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History and Culture

Home  >  History and Culture  >  Ancsa at 30  >  Lecture Series
Lecture Series, Number Four  -  Page 8
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William Van Ness: Another early experience for me was in 1968. On February 8th, the Senate Interior Committee held field hearings here in Anchorage on Fourth Avenue, I believe. We had three days scheduled, and something like 1,600 people signed up to testify. There were Native leaders from small villages from far away. Some of them did not speak English, but all were eloquent when telling their story. They told of their identification with the land, the culture. It’s a marvelous thing to go back and read, because it captures the mood and the spirit that was associated with the issue.

By the same token, the boomers were there, the rednecks and those who didn’t look so well at the Alaska Native people. The difference in attitude, tone and what was said was very, very remarkable. To me, one of the jarring things occurred the evening of the first hearing. We ran it normally from 9:00 o’clock to 6:00 o’clock, and then we were falling behind. Clearly we weren’t going to hear 1,600 people at the rate we were going, so we started very early the next morning. I think it was 6:00 and ran it until 10:00 o’clock. The third day I think we started at 6:00 and ran until midnight to get through all of the witnesses. We limited them to two or three minutes for statements. If you weren’t there when your name was called, you didn’t appear. But leaving one evening, I think it was the first evening, I was going back to the hotel to eat, and I was shocked as I walked by a number of bars and cocktail lounges. There were handwritten signs in the windows of a number of them that said, “No Natives allowed.” It just shocked me. I’d never seen anything like this. It told me how difficult this issue was going to be.

And it did prove difficult in a lot of junctures. It must have been incredibly difficult for the leaders who were moving the issue to have that kind of political environment at home. Look at the Native leadership for a moment with me. Here you had Willie and a number of other people who were having bake sales to generate enough money to get an airline ticket to come to D.C., living four or five to a room, sleeping on the floors of the cheapest hotels they could find, having really no experience in dealing with Congress, dealing with highly paid lobbyists and lawyers for the oil companies and others--and they didn’t miss a beat. They pulled it off, because they had guts, they had courage, they were bold. They went into whatever office they wanted to go into. They had a story to tell and they believed their story and they were seeking justice. The results were incredible. They were very soon on first name basis with people in the White House, people in the federal agencies, people on the Hill who they were dealing with. They earned respect and they earned it very, very quickly, because they dealt on the merits. They were honest in depicting their story, and they were generally honest in terms of the proposals they’d put forward, although you could always see they were easing for a little more advantage. They did a great job and you can be very, very proud of them.

It’s absolutely remarkable, I think, that in 1966 to 1968 you had so many competent leaders who came forward and carried that platform full. I haven’t seen it replicated since. Willie, I believe, was the only college graduate of the group. Some of them didn’t have a full elementary school education, but nevertheless they were able to move into what was for most Native people in Alaska, a totally different environment--the environment of legal deeds, fee simple title, stock ownership, restricted stock, warrants. They were very complex issues in which they really had no background at all, but they were quick studies and they picked it up and became masters of both the process, and the subject matter. A great debt of gratitude is owed to their adaptability, intelligence, courage and the manner in which they pursued it. ANCSA itself was the product of a lot of hard work, some good luck, some serendipity as the Chancellor noted, and the dedicated leadership they provided.

Some of the events that were important, of course, included the land freeze that Secretary Udall imposed in 1966. That got everybody’s attention, from the oil industry to the state. It raised the bar, as it were, in terms of this being a viable and very real issue. It caused a lot of ugly comments, of course, but you had people’s attention and the right people’s attention as a result of that. Prudhoe Bay lifted the bar further, nine and half billion barrels of oil. It was spectacular, and again, it was tied to the fact that you had to settle the land claims. Eventually that came to be conventional wisdom. Before Prudhoe Bay could be developed, the oil companies very naively and foolishly thought they were going to build that pipeline right then and they began ordering the pipe and moving equipment in. They were stymied by the fact that the land claims were also stymied by the environmental laws in Section 28. All of this reflected back like big mirrors on the importance of settling the land claims before history could proceed and evolve.

