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History and Culture

Home  >  History and Culture  >  Ancsa at 30  >  Lecture Series
Lecture Series, Number Two  -  Page 2
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Tom Richards: I am honored to introduce our first speaker today, John Borbridge from Juneau. I’ve known John since I think we both had black hair. John, when I first knew him, was tribal official. He was President of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indians of Alaska. He served as Chairman of the board of the Alaska Federation of Natives, and he was the first president and chairman of the board of the Sea Alaska Corporation. He has been involved nationally in Native American Indian Affairs. He was appointed as commissioner of the American Indian Policy Review Commission. His involvement in land claims goes back to the very beginning. He was appointed by then Governor Hickel to sit on the Land Claims Task Force, which was the body that came out with the first serious proposal to settle the aboriginal claims of Alaska Natives.

John Borbridge
John Borbridge: Thanks, Tom.

Tom Richards: I would like to allow you to give a general overview of your impressions about ANCSA and your involvement.

John Borbridge: It is not in accord with the customs of Tlingit Indians, once we get a microphone, to ever make a brief comment. It would go contrary to everything I learned as a Tlingit. But I’ll do the best I can to watch the time.

Before I start to talk about ANCSA I’m pleased that Tom, as did other speakers, made reference to the perceptions we have about what occurred in this very important historic event, the result of which was the passage of one of the largest and most complex settlements of Indian land rights ever enacted by our Congress in the history of Indian people. Because of its complexity, there are bound to be differences in our interpretations of various events. I want to start off with how we used to handle these differences of opinions within the Alaska Federation of Natives.

Events as you look back at them, seem complex now. Consider how they must have been as we discussed, interpreted, and debated them, ultimately reaching agreement. The Alaska Federation of Natives, in its early days, provided those of us who represented regional organizations the opportunity, by virtue of a motion during a meeting of the board, to ask that our position, with respect to the provision of land claims legislation, be adopted. We would then have our debate and often we would lose.

I had the experience of submitting a resolution and having it defeated. After I submitted my resolution, which I knew was going to be defeated, Harry Carter, who represented Kodiak in those days, walked up to me and said, “John, sometimes you make it pretty tough to be your friend.” He was going to end up supporting me and voting for a resolution that he knew was going to be defeated.

After the defeat of the resolution, I asked for the attention of the chair and asked for the opportunity to speak. I advised the other directors and the chair that I was going to go to Washington, D.C., to ask the members of the Congress to enact my resolution, even though it had been defeated at the board level. This was stroke of genius by AFN, which was a fledgling organization and that was how we handled some of the very controversial issues that arose.

I’m currently in the process of writing a book on the Claims Settlement Act. I find that I have to continually resist the temptation to come out with a very heavily footnoted, scholarly work. What I’ve decided to do instead, and it’s been a very tough decision, is write a book that gives the human perception, the way we handled issues, how the issues affected us as we represented different organizations, and how we reconciled various viewpoints. So that’s where I’m headed at the present time.

Initially, we had to think about how we started out in the Congress. We had to answer the very simple question, “Who are you Alaska Natives?” Part of the reason was that the Congressmen pretty generally thought we were all Eskimos up in Alaska and I told that to my wife, who is Yup’ik. I said, “They think we’re all Eskimos.” She said, “So?” I had a lot of sympathy there. By the way, as I address you and share the experiences I’ve had, you’ll notice one member of the audience will be shaking her head once in a while; that will be my daughter Sandra. She is here and I just wanted you to know.

The Congressmen also asked us, “What is the basis of your land claims?” We had to come up with an explanation that included our understanding of our use and occupancy. We had always been on the land, our ancestors had always been on the land, but we had to tie that in with a legal argument and a legal perception that the Congressmen would understand. We had a dual function in approaching the Congressmen. We tried to acquaint them with the law that made it clear we Alaska Natives had rights to the land and that we should have title to large areas of land and we should receive compensation where lands had been taken away from us. Not all of the Congressmen wanted to take time to understand the law that we were, ourselves, becoming acquainted with. So we would also have some of our people say to the Congressmen that education was not as plentiful as it should have been. The annual income was very, very low. There were health problems we had to deal with. In other words, we were trying to reach the Congressmen on the level that they understood and so we had to use as many different approaches as possible.

