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History and Culture

Home  >  History and Culture  >  Ancsa at 30  >  Lecture Series
Lecture Series, Number Four  -  Page 9
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Tom Richards: Take your time, Bill. Willie is from my hometown.

William Van Ness: I’ll conclude by answering a question. Has ANCSA been a success? In my opinion it has been very much a success for a lot of the reasons that the Chancellor mentioned. It’s not just the numbers that you’re looking at here. As Mary said, it’s an issue of empowerment, self determination, being able to take on the responsibility, being able to chart your own course and succeed, and it’s also the issue of being able to fail if that’s the way it happened, but done on your own terms and with your own decision making. Terribly, terribly important, I think.

The act plowed a lot of new ground. It represented a radical departure from prior or precedent policy in terms of legislative on Native American claims. It was social engineering in some senses, but it was not social engineering of the mad scientist. That is what these young Native leaders who came before Congress said they wanted. They didn’t want a trust relationship. They didn’t want reservations. They wanted fee simple title and they wanted the ability to control, with their other shareholders, their own corporations. They wanted to do it on kind of an ethnic language basis, and a lot of people thought that was a bad idea at the time. It was contrary to, you know, getting everybody in the same harness and pulling together. 7(i) and some other things made adjustments.

Having said it was a success, there are a lot of problems that still remain. ANCSA, as Lee noted, was full of problems. It required a lot of regulations, fine-tuning, details that ANCSA didn’t address. But there were reasons for that. You couldn’t address all the problems. We would have had a thousand-page bill and it never would have gotten passed. You have to simplify and you have to cheat and lie a little bit on the edge of margins that yes this was good, it will work, the people will benefit, it won’t bankrupt the country. You have to make those calls sometimes.

We have this fortunate event every two years called the ANCSA technical corrections bill, and one gets passed every two years. In some years it has been an ANCSA technical correction bill. In other years, the things that get put in there are absolutely mind-boggling and are of great benefit to one or more of the regional corporations and Alaska Native community as a whole. We still call it the technical correction bill regardless of what is in it, but that’s been an evolutionary thing in the sense that we made the adjustments, details and plowed new ground as was necessary.

There are still a lot of big issues around. Subsistence has already been mentioned. Sovereignty and tribal entity and the powers and Indian country are still out there, not resolved in any definitive sense at all. You have the problem of bringing needed and essential public services to the villages. Lee touched on the role of the nonprofits, but I think it’s going to become an increasingly important role. Then you’ve got the role of the village corporations, which again was touched on in part; there are a lot of uncertainties there.

Finally, we had some discussions this morning at breakfast about the importance of preserving this experience, those papers, those documents, by recording some of us elder statesmen’s recollections. There is an importance to recording this. The state ought to pay some attention to it. The University system to capturing this material so that it’s there for your children and your grandchildren, because I think it’s an important experience, not just in Alaska, but for the nation and how it dealt with this group of Native American people. Thank you, Tom.

Tom Richards: Thank you, Bill. Hang on for a moment. You touched on the Federal Field Committee. I found your resume. It was tucked behind Thursday’s Los Angeles Times crossword puzzle.

William Van Ness: That’s where my wife would put it, too.

Tom Richards: I hit the highlights from the top of my head, but it’s also, I think, important to mention that you’re president of the Henry M. Jackson Foundation, which is one of the major sponsors of our lecture series and I thank you so much for that.

William Van Ness: My arms still hurts from Lee Gorsuch twisting it, but he does it very nicely.

Tom Richards: Your name came up along with Senator Jackson during our first lecture series. Our first panel included Joe Upicksoun, who is president of Arctic Slope Native Association and first president of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation; Nels Anderson from Dillingham; Bob Zelnick, who was a reporter for the Daily News and then a major international correspondent and is now professor of journalism at Boston University; and Senator Mike Gravel.

Joe kind of took after Gravel during that first panel, saying that we couldn’t get anything out of him, that we had to go to the delegation from Washington State and talk to Senator Jackson and Bill Van Ness. Joe said that you and Senator Jackson were more helpful to us than our own Congressional delegation. One thing that impressed me when I was a young reporter back in Washington, D.C., was how Senator Jackson and you always took the time to respond to our comments and when we had our people come and visit in Washington, D.C., you made time for us. Why did you pay so much attention to me, a reported working for a small Native-owned newspaper with a circulation of just around 2,500? We weren’t even voting in your area.

William Van Ness: I think it was Senator Jackson’s rule and policy that he made time for everybody who had problems. Sometimes it got to be a problem for me. I remember one time, I think it was 1972, we took a military airplane, an FA-6 or something, the largest plane you could land on an aircraft carrier, and we were doing an energy study. Scoop wanted to go to the Middle East and meet with the king of Saudi Arabia. Then he wanted to go see the Shah of Iran. Then he wanted to go see Golda Meir, the premier of Israel and then some other places. And, God, I thought this could be great. It was the first time I’d traveled on a big international trip with the senator. We were down in this ATA6. They had welded the Bombay doors shut and welded some stainless steel chairs down in there. There were no windows. You had to climb up a ladder to get to the pilots and see blue sky. In any event, it was just luxurious, you know. No insulation in it.

Where we landed they didn’t have big generators to start the engines, but instead they had some kind of a deal that exploded and the engines were dusty and dirty. In any event, we did all of these things and, God, I was tired. We landed in Italy and came into this peninsula, this beautiful white marble hotel with big verandas and white beaches. There were beautiful ladies who wree topless and bottomless on the beach. There were two limousines waiting when we landed at the airport. And again, it’s dirty and it’s grimy -- there was no air conditioning. It was 110 degrees, and two admirals are there. Two limousines picked up the official Congressional delegation and took us to this marble palace to serve us an eight-course lunch and fine wines and give us a shower and a bedroom. It was going to be great.

Scoop met them and shook their hands and got their names and wrote them down. He was very thankful they were doing that, but he said we had other business we had to do. The other business was a rusty mat terminal in those Quonset huts. You could see through some of the rust holes in them. They were full of about 50 Army, Navy, and Marine Corps wives. Every one of them had three little kids. They were out of diapers, and full of flies.

Scoop interviewed them and I took notes. I don’t know where they were from. He was going to call Senator So-and-So and report this. He asked how was the housing? Did they get adequate educational, medical needs? We did that for three hours while they fueled up the plane and then we took off. That was his idea of constituent service. It didn’t matter where those people were from, either. They were Americans.

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