Alaska: Indigenous Rights and Northern Lands

The Emerging Role of the Alaska Federation of Natives

The discovery of oil on Alaska's North Slope brought an entitely new perspective to the debate over the "land freeze." and its relation to Native Land Claims. If the two were separated, oil-rich areas could be developed with lessened regard to the claims issue. If the freeze remained in place, petroleum and gas would remain untapped. Thus, depending on one's political and economic perspective, major attention was focused on either supporting or removing the freeze. With the 1968 election of Republican Richard Nixon to the presidency, Walter Hickel, Alaskan governor and successful commercial developer, was nominated to become Secretary of Interior. Hickel, a vocal critic of the freeze, was in turn viewed negatively by powerful conservation groups and their influential Washington lobbists. To receive confirmation as Interior secretary, he needed a broader base of support. The AFN, in turn, would give theirs only if Hickel agreed to continuing the freeze until the claims issue was resolved. Hickel finally agreed and was later confirmed. The AFN had obtained another victory in its efforts to obtain greater political influence.

At this time, the Federation further enhanced its national image by obtaining former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg and former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark as key legal advisors. This, however, caused considerable dismay within the ranks of the AFN, particularly among staff lawyers who had long represented regional Native interests. During this earlier period, the ability of the AFN to resolve its internal contradictions had been based largely on an understanding whereby Board members meeting in Anchorage regularly consulted with regional lawyers. Following these contacts, proposals were then ratified at meetings of regional associations prior to any action being taken by the AFN Board. Though cumbersome, it was compatable with the Native value placed on consensus. But when Justice Goldberg was brought on the team, lawyers for the regional associations voiced strong public opposition, feeling their interests and those of their regions would be reduced in importance - an evaluation of some substance.

Similar changes were taking place within the Native leadership itself. In the beginning, regional associations were basically "grass-roots" organizations, formed by local villager leaders as a means of resisting serious threats to their subsistence-oriented way of life. Then, with the emergence of the AFN, the struggles became increasingly complex. At this point, more highly educated urban-based Natives began moving into positions of leadership. Several of these new leaders had previously attended Mt. Edgecumbe or other government-run Native residential boarding high schools. Such shared experiences not only gave them a broader perspective on the world, but enhanced their ability to work together in tackling the numerous issues arising within the AFN. Others had received their initial leadership training in new federally funded programs such as Alaska's Rural Community Action Programs, or RuralCAPs.

Still, these new leaders faced an almost overwhelming set of responsibilities for which they had little preparation. Maintaining regular contact with federal and state politicians in Alaska and Washington D.C., participating in congressional hearings, giving speeches to Chambers of Commerce and similar groups, and negotiating conflicts between the AFN and regional associations, provided little time to deepen their understanding of the outlook and needs of their largely rural-based constituents. Travel funds too were limited. Eventually, as their links to regional and national seats of power strengthened, their ties to the villages diminished - a process that would lead to serious difficulties later on.

Arctic Environmental Information & Data Center Photo

As the struggle to obtain a claims settlement continued, the AFN stepped up its campaign to reach sympathetic supporters sensitive to the needs of Alaska Natives. The civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s had attuned many to the problems of poverty and systematic discrimination against America's non-European minority populations. By means of new lobbying organizations, press releases, television appearances, speeches, and publications, Americans also came to learn that the Eskimo, Indian, and Aleut, who claimed over two-thirds of Alaska, owned outright less than 500 acres and held in restricted title only an additional 15,000 acres. While 900 Native families shared the use of four million acres in 23 reserves run by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, all other rural Native families lived on the public domain. For Native subsistence-oriented villagers, minimal cash income combined with the high cost of goods, had resulted in an exceedingly low standard of living - lower than that of many dispossessed sharecroppers living in the deep south.

The late 1960s was an era of intense organization by many grass-roots constituencies seeking improved civil rights, Native rights, women's rights, and environmental quality; all competing for limited federal and state resources. Thus, the call of Alaska's Native leaders at this time was only one among many - each challenging the American people to reevaluate the country's political, economic, and environmental goals, priorities, and actions.


Competing Discourses on Development
Who Should Own the Land?
The Land Claims Settlement Act of 1971
Additional References

ArcticCircle Home Page