Indigenous Rights and Northern Lands

Competing Discourses on Development

In the state, conflicting issues came together in late August of 1969 at the 20th Alaska Science Conference, a division of the prestigous American Association for the Advancement of Science. Held on the campus of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, the conference leaders had chosen as their theme: The Impact of Oil on the Future of Alaska. This broad perspective grew out of problems of the previous 1968 meeting which had been the target of protests by student dissidents frustrated with the physical scientists seeming lack of interest in social and environmental issues. In part to counter the possibility of renewed demonstrations, several well-known social scientists from within and outside the state were invited to speak on the politics of petroleum, public policy and the environment, the ecological impact of Arctic development, and similar topics of a volatile nature. The conference was also scheduled for the week prior to the state sale of North Slope oil leases in Anchorage. An almost unbelievable figure of one billion dollars was on many people's lips as the amount the oil companies might have to bid for rights to drill at Prudhoe Bay. A state rich in resources but poor in cash was about to receive a phenomenal windfall.

The first invited speaker, Robert Engler, a well-known critic of the oil industry, warned of the negative impact of oil corporations on the state's political, economic and social institutions. He argued that wherever these enterprises have functioned, their concentrated economic power over the community, the most massive of any industry in the world, has been forged into political power as well. Law, public bureaucracies, political machinery, foreign policy, and public opinion, he said, have all been "harnessed for the private privileges of the international brotherhood of oil merchants. " By various means, public relations specialists, lobbyists, and lawyers have kept the spotlight away from the penetrating powers of oil; focusing instead "...on the mystique of petroleum technology, corporate benevolence, and the possibility for an amenable public to be cut in on `something for nothing."

A rejoinder to Engler's presentation was given by Frank Ikard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, the industry's key trade and lobbying organization. Ikard spoke of the oil industry's desire to work together with the citizens of the state in a joint venture that would enhance the lives of all concerned. Other oil company representatives addressed the need for a favorable price and tax structure if "a great and lasting oil industry here in Alaska can be developed. James Galloway, vice-president of Humble Oil, [a joint owner with Atlantic Richfield company of the discovered well at Prudhoe Bay], addressed the environmental issue saying that some Arctic land had to be torn up to get the oil out. "Let's not fool ourselves," Galloway reminded his audience. "This activity is far past the point of return."

Conservationists from the Sierra Club and similar organizations responded sharply, reminding the participants that Congress was about to pass the National Environmental Policy Act that required the government to make a detailed public list of any adverse environmental effects of every project in which it was involved before action could be taken. Underlying much of the debate that followed was the question of whether Alaska could control the recovery of oil or whether the oil industry would end up controlling Alaska. United States senator Ted Stevens, throwing away his prepared speech, spoke heatedly at the debate unfolding before him, saying, with appropriate gestures, "I am up to here with people who tell us how to develop our country." Federal regulations were not needed to govern construction of the proposed pipeline to Prudhoe Bay, Stevens told his audience. Such proposals suggesting that Alaskans were not to be trusted in managing their own affairs were "stupid, absolutely stupid." Compromises were also proposed suggesting that the state was new enough and rich enough to build its economy and use its resources "in ways that will not produce derelict landscapes."

Shortly thereafter, John Borbridge Jr, AFN vice-president and the lone Native participant, addressed the conference. Speaking articulately and with considerable intensity, he cautioned both the audience and the attending press:

For the most part you have easily gotten used to the Alaska Native, because he had needed your help and your assistance, and a fairly large, complex "industry" has emerged based on his needs. The relationship between one who gives and one who receives when it has been institutionalized is very easy to accept, to adjust to and to forget. As long as the arrangement is accepted or tolerated, there is nothing that is disconcerting in this relationship. But what happens as the Alaska Native assumes his rightful place as an equal partner in the economic, political and other power structures of this state? What happens when instead of coming in and asking for help, he comes in by right and asserts his right to share equally in the opportunities and benefits of economic and social development?

The conclusion of his presentation was met with a brief sprinkling of polite applause. It was clear that an aggressive calling for equal rights by a Native northerner could stir less than enthusiastic responses in Alaska as elsewhere.

