Thank you very much. Do you have some questions?

Tom Richards: When I was a reporter, I recall the first part of September 1969 at the Sydney Laurence Auditorium, there was a sale of oil leases on the North Slope that brought in somewhat over 900 million dollars in revenues to the State of Alaska. I was wondering, it seemed like prior to 68 or 69, maybe with some folks a little bit longer, the settlement, the issue of the settlement of Alaska Native Claims was often called “the Native problem.” Was it, do you think, the event of a 900 million dollar oil lease sale that changed the terminology of settlement of Native rights in terms of land from the “Native problem” to the “Native opportunity?” Or do you think there may be other factors?

Senator Mike Gravel: No, I think it went from being the “Native problem” to “our problem.” “Our” being the entire community of Alaska, which had now been influenced quite extensively by the national oil interest.

One point that I forgot to make as I was talking was about Howard Rock. I was trying to define the verve of Native awareness within the Native community, and the rise of power. The birth of any good organization needs a voice, and serendipitously you had the Tundra Times with Howard Rock that became the voice. You had a whole group of leaders and a cacophony of sound, but then you had this piercing continuous effort by the likes of Howard Rock putting out the message of a demand for justice.

Americans have a lot of faults, but one thing we have is our sense of wanting to be fair. The continuing effort to call on our consciences hit a chord in the Caucasian population that resonated with the political leadership of the nation and with the leadership of Alaska. Now, that chord must be struck again in dealing with the problems we face today, and these problems must be addressed, because at some point we have to come to live in a unified community.

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