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History and Culture

Home  >  History and Culture  >  Ancsa at 30  >  Lecture Series
Lecture Series, Number One  -  Page 7
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Robert Zelnick
C. Robert Zelnick: For a while, until this warm welcome, I kind of remembered the old Lite beer commercials that used to have a former New York Mets first baseman named Marv Thornberry, who was a miserable player, and his line in every commercial was, “Why did they ask me to do this commercial?” I thought about that when I received this invitation because the other panelists have spent their lifetimes involved in this issue, whereas my involvement was rather brief. It is something that I’ll always remember, and because of my role as a journalist working in two different cities, Anchorage and then Washington, I had a slightly different view of some of the events and some of the players.

The first time I visited Point Barrow as a journalist was on Thanksgiving Day of 1968. I kissed my bride goodbye and got on a plane. I arrived in Point Barrow and they were celebrating Thanksgiving at the Civic Center or social hall. My guide was Janie Pender, who had been with the Anchorage Daily News up in Barrow for a long time, and I asked her, “What is it that they’re eating there?” She said, “That’s muktuk.” I said, “What is that?” “Whale blubber,” she said, “Would you like a piece?” I said, “Might as well,” and I tasted it and I found it utterly delicious. I was so impressed with it that I thought, “What could be a better present for my bride of less than a year than to bring back some of this muktuk?” So, I wrapped it in a piece of napkin, and put it in a side pocket of my Alaskan tuxedo. By the time I got back, some other things had happened, I forgot completely about it. About a week later, I came home from the News one day, and Pam said, “You know, I think we’ve got to move out of this apartment. There must be a landfill or something around here. It stinks to the high heavens.” Well, you know what it was -- which is to say, I don’t have anything against muktuk, it just shouldn’t be fermented.

I worked for the News in 1968 and 1969 in Alaska. I reported on the story here, and then in Washington. I was in touch with several people involved in the claims effort at that time, including Emil Notti, Guy Martin, Nick Begich, Senator Stevens, former Senator Gruening.

I want to say something about Gruening, because I think his view of Native Land Claims represents a position that has come under very, very sharp criticism in the Native community, and I think it was also reflected in another document which I’ll get to in a moment which I think is one of the important documents of this struggle, and that was the report “Alaska Natives and the Land,” published by the Federal Field Committee for developing planning in Alaska in, I believe, 1968 or early 1969. Gruening opposed a significant grant of land. He was for a generous monetary settlement, and in fact, the Federal Field Committee proposed a settlement of only 4.6 million acres and revenues up to a billion dollars through various revenue sharing schemes. And, of course, given the nature of the times and nature of advocacy groups now, that is considered kind of a White man imposing his values on a different community; it’s considered even racist.

I knew Gruening well for six or seven years, and I never heard a racist comment or allegation come from his mouth. He was, as were many people of that generation, a believer in what one might call the American Model, and that is purge your society of rules and practices that discriminate against other people, and let them buy in to the American system -- the economy, the system of education -- and they will prosper. That is the model that has worked for every minority group that’s come to these shores over the centuries. It’s worked for hated groups, the groups who were chased from continent to continent, and then came over to The United States and bought into the American Model and thrived. It’s worked in recent years for Vietnamese people and other Asians. Now that I work at a university, I see the sons and daughters of immigrants thriving in fantastic numbers in American academic communities. So I wouldn’t write it off. I recognize that other values come into play. Ernest Greuning and Joe Fitzgerald, the head of the Federal Field Committee, frankly, did not believe that there was a economic viability for most of rural Alaska except those communities which were fortuitously situated on great mineral and land rights and oil resources.

I don’t say that they’ve been proven right. I don’t think, at this point, that they’ve been proven wrong. In any event, it would be a tremendous historic injustice for people who had that view to be branded as racists rather than simply people of good faith who have a point of view that’s not in keeping with the tenor of the times.