More significant in these debates was the implicit assumption that the land - including tundra and forest, federal parks and wildlife refuges - belonged to the federal government and the state and by extension, its various citizens. It was if the claims of Alaska's Natives to the land were non-existent - or at least an inappropriate topic for discussion at a scientific meeting. And yet, without a resolution of this issue, other struggles over petroleum development and environmental protection would have to wait.

On September 10th, 1969, a week after the conference ended, the state of Alaska offered its petroleum lease sale on lands it had claimed in the Prudhoe Bay region. When the bidding was over, competing oil companies had paid over $900 million to the state for the right to drill on selected lands. For many members of Congress, this major financial windfall to the state placed the whole land claims settlement issue in a new light. No longer did earlier monetary settlement proposals appear so high. The sale further demonstrated to Congress that the state could easily afford to share some of its mineral revenues with its Native people. But on that September day outside the hotel where the sale was taking place, Charlie Edwardsen, Jr. from Barrow, and other supporters calling themselves Concerned Alaska Native Citizens, carried picket signs and handed out leaflets proclaiming that "We are once again being cheated and robbed of our lands," and stop the "Two billion dollar Native land robbery." Under the watchful eyes of both the Anchorage police and local reporters, the AFN president was asked what he thought of such efforts. They did not have the support of the "official Native organization," was his carefully phrased reply.

During the fall, state officials and private developers continued arguing over how best to develop Alaska. At a meeting organized by the state Legislative Council, Arlon Tussing, a young economist associated with the University of Alaska, offered an alternative view challenging the predominant theme of the day. Speaking at a well-attended Brookings Institution seminar, Tussing reminded his audience that "There is a philosophy of development for development's sake and almost everybody at this seminar shares that philosophy to one degree or another. But this is a set of attitudes peculiar to certain classes of people - businessmen, politicans, and upper level civil servants, economists and the like...The majority of Alaskans may not be for development for development's sake; most villages are not, nor are the oil workers on the Slope, nor fishermen...I even suspect that most of the 15 to 20-year old children of the people here have little use for that philosophy."

At this same time, Alaska Natives intensified their own internal debate over the question of land rights. The North Slope Inupiat were especially distraught over reports of the state Division of Lands approving the mooring of an oil company barge at the site of a Native home and cemetery. Using this event as an illustration, the Arctic Slope Native Association argued strongly that the AFN must take a more militant stand. Finally, in February, 1970, AFN president Emil Notti made a speech that mentioned the possibility of establishing a `Native Nation.' "If Congress cannot pass a bill that we think is fair, then ...we will petition Congress and the United States to set up a separate Indian nation in the western half of Alaska." Barrow leader Eben Hopson, commenting in the northern Native Tundra Times newspaper on the background to Notti's threat said, "It took him a long time to express himself in this manner...to perhaps fall into the same line that the Arctic Slope Native Association has been advocating all the time."

Elsewhere in the state, Natives were becoming increasingly frustrated over threats to their land. In hearing after hearing with government officials and in conversations with their own leaders, they argued that the land was theirs as it had been for centuries. They also anticipated receiving cash compensation from a claims settlement that could be used to stimulate economic development at the local level and enhance their Native cultural integrity. Additionally, they sought ways to deal with growing social problems in the villages. And finally, they wanted greater political self-determination.

Given the volatility of Native American protests occurring across the nation at this time, many of them focusing on federal government collusion with energy corporations, President Richard Nixon was led to proclaim his own policy of "Indian self- determination." However, his definition was quite opposite to that espoused by most Native Americans including those residing in Alaska. Marvin Franklin, an "American of Indian descent," executive with the Phillips Petroleum Company, and acting Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs [BIA] in the early 1970s, supported Nixon's proposal:

The psychology of the Indian is not mysterious and not too unlike that of other Americans. He wants a chance to put his skills to work and he wants more of a voice in his own affairs. His special handicap - let's call it a mixed blessing and handicap - is his inherited Indian culture. It has given him a straitjacket that makes it tough for him to compete on equal terms with his fellow citizens.

