Fifty years ago on Dec. 21, President Richard Nixon signed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act into law as Alaska Native leaders listened in on a telephone call from Alaska Methodist University (now Alaska Pacific University) in Anchorage.
This important federal legislation was to transform Alaska, among other things speeding the construction of the Trans Alaska Pipeline System.
To this we can thank our Alaska economy as it is today, including the Permanent Fund, its dividends and jobs for thousands of Alaskans.
Not all Alaska Natives supported the settlement. Arctic Slope Native Association, representing Inupiat people of the North Slope, voted no in a poll of the Alaska Federation of Natives board that day.
ASNA, now Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, felt ANCSA short-changed the Inupiat in lands that were returned.
The Inupiats felt the big oil discoveries of the North Slope were on lands they claimed. It was the urgency of getting those oil discoveries into production that motivated Congress to pass the settlement.
Many in Congress also felt, however, that it was just fairness to give Alaska people title to lands they had used historically.
Oil was important in another way, however. The North Slope were also to pay $500 million, just over half of the $962 million cash settlement that was part of ANCSA.
Today most Alaskans may not know much about land claims or the 1971 settlement, or realize its significance to the state’s economy, and in a way that is testimony to its success.
The cash portion of the settlement was seed capital for business development corporations that were formed, although there were also mineral and oil and gas discoveries on Native-owned land along with timber harvesting in Southeast Alaska.
Some of the corporations are billion-dollar enterprises today. In Anchorage, office towers with names of their Native corporation owners proudly displayed speak to the role corporations play in the economy. Not only so they own the buildings but businesses they own occupy much of the space.
Thousands of Alaskans are employed by Native corporations, though many might not realize it. To most Alaskans today it seems ordinary and accepted, but it wasn’t always that way.
In the 1960s, as the land claims settlement quest was under way, many Alaskans opposed it. That included many Alaska business leaders and state officials.
One business group, however, was an early supporter. It was the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce, which had been skeptical until Don Wright, then-president of the AFN, explained the advantages of having large amounts of Alaska land owned by private owners instead of the federal government.
Private owners would be keen to explore and develop their lands, while government agencies could be pressured by environmental groups to lock away lands and resources in parks.
The Fairbanks chamber was the first Alaska business organization to endorse the land claims settlement, recalls Lael Morgan, an Alaska writer who was a reporter at the time for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.
Business groups elsewhere in the state including Anchorage eventually signed on, but came only after some tough words from Ed Patton, the first president of Alyeska Pipeline Service Co.
At the time construction of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline had been halted by a court injunction filed by Stevens Village, an Athabascan community on the Yukon River near the pipeline route.
Native land claims on the pipeline corridor were unresolved, along with claims elsewhere in the state, and Stevens Village wanted the issue resolved before granting permission to the oil and gas industry to build the pipeline through lands they claimed.
A judge agreed with this, and ordered the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to halt any granting of a pipeline corridor for the pipeline.
With the pipeline stalled, pressure mounted to get the issue resolved.
There was national interest at stake, because trouble was already brewing in the Middle East, the source of much of the world’s oil. The state of Alaska needed to see pipeline construction underway because it was depleting a nest egg of oil lease sale bids from 1969 and would run out of money before the line was built, bringing a flow on oil royalty and tax revenue to the state.
Many Alaska businesses were extended financially, having made big investments to gear up for pipeline support contracts and now seeing the start date for the work pushed into the future.
The tide of public sentiment was turning, but influential voices like Bob Atwood, publisher of the Anchorage Times, still aired opposition to a settlement, at least on terms Native leaders at the time felt was fair.
But critics soon changed their minds. Alaska historian Jack Roderick told what happened when Ed Patton, Alyeska Pipeline’s straight-talking president, showed up at an Anchorage Chamber of Commerce meeting.
Patton’s message was blunt, Roderick recalled: “No claims settlement, no pipeline.”
That turned Atwood, and others, around.
The settlement became far more than just a cornerstone for Alaska’s economy. It was one of the most far-reaching minority rights and social policy initiatives in history.
Other nations with indigenous peoples have tried to emulate it, but with mixed success. That it worked in Alaska had much to do with the unique character of American democracy and sheer luck in the timing of events on the national and international levels.
That combination of circumstances was unique at the time.
Resourceful people and sheer luck made it happen 50 years ago.
Editor’s note: This is the first part of a series. Next: Native corporations grow and prosper; secret to success is growing local Alaskan talent Tim Bradner covered the Alaska Native land claims movement in the 1960s for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner and the Tundra Times.