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History and Culture

Home  >  History and Culture  >  Ancsa at 30  >  Lecture Series
Lecture Series, Number Four  -  Page 7
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William Van Ness
William Van Ness: Thank you, Tom. First of all, I’d like to thank you and the University for inviting me here. It’s a great thing and a great opportunity to come back to Alaska again and see so many longstanding, dear and good friends as I have today and last night and this morning. It was an emotional thing for me, because my experience with ANCSA occurred very early in my legal career. My career is working for the U.S. Senate. It was a roller coaster ride in a lot of respects, because times up here were very, very hard then. The young leaders, young and inexperienced leaders, who came to D.C. lacked resources, but they had courage and they were bright and they were great politicians in and of themselves, and they held their own.

I started as a graduate from law school in 1966, and by serendipity as the Chancellor said, I wound up going to work in my first job for Senator Henry M. Jackson, Scoop Jackson, as special counsel to the Senate Interior Committee. The reason he had a special counsel was he had made a deal with the senator from New Mexico, who had been the chairman of the committee, to decide if he wanted to take over the new Space and Science Committee, because his plan was to raid the federal treasury and get all of the NASA facilities into New Mexico. He also liked being chairman of the Interior Committee. So, his deal with Scoop was that he’d step aside, and Scoop could be the chairman, but Scoop had to keep all of his staff. At that time there were about six professional staff on the committee. The average age of these guys was probably 63 or 64, and they all owed their loyalty to Clinton Anderson, the senior senator from New Mexico.

So Scoop got the idea that he’d go to a law school out in the state and hire one lawyer. He had a little bit of money in the city budget, and that lawyer would be his man. It would be the person to watch his agenda and advance it. So that’s what he did. He’d done this three or four years before I came on the scene. The first guy he hired was already out of law school. He was with the prosecutor’s office in Spokane, and his name was Tom Foley. When he left to run for Congress, it opened up the seat and I moved in. It was a great experience, because Scoop was a great teacher. He was an absolute mad man in delegating responsibility to young people to proportions that you shouldn’t do, but he did it. He stood behind you when you made a mistake, but you better get nervous about the third mistake in a row. He didn’t like mistakes, but he did stand behind you. One of my first assignments from Scoop, after I came on the staff in August of 1966, was to look at the issue of the Alaska Native Land Claims. He said this is a problem. We’re going to have to resolve it. We didn’t do it when we did statehood. We should have. It looks like there’s going to be energy development up there and that’s going to force the issue.

He was concerned about the international energy situation in the late 1960s and subsequently in 1970s. He headed up a special U.S. Senate study of national fuels and energy policy, so that was on his mind. I was very enthusiastic. This sounded like a big problem that probably would require a trip or two to Alaska, so I really dove in.

I was going to write the definitive memo on the Alaska Native Land Claim problem, and how it should be sorted out and settled. I went to the Library of Congress. I went to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. I went to the Department of the Interior. I wrote letters for the chairman to sign telling agencies that they had to come forth with these papers and organize them so that we would have this huge volume of information about the Alaska Native people, their legal history, their social economic status, the statistics, how many were there, where did they live, how did they make their living and so forth.

It turned out this stuff didn’t exist. The federal government and the Library of Congress couldn’t generate anything for us. As a fall back, I told the chairman we couldn’t really legislate and have hearings and develop a solution unless we knew something about the problem.” I said, “Why don’t we get a special appropriation and hire a think tank, somebody like the Rand Corporation or the Intel Memorial Institute to parse this problem out for us.” There had to be some knowledge about it someplace. Scoop thought this was a good idea and he shared my memo with Senator Bartlett of Alaska. Senator Bartlett was just absolutely outraged that this young lawyer was suggesting they hire the Rand Corporation or some other think tank that didn’t know anything about Alaska to do this. We had a meeting and he said, “But I know what we should do,” and that was call Joe Fitzgerald of the Federal Development Committee and Planning Committee and commission them to do it. He got in touch with Bartlett and Bartlett came down -- or Joe Fitzgerald came down and we got an agreement. He was reluctant to do it, but his staff was very enthusiastic about doing it. And I think for $50 thousand he commissioned a study in April of 1968, I believe -- or maybe it was 1967. Six months later, Alaska Natives and the Land, this long, awkward, ugly, green book was finished. It was 575 pages, and if there was anything known about the Alaska Native people and their legal history and social economic status, it was in that book. It was a marvelous piece of work from my perspective, having tried to find some information on this subject, and it was thrown together in an incredibly short period of time. It has withstood the test of time. The people that were on the staff, Esther Wunnicke -- is she here? I guess she appeared on one of your previous panels, Tom.

Tom Richards: She was a speaker at our second panel.

William Van Ness: Bob Arnold, who’s now down in Olympia; Dave Hickok and Arlon Tussing. It was a masterful piece of work for a complex information problem. It was more than cataloging and bringing data together. We also asked them to do some analysis of some alternative forms of legislative settlements. They got to play lawyer a little bit as well as economists and historians and archeologists. It was a very important document. Had we tried to legislate without that kind of information, we would have spent five years answering fundamental, basic questions that we couldn’t have answered. Having that document, whether anybody read it or not, gave a sense that whatever they were doing legislatively was informed. It was reasoned. It was based on real data. From the standpoint of the Alaska Native leaders who came down and lobbied the issue and pushed on it, it served that same purpose. It provided a sense of credibility that otherwise would have been sorely missing. So when I look back on the Alaska Natives and the Land, I think it was a fundamental building block that enabled Willie and the other leadership to jumpstart what was obviously a very complex and incredibly difficult issue. So a tribute to Esther and her colleagues and others who did that.

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