Willie Hensley: There was an incident with Senator Gruening. He was a big proponent of the Rampart Dam. I knew from reading about it that they were going to inundate at least nine villages, I think. I never was that excited about the Rampart Dam. That was Fairbanks. We had hoped for a big boom back then. I saw a little blurb in the paper in Fairbanks as a student where Gruening said, “Well, we’ve got to pay off these Natives and get on with the development of this land.” That ticked me off, because I was about to finish my paper. I saw it sort of like the silver lining in the sense that you don’t pay anybody off just for the hell of it. I mean they had to have a right. In a sense he was recognizing that we had some right, so I wrote a letter to the editor taking objection to his commentary, and saying that if we had a right to compensation then that must mean we have the right to say what kind of a settlement we wanted.
I was babysitting for Lori Shirt from Kiana at the time, and I decided it was a public issue so I’d just send it to the paper, so I did. A few weeks later I got a call from one of his friends in Fairbanks, Clara Fejes, the artist from New York, like he was. She called me on the phone at the dormitory, and said, “Willie, if you really meant what you said, then Senator Gruening wants to talk to you.” I said, “Oh, no.” I met with Senator Gruening down at the old Nordale Hotel. It was just him and me. Anyway, he was so short his legs were hanging from the bed. We had this little tit-a-tat there where I basically conveyed to him my little knowledge of history and the law. He was a U.S. senator, a former governor, a medical doctor, an editor and here I was, a nobody, but I got the distinct impression that he was not going to be a friend on this issue. He was essentially an integrationist, a melting pot type. I discovered later that Bob Atwood, who was the editor of the biggest, most powerful paper, ranted and railed against the notion of reservations in Alaska in the 1940s. The Indian Reorganization Act gave the secretary powers to create reservations and some were created, but there were flaming editorials against this notion. This had been one way for the Native people to protect their lands, but they kind of stopped that.
I suspect that most of the political people of the day were probably right exactly where Gruening was. It had to do with economics and their future and they didn’t want those darn Natives to get a hold of it. You know? So I backed Mike Gravel, because Mike Gravel was ambitious and he would do anything to get elected, including support us. I made a deal with him. I was running for the State House and he was running for the U.S. House that year, preparatory to his running for the Senate two years later. I said, because as usual, I didn’t have a dime, “Mike, if you would let me fly with you when you come up to the Kotzebue area, I’ll back you and I’ll represent you in that region.” He said, “Okay. You know, I’ve been to Barrow, and the Arctic Slope people supported me and they supported your opponent, Johnny Nusunginya. But that’s okay, I’ll take you around with me.” So we made our little deal.
In a way, Mike Gravel did come through in the sense that he gave us information when we needed it. He was also a big proponent of the two percent overriding royalty, which provided us a half a billion dollars. In any case, I think what I’m trying to say is that history is written in a way that takes all the blood and guts and feeling and human emotion and strength and failures out of the situation. Here we were, trying to reverse 200 years of American history in the sense that the country had been taking land from Indians for all that time. We were going to try to reverse that and have the country convey lands to Native people.
There was criticism. There were different points of view about what happened with this land settlement. But to have gone from where we started to where we ended up was a phenomenal distance. All we had was a notion and no money, no organization, no communications and no structure really to move on something like this. There was a great inability -- we didn’t have the time we needed to communicate with one another within our own regions, because once this wave started, man, we had to be on top of it, otherwise we were going to go under. When oil was found in 1968, the whole world knew there was at least 10 billion gallons of oil down there, and one way or another, it was going to get to market. The thing that we faced was whether or not at some point in time President Nixon might, by a stroke of his pen, just take a quarter and our leverage would have been gone. Because we didn’t have a big pot of money to litigate, we had a hostile state. Governor Hickel got elected. Governor Egan actually wasn’t exactly there. I mean he still represented the old mentality, but he probably had better sense than to say it out loud. You know? Hickel, by gosh, he was one of the fathers of statehood and we were threatening the viability of the state, because in those days the state didn’t have enough money to run itself. Egan, in his first eight years in office, was having his little lease sales just to try to balance the budget to run what little government he had, let alone help the towns and cities.
