"Divvying Up Alaska: Native Claims Bill"

by Stephen Brent

"Divvying Up Alaska: Native Claims Bill," Stephen Brent, New Republic, December 13, 1969, Vol. 161, No. 24, pp. 11-13. Used with permission of the publisher, for educational purposes only.

Anchorage. Anchorage was still waiting for its first real snow November 25, though the thermometer never climbed higher than five above zero. Inside a hotel conference room, about 20 Alaska business leaders—clearly frustrated and almost scared—huddled together, away from the cold and the 3 p.m. gloom.

The source of frustration was 4500 miles east by southeast, in Washington, D.C., where the Senate Interior and Insular Affairs committee was working to keep a pledge to Alaska's 55,000 Eskimo, Indian, and Aleut citizens. Committee Chairman Henry Jackson had promised the Natives that a bill to extinguish their claims on most of Alaska's land would be out of the Senate this year. Reports reaching the businessmen in Anchorage indicated that this first committee markup session went well for the Natives and for their company of lawyers headed by Arthur Goldberg, Ramsey Clark, and Thomas Kuchel.

After 102 years of US rule, it appeared Alaska's original inhabitants were on their way to winning a substantial part of their compensation demands for 40 million acres (11 percent of Alaska's land mass), $500 million in cash (about $10,000 a Native, the money to be distributed to various development corporations), and a perpetual two percent from the future mineral production of all public lands in Alaska. In return the Natives would surrender their claims to another 300 million acres of land they once roamed freely. Interestingly, the negotiations were taking place between the Alaska Federation of Natives and the Senate committee. The state of Alaska was nowhere in evidence, nor had the state submitted anything like its own settlement proposal.

Soon the bankers and oilmen, the publisher and the television station owner in the hotel got a cheering phone call. It came from Governor Keith Miller's top aide in Juneau, Henry Pratt, who filled everybody in on the state's first detailed position paper on the subject, released hours before. The governor thought that six million acres would be more than enough for the Natives, that in no case should they get lands that the state wanted, and that the Natives should not get revenue from public lands at all. Naturally, the governor said, the Natives should not get rights to such leasable minerals as gas and oil on their lands.

As to the AFN bill in general: "I can only consider it as unacceptable, and regret that false hopes have been raised among our Native peoples by the Eastern attorneys representing them."

Miller added he was dispatching state Attorney General Kent Edwards to Washington to explain the state's viewpoint, finally formulated a year and a half after the first Senate hearings on the subject and a month after the final House hearings. The state Chamber of Commerce went on record supporting Miller in principle; so did more than 1000 people in this state of 283,000, who signed a petition backing the governor within three days of his announcement.

The news media have been covering the land-claims battle dutifully, though not always with as much objectivity as Spiro Agnew says he wants. Commented the Anchorage Daily Times, the state's largest newspaper, October 18 in its lead editorial titled "The Goldberg Bill": "The proposed bill . . . is a bombshell packaged in an 85-page bundle now simmering before the Interior committees of Congress . . . Some of the provisions are shocking." It went on to say that the royalty-sharing provision alone "would amount to hundreds of billions of dollars," and complained that the bill's "total effect would be to cripple the development of Alaska. . ."

"And this," said the Times, "is what the congressional committees must realize, and that is why the Goldberg Line that has been fed to the Alaska Native Federation is a threat to all the people of the 49th state." The worst example of "gutter journalism" he ever saw, commented Oklahoma Representative Ed Edmondson, here at the time. Some weeks later the much smaller Anchorage Daily News pointed out that for the override to bring the Natives $100 billion the lands would have to produce minerals worth $5 trillion. But the damage had been done.

What the Times and the governor fail to realize, or take seriously, is that the best way to tie up Alaskan development is to force the Natives into court. That almost certainly would cloud title to most of Alaska for a decade or more. Out of responsibility as much as self-interest, the Natives choose to opt for a congressional settlement. They've made virtually every policy decision on their own. AFN members drafted every important policy position in their bill.

Goldberg's entrance into the case has been fraught with controversy from the start eight months ago. The Natives sought out the former Supreme Court Justice and Secretary of Labor, through his son Robert, an Anchorage lawyer. At first the several dozen lawyers who represent the 280-odd Native villages resented Goldberg's presence—and his decision not to take a fee for himself and insistence that their fees be held within reasonable limits. Though the fight between the Natives and some of their regional attorneys grew bitter, the AFN triumphed and Goldberg took the case. That was the first real test of strength for the four-year-old organization, and it left the AFN stronger, more cohesive than before. The Natives hunted over or lived on virtually all Alaska before the white man came. And the coming of the white man resulted in the same misery that plagues nearly all America's aboriginal occupants today—but it's worse in Alaska. Village income averages about one-quarter that of white Alaskans. One out of ten young Natives graduates from high school. The average age at death is 35. Before the white man came, bringing syphilis, TB, and gunpowder, the Natives had a viable culture. It was the white man who invaded—often destroyed—their hunting grounds, who taught them that the Native culture was inferior while providing a half-cooked version of his own.

The Natives have used or occupied virtually all Alaska since time immemorial. This creates what is known as aboriginal title, which means the federal government can seize Native land but third parties like the state can't. Congress in 1884 recognized the Natives' right to their lands, though it postpones the conveying of the white man's title in fee. And in the Alaska Statehood Act, the state disclaimed all right and title to lands which may be held by the Natives.

Moreover in the Statehood Act, Congress, ten years ago, generously gave Alaska the right to select 103 million acres out of its 375 million acre or 586,000 square mile area from the public domain. It also gave the state 90 percent of the government proceeds from mineral production on federal lands. It has never granted a state so high a percentage—let alone total area—of land. It had always given states a straight 37 1/2 percent of the mineral revenue from federal lands. Congress was generous because Alaska then had no economy to speak of. Now, of course, Alaska is oil rich beyond anyone's wildest dreams. It took in $903 million in bonuses alone September 10, when land on the North Slope was leased to oil companies.

The Natives say that some form of revenue sharing could well be the state's best method of preserving its favored position. If this is true—and there are indications from Alaska's congressional delegation that it is—then the Miller administration is hurting the very interests it seeks to protect. On another count the state view is at best myopic, because it ignores the hugely beneficial impact a settlement would have upon the economy. The Natives today have one-fourth the per capita income of whites. If they earned, say, half as much, their contribution to the Alaskan economy would be huge.

On yet a third front, Miller's position could lead to a breakdown in the delicate negotiations between the Natives and Congress. If this happens and the Natives sue to protect their lands, then the $900 million Trans Alaska Pipeline from the North Slope to the Gulf of Alaska and other forms of development might be stalled for a decade.

Whether the state's campaign is having an effect is hard to say. The Senate Interior Committee has not even settled on a date for its next markup session. The committee said it wanted a bill out by the end of the year, giving the House all of 1971 to pass its version and reach, if necessary, a compromise. But the clock is ticking away.

[Alaskool Home]