A number of people have sited the convergence of factors that brought the land claims into play, and I think they were indeed correct, that the factors were the land freeze, the oil discovery and Pet. 4 in Prudhoe Bay, and the formation of the Alaska Federation of Natives. I would add the report of the Federal Field Committee to that list. It was a more-than-500 page report produced what became a bible of data on Native conditions, life expectancy, unemployment rates, suicide rates, health conditions in the villages. Those who disagreed with the recommendations of the Federal Field Committee nonetheless have a debt to pay to the role it played in consolidating all this information for the first time.

I would also to the list of factors, Hickel’s appointment as Secretary of Interior and his confirmation battle, because that was really the first time that the Alaska Federation of Natives had a chance to exercise its political power in an important national setting. It did a very good job. As you recall, Hickel had shot his mouth off on several occasions about not locking up a lot of resources, and even before his confirmation hearings, he had earned the enmity of the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth and a consortium of other conservationists and preservationists. The last thing in the world he needed was opposition from the Natives of his home state, and I think they came to Washington, and they offered conditional endorsement of the Hickel confirmation, demanding a commitment from Hickel that he would not disturb the land freeze, which Stuart Udall had put into place. The land freeze had been an anathema to Hickel as governor of Alaska, and to many others in state government, regardless of party. I would certainly add that to the list of items that were of great importance in shaping and eventually determining the battle for land claims legislation.

I also think that we ignore, at our peril as scholars, the broader, national context of what was going on at the time. It wasn’t only a question of the formation of the AFN and the Hickel appointment and the Federal Field Committee. There was a civil rights movement in the United States. There was an anti-war movement in the United States. There was a growing assertiveness by Native Americans. Remember, this was 1968, 1969. This was the period when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, when Martin Luther King was shot, and when western culture was questioning itself. There were charges of institutional racism that ran deep into the currents of American society, and it was fashionable for spokesmen of minority groups to resist calls for assimilation.

This was an issue that I can illustrate with a rather amusing anecdote. I was back in Washington just a very short time in 1969 when I received a call from Hickel who had been confirmed as Interior Secretary. He said, “Bob, I’m calling you because you’re a good reporter and I’ve got to make a speech at the NCAI convention in Albuquerque next week, and I don’t know exactly what to say. I think, personally, it’s time to cut the cord, and get them off the reservations, give them enough money or something to rejoin American life, but I want you to go out there and get a sense of the mood of the convention and the mood of the American, and the Native Americans and tell me what this speech looks like.”

I said, “I’ll be happy to do it, Mr. Secretary.” I went out there and people were walking around with signs saying “Hickel means Honkey” and “Custer died for your sins.” I’m talked to people left and right, and it didn’t seem as though Hickel’s draft had captured the prevailing mood. I saw a fellow named Steve Steiner, who had just written a book called The New Indians, and I sat down with him and some of the Native Americans there, and said, “Tell me, where are we going? What’s the fundamental mistake we’re making in dealing with these people? If this is the result of it, obviously we’re doing something wrong.”

Steiner said, “Look, you’re dealing with Indians as a minority group and you’re dealing with them as a political constituency, and what you have to understand is the spiritual relationship between these people and their land. What you don’t understand is you’re talking about a religion.”

Then Mike Leavitt, who was on Hickel’s staff at the White House, came out and we sat together and went over our findings. We got Hickel in a room and I was looking through his speech, and it says, “Cut the cord,” and I said, “This can’t fly, Mr. Secretary. You just can’t do this. They’ll eat you alive. You’ll be buried in a policy that simply can’t work at this particular time. He said, “Why not? Take a look at these lands, they’re…” I said, “Mr. Secretary, let me tell you something, and take it for what it’s worth. New York City is desperate for money now. How would you feel about them taking over St. Patrick’s Cathedral by eminent domain, tearing it down and putting up something there, you know there’s Bergdorf Goodman’s, there’s all the fanciest stores in the world, they could make a fortune.” He said, “But it’s a religion!” Mike and I said, “That’s exactly what you’re talking about here, Mr. Secretary.”