What we did with that land freeze was grab the state by the jugular in terms of its income. We got Secretary Udall to tilt in our favor, because he, on the one hand, was the bureaucrat who was supposed to convey this land under the Statehood Act, and on the other hand he was the trustee of Alaska Native and Indian rights, whatever they might be. Of course, they had not been defined. If he had proceeded with the conveyance of land to the state, we would have been in deep doo-doo, but he tilted in our favor. Thank God! All of a sudden Governor Hickel, with whom we had been fighting tooth and nail, became the fox that was going to guard the chicken house when they named him Secretary of Interior.
So we had a big problem on our hands. We had to go down and get Scoop Jackson and his committee to essentially make it a condition of Hickel’s appointment that he not do anything with that land freeze until it came to the committee. We would have lost the battle there. That was very critical, and it was a major victory. Bob Zelnick wrote about it in the Anchorage Daily News, that we were able to keep the status quo so that the Congress could deal with the issue. Thank God for people like Scoop Jackson and Lloyd Meads from Washington State; the old gentleman Congressman Aspinall, this crusty czar of the Interior and Insular Committee on the House who probably was born in the Indian days. I’m not sure if he believed the only good one was a dead one, but at first he was a skeptic. By the end he was down on the House floor saying 40 million acres is not enough for these people. It was amazing. I won’t take the time to go into the ins and outs, but one of the earliest proposals by Secretary Udall’s people and Chuck Loesch, who was his deputy was to make the date of taking 1867, they would pay us $7 million all of Alaska.
On this issue of the administrative apparatus for the land settlement, there was never, ever any real dispute about which way to go. There was hardly ever a debate about whether this was going to be a reservation. This was going to be in fee. The main thing was that we knew that the Indians of the Lower 48 had virtually lost everything in terms of their land. It was pretty darn clear to us that there was not a single person in our delegation who was for a reservation system, nor would the chairman of the committees reconstruct something that in the minds of the Congress had not worked. They looked at it from the standpoint that the economics of the Indian tribes were miserable, the housing was miserable, the education was miserable, the water and sewer was non-existent, the economies were terrible. That’s what their view was of Indian reservations. Of course, that’s the western view. To the Indians they might have said, “God, we’ve got this little piece of ground. You know, we don’t have much, but by God we survived.”
I think we would have taken the land almost in any circumstance. If they had given it to us and said that the Girl Scouts would have to hold it in trust, we would have taken it. We didn’t think we were giving up our Nativity. That’s the Supreme Court’s interpretation. There was never an extinguishment of any law other than the Allotment Act, and we wanted to make darn sure that the health care and the education and other benefits that Native people were entitled to continued.
There never was an extinguishment of tribal legislation. And as far as I’m concerned that’s been sort of an evolutionary thing. In terms of the future, my perspective is that this piece of legislation is the ultimate in a sort of a terminationist’s perspective. That is that the country has never been interested in Native people maintaining their continuum, so to speak, as tribal people. They were always trying to make us individuals, and thought that if we let the corporate system work the way they hoped it would work, then we would indeed lose it in the long run. It made it more of a challenge for our people to maintain those aspects that make us unique, our language and culture and traditions.
Government, not even tribal government is not going to save us on that. That’s a human thing. That’s something that must be conveyed from person to person. Just because they gave us a corporation didn’t mean that we had to abandon the other things that were important to us. There is a role for the tribes in that respect. It’s going to be a major challenge, because the notion that being a shareholder is just a dollar and cent thing could do us in, because we may end up selling our land. What we wanted was our own space to carry out our existence for all time to come. That was our original goal. We also wanted to be in control of our own futures, and that’s what we tried to do as much as we could with the settlement. Thank you.