The new program [of the BIA] will turn over to tribal government, as rapidly as possible, a maximum amount of administration for Indian affairs. Minimum control will be retained in Washington; policy will be set there, but administration of that policy will be in the hands of tribal representatives or Bureau superintendents. [italics added]

Basically, the government's "self-determination" policy as reflected in the statements of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, meant that tribal governments and villages had reached the stage whereby they could carry out decisions made in Washington. Needless to say, this was quite different from the concept of self-determination held by Native Americans in Alaska and elsewhere that promoted the creation of democratic self-governing Native villages and regions.

Later in the year, another bill put before Congress was also challenged by the Federation. Proposing a billion dollar settlement for the extinguishment of all land claims within the state, formal title would be given to only 10 million acres, far less than that considered necessary for subsistence, let alone economic self-sufficiency.

Other serious limitations included the possible termination within five years of BIA educational and social programs, their responsibilities to be turned over to the state for as long as the latter saw fit to fund and administer them. By contrast, the House subcommmittee on Indian Affairs proposed an alternative settlement involving 40 million acres of land. This was more satisfactory. But could the financial settlement offered by the Senate bill be combined with the land settlement proposed by the House?

There were other unresolved problems too, such as compensation for loss of aboriginal rights to fish and wildlife resources. Should such claims be specifically addressed in the settlement act? What conflicts were likely to emerge with the state over subsistence hunting and fishing on state land? After several Congresional hearings, three Alaska governors [Egan, Hickel, and Miller] affirmed that "the subsistence needs and reliance upon these resources by Alaska Natives would be met by the state of Alaska." Congress then put aside the subsistence issue, not wishing to set in place any new law that might possible challenge the sensitive balance of legislative jurisdiction over fish and wildlife resources earlier established between the western states and Native American tribes residing in that region.

Finally, there was the question of how to distribute settlement monies and land. All executive and legislative leaders wanted to solve the claims issue as quickly as possible so that future litigation would not interrupt construction of the transAlaska pipeline. Secretary Hickel proposed a grant of 500 million dollars. Senator Henry Jackson, chairman of the Senate Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, and Representative Wayne Aspinall, chairman of the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, were willing to include land, but they had no interest in seeing the BIA reservation system extended to Alaska. Rather, they and other Congressmen wanted Alaska's Natives to become more actively assimilated into mainstream America. Out of this perspective came the proposal that Native profit-making corporations be the means to achieve the settlement.

AFN leaders had no interest in Hickel's proposed distribution of cash since it disregarded the need for subsistence land. Furthermore, past history elsewhere suggested that a large scale distribution of funds might quickly be dissipated. Nor was there much enthusiasm for receiving the land "in trust," to be bureaucratically administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Some AFN leaders, including Vice President John Borbridge. Jr., were drawn to the suggestion that land previously held communally, would be adapted to modern conditions by utilizing a corporate approach. Furthermore, Don Wright, then AFN president, was informed that any proposed AFN alternative involving traditional governments or Indian Reorganization Act [IRA] Councils would be actively discouraged by Congress. Thus, while some argued for the corporate scheme, other AFN leaders merely felt obliged to support it.

This was not true, however, of the Arctic Slope Native Association. Their leaders had a different strategy. Well aware of Congress' scheme to use profit-making corporations as the means for receiving settlement monies and lands, they put forward an alternative proposal urging that the land be owned "tribally" [i.e., collectively] through the medium of regional IRA Councils.

The major strength of the Arctic Slope Native Association's IRA regional plan was that Native land, held "in trust" by the federal government, could never be lost through stock transfer, corporate sale, hostile takeover, or non-payment of taxes. In the minds of those making the proposal, this was of great significance since, as the villagers had stated so many times before, the land represented both the spirit and substance of their culture. It was something to be shared rather than individually owned. It was where their ancestors lived; where they grew up; and where their grandchildren would later reside. It was further suggested that the wildlife it contained was a renewable resource on which they could always depend. Thus, it provided both a cultural and economic bond between generations reaching back into the past and projecting forward into the future. As long as the people and the land were one, the culture would survive. If the two became separated, the culture might wither and die.

Who Should Own the Land?
The Land Claims Settlement Act of 1971
Additional References

ArcticCircle Home Page