He made modest changes. About a year later, after he had gotten in trouble with the Nixon administration but before they had lowered the boom on him, I remember having dinner at his house. He said, “You know, I think I’ve turned this administration around on the Native Land Claims. We’re going to give them their 40 million acres. You know what people don’t understand about this, Bob? It’s a religion!”

I’m glad Tom paid tribute to the Anchorage Daily News. I think it’s worth it. The relationship between the Anchorage Daily News and the Native community is, I think, one of the most remarkable stories, whatever its impact on the process. Remember, this was a small paper. At the time I worked there, I don’t think there were any more than four or five reporters on the whole staff. Yet, a year or two before I got there, under the leadership of executive editor Joe Rothstein, the paper had done a massive series of articles on Village Alaska, which was unprecedented. Whoever heard of a newspaper going broke expending the resources to report on something that most its readership didn’t give a damn about?

When I was up there, I wrote a series of articles that we called “Justice in the Alaska Bush,” because of which, a year later, chief justice George Boney called a conference and instituted some important changes. I can remember being deeply involved editorially with the Kuskokwin controversy, which was something that also came up at the Hickel confirmation hearings. I also remember when the state administration turned against the various Alaska Native Land Claims proposals because they required contribution by the state.

People have made excuses for Keith Miller, saying that he wasn’t very experienced, he was in over his head, he was worried about getting re-elected. Well, that’s the name of the game. It seems to me you’ll be judged by how you act when the rubber meets the road, to use an old cliché. The administration of Keith Miller and those legislators who jumped on board with him played what can best be called an un-constructed road, and I know, during the final months I was in Alaska a lot of my time editorially was devoted to writing unsigned editorials and sometimes signed columns battling the Miller administration on this issue.

In this new book that’s coming out, Take Our Land, Take Our Life, there’s a picture of a Tundra Times, the first Tundra Times Banquet and has “unidentified woman” on the podium up there on the roster. The unidentified woman is Kay Fanning, who passed away last year. There was a spirit of mission on the part of the Anchorage News led by Larry Fanning, Kay Fanning, and Joe Rothstein, which I have not seen from any other paper of comparable size dealing with an issue of comparable importance to the state. I would hope that in the history of this epoch, the role of the News gets at least some mention.

I might also say that as a reporter down in Washington, when I listed the people I was in touch with from time to time, I could always count on Tom to give me details of the activities of those working for a settlement of the issue that were sometimes even more graphic than I needed, but it was…

Tom Richards: Those are stories you’re not going to hear today.

C. Robert Zelnick: Or ever! I think the questions raised were dealt with by the people who were elected to deal with them, and they played different roles. Ted Stevens probably didn’t start off as friendly with Scoop Jackson as he would become in subsequent years, but I do think that Jackson and his top staff assistant, Bill Van Ness, who was a quite gifted lawyer, took Stevens’ comments seriously.

I think there were interesting people involved. I think when you get right down to it, Wally Hickel believed that development solved every problem. I don’t think he was emotionally attached to the Native cause or anything of the sort, but I think (1), he fervently believed in development. (2), after the attacks on him during the pre-confirmation period, he wanted to be remembered as a good Secretary of Interior by the very people who had attacked him most bitterly. He did some high wire acts on environmental issues, not of tremendous substance, but having high P.R. value, and I think this was another issue in which he wanted to be remembered as someone who had done something effectively.

To underline what Senator Gravel said, Scoop Jackson may not have been a very good presidential candidate, but he was one of the great senators of his generation, a very serious legislator. He handled this issue with competence, dedication, and great patience -- all those virtues we hope to see in a member of the United States Senate. Thank you.

Tom Richards: Thank you, Bob. I think you anticipated all my questions.

C. Robert Zelnick: I didn’t anticipate them. I had read them before I got up here.

Tom Richards: I thought we had a secret.

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