The other issue that was very, very important was President Nixon. Normally you would think of the settlement as a significant legal, social economic problem involving a very, very small minority far, far away in a remote place called Alaska. A Republican administration is usually not a good place to look for solutions for a variety of reasons. I don’t mean that in any partisan sense, I mean it in terms of history of the parties and politics. Nixon turned out and was very, very much the key, because he had a football coach when he was at Whittier College, whom he grew to respect and revere and love. It was 40 some years later, and as the president, he felt a lot of empathy for Native American people.

One of the things he authorized his administration to do was publish a policy on Indian self-determination. That was important, because John Ehrlichman, who was the chief domestic advisor to Nixon, read Nixon very well. And by God, John Ehrlichman was going to do something -- or a number of things that were important for Native American people. As it turned out, as the process of ANCSA evolved legislatively, it spilled over onto John Ehrlichman’s desk in the form of memos from Secretary Morton the Department of Interior, proposing a Pigmy-like settlement both in terms of land and dollars.

John Ehrlichman and other White House staff, Bobby Killburg, wrote a memo, and Ehrlichman had a meeting with all of the contesting parties and the administration, including Secretary Morton, head of the Bureau of Budget. The Bureau of Budget, in those days, was king. Nothing happened without the blessing of the Bureau of Budget, and at the Bureau of Budget every dollar counted. Ehrlichman made a decision and his decision was that nobody was going to top the president in terms of generosity on credible land claim settlement bills. When they were talking numbers, he took the highest number from every credible bill and position, which is how you got to the 40 million acre number and the $950 million number. His role was very important in the evolution.

Another thing that was very important and should not be overlooked is the role of your senior senator, Senator Ted Stevens. Ted got off to a very rocky start in his senate career. He was appointed to Bob Bartlett’s seat by Hickel. He spent every weekend up here, I think, for two years flying back and forth on a miserable flight. I don’t think he missed any or many votes when he was there. He’d been the Senate Majority Leader up here, and he wanted everything his way. He was bright. He was a quick study. He was pushy, and he didn’t get along with Mike Gravel at all.

It took him a while to have a relationship with the chairman of the committee, under Scoop Jackson, but he did eventually develop a great relation. He and Scoop were very, very close friends after a few years. Scoop did quite a bit in terms of educating Ted his first couple of years. Ted has been, in my mind, the Alaska Native people’s greatest friend in terms of a politician, a guy in power, a guy with staying ability. He’s the guy who I’ve always gone to on behalf of my Native clients. They have major issues and he’s always been there. He has always delivered. He took a courageous stand very early in the land claims issue when it was not a popular thing to do up here in terms of the Alaska Chamber of Commerce and the movers. He favored large grants of land to the Native people. It was simple economics, as the Chancellor probably remembers. He wanted the land in private hands rather than federal hands where it would be withdrawn or set aside or not be put to productive economic use. If it were in Native hands, that didn’t make any difference. It took some courage in those days to go around saying that, especially for a guy who was an appointee, who had never won a statewide office, who had lost on two occasions, to take that position. He was staring at an election and Gravel was kicking him pretty hard when he wasn’t looking. The other thing he did, which was very important at a critical point in time, was to pass the NOL, the Net Operating Loss legislation that enabled many of the village and regional corporations that were experiencing extreme economic difficulty in the 1980s to sell their net operating losses to profitable major corporations in the United States to generate cash, which flew right to their bottom line and kept some out of bankruptcy. It pulled some of them out of economic doldrums and provided a source of important new capital to others. It was a controversial thing, but done with a lot of foresight and skill and it was very, very important as well.

I think I’d probably better wrap it up. We’re running very much out of time, and I wanted to leave Willie at least five or six minutes in as much as he engineered being the last to speak, which I will probably regret.

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