I want to also address that at this time, a very important part of the Claims Settlement Act, which is acknowledged indirectly from time to time, and I call the Ladies of ANCSA. My intention is to thank all of those members, and I’m not going to be remotely able to give you all those names. But the names I will give you are some examples of the ladies who were very, very active. You’ll notice when you look at the members of the board at AFN and the officials and members of the boards of regional Native organizations that predominantly they were men. This will help to correct a little of that oversight. Here are some names: Laura Bergt. Laura was AFN secretary and activist for a number of years; she was appointed to the National Council on Indian Opportunity, then chaired by Vice President of the United States, and there she had the opportunity to assist in forwarding the Claims Settlement Act to get the attention it deserved.

Alice Brown of Kenai. She was on the AFN Board. Alice was a staunch defender of the rights of Kenai and all Alaska Natives. I also want to point out that Alice, as Emil will verify, when she felt that inadequate attention was being paid to the rights of the Kenaitze Indians, did not hesitate to take us to task. I think she just plain balled us out when she felt we had it coming.

Francis Degnan. Francis is also on the AFN Board and continued the tradition of family service to her people. Ruby Tansy from the village of Cantwell and also represented other areas and was active in their regional organization.

Margaret Nick. Let me briefly give you my favorite Margaret Nick story. The former governor of Alaska, Wally Hickel, had been appointed Secretary of Interior. He was making his first trip to Alaska and to Anchorage, and we had pretty healthy debates in AFN about it. The question was should we receive him as a favorite son and bestow honors or should we remember that as Secretary of Interior, he is going to have a lot of authority over what happened to the developing Alaska Native land claim. So, as one of the speakers who would be addressing the National Congress of American Indians, which was meeting in Anchorage at the time the Secretary was coming to Anchorage, I had decided I wanted to directly address the issue of the land claims. I saw Margaret Nick in the Westward Hotel, and I said, “Margaret, here are the two choices we have. What do you think?” She just looked up and said, “So fight.” That’s exactly what we did.

Agnes Brown. Agnes was active for some years representing the Native Village of Tyonek. Juanita Corwin is active within the Central Council and AFN and worked directly, at one point, for Eben Hopson. Mary Jane stayed very active in Fairbanks. Oh yes, Irene Rowan, and I apologize very much for the many names that I’ve left off here. I do want you to know that these women are examples of those who were very important to the work that we did.

I want to correct one oversight, one that I’ve continued to overlook. That’s the name of Emma Borbridge. Emma’s my wife, and she was not elected to any position but I know that when I headed out to Washington, D.C., in those days, I never knew how long I’d be out there. Sometimes six weeks, a month was not at all unusual, and she would let me know what was happening according to her perception. She would attend various meetings. She was not just an echo of my ideas. She had her own ideas, her own conviction. She would talk to members of the board and people she knew. I still remember to this day that I would call her and she would say, “Would you please talk to our older son, just to encourage him?” So this is my way of thanking her for making it possible for me to do what little I was able to do.

Then, so Tom here will not get too nervous -- I’m watching the time pretty well—a very logical kind of a question has risen from time to time. Sometimes it just arises in terms of a statement that is made like, “Well I was here when ANCSA became law and no one every asked my permission to have that legislation passed by the Congress.” I’ve heard that many, many times, and that brings us to what is called federal plenary power. This is very important because it helps to explain that Congress did not have to come to the villages or to Anchorage or to Alaska to ask our permission to have a law passed because Congress, with respect to Alaska Native Affairs and American Indian Affairs, has the complete power and authority to act on our behalf, which is what it did when it enacted the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Let me give you the specific wording. Congress, under principles of law laid down by the U.S. Supreme Court, is said to have plenary power over Native American communities and their members. This means that Congress has full or complete power in the field of Indian Affairs, and that resulting obligation has ripened to a unique legal relationship between the federal government and Native Americans.

Now, there is another distinction that affects us as Alaska Natives. We have, as most of you know, a unique and special relationship with the federal government, a relationship that is being implemented today by federal agencies as a government-to-government relationship. If I were to ask, “Would all of you who are Alaska citizens stand up?” Just about all of you would stand, including Alaska Natives and non-Natives. But, if I were to ask, “Would all of those who enjoy a unique and special relationship with the federal government by virtue of being Alaska Natives stand?” only the Alaska Natives would stand. This difference, between Alaska Natives and the Indian tribes in the Lower 48, came about because of our different histories, but it has caused a great deal of misunderstanding and unfortunate anger by those who don’t understand. Yet it is something I think we can all be proud of.

At this point, Tom might like to steer me to a couple of other issues. So, Tom?

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