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Commemorating the Signing of ANCSA; Hosted by the Alaska Native Heritage Center  -  Part 2 - Willie Hensley
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Willie Hensley
Willie Hensley: If I could only sing like the young man, I would not be afraid to be up here. I’d like to thank the University of Alaska, Cook Inlet Region, and the Alaska Native Heritage Center for putting on this event. I think that we in the Alaska Native community should maybe do more to recognize certain events that have taken place in history, and I think there’s sort of a natural reluctance in the Native community to pat ourselves on the back and say “a job well done.” Had it not been for some people here in the university, we may not have had the privilege of being here today to commemorate the 30 years since the passage of the Land Claims Settlement Act.

It’s a real pleasure to be back here in spite of the fact that I have my long johns on today. It was, you know, in the 65 and 70 degree range back in Washington, but it’s great to be home in the warmth of so many old friends and relatives. Because we live in Alaska, we don’t often understand or maybe recognize not only what a tremendous place this is, but what a leader Alaska has been in many areas.

My job is to talk a little bit about the early years of the Land Claims Movement. It’s impossible to do that in the few minutes that I have, but there are so many people here today who had a significant amount to do with the passage of the act, and of course there are also many who are no longer here who were there to help bring the issue into focus, not only in their own communities, but throughout the state and eventually in the nation.

Before I go any further, I would like to say one thing about a particular gentleman who is here. For a lot of us, we became involved in 1966, five years before the passage of the act. Other people preceded us, engaged in one way or another, particularly in southeast Alaska, in trying to find some resolution to the land claims issue. I want to mention Wally Hickel, who is standing up here on my right. I was in my mid-20s when I was elected to the legislature in 1966, the same year Governor Hickel was elected governor, and it didn’t take me long to decide that he was the devil incarnate. After writing that paper, that little study at the University of Alaska for Judge Rabinowitz, it became clear to me that we had a major crisis on our hands in the Native community.

This land that we had occupied, and lived on, and lived with, and were buried in for 10,000 years was in the process of being taken right out from under our feet at that time because of the passage of the Statehood Act. Some acts of Congress had taken place in the past, but nothing that defined what rights to land the Native people had. Then, after looking at the law, the history, the Treaty of Session, the Organic Act of 1884, and a variety of other acts, it became clear that under the Statehood Act, Alaska was authorized to take 104 million acres. At that point in time it was seven years after statehood, and they were well on their way towards taking up that land, particularly along the rail belt.

Governor Hickel had just been elected, and he was doing his job. He fought for statehood, and the Alaska Native people generally also voted for statehood, but it was with, in part, the understanding that there was going to be protection of Native lands. The lands weren’t being protected, they were being selected under the terms of the Statehood Act. There were some red flags going up along the Athabascan regions, along the highway where the state was making its land selections. In the end, we began to make our land claims throughout the state, beginning with the Arctic Slope, I think, in January 1966 and NANA, we made ours in mid-summer of 1966, and before you knew it, we had selected 150 percent of Alaska through overlapping claims of one sort or another. Governor Hickel was there, wanting to exercise his powers as a governor, but we were telling him that it was our land and not his.

The long and the short of it was that we were fighting tooth and nail with Governor Hickel, and then lo and behold, Nixon became the president and the Great White Father who was the Secretary of Interior for us, all of a sudden the friendly one was gone, and there was Uncle Wally. He was the new Secretary of Interior, and so the fox was going to guard the hen house.

The long and short of it was Governor Hickel helped persuade President Nixon of the validity of Native Claims and helped us get some of what we wanted in terms of the land and money. When we started, it was hard to convince anybody in the political system that we had any rights whatsoever. There were people like Chairman Aspinall who was head of the Interior Committee from Colorado, kind of a crusty, grizzled Westerner who probably looked like he fought in the Indian wars, you know, who was very skeptical, and didn’t think that we had any rights whatsoever to Alaska. In the end, Aspinall was on the floor of the house saying that 40 million acres was not enough for the Native people of Alaska.

Some people today look back and think the Land Claims just sort of happened, that it occurred through the great generosity of this country. There may be something to that, but this country had spent 350 years taking land from Native people. The Native people had suffered from the Caribbean to Central America to South America to North America. Suddenly there we were in Alaska, the last frontier, in the process of being taken to the cleaners until the mid-1960s, when the Native people of Alaska stood up and fought for their land.

While it’s possible to look back and wonder why, well there were 365 million acres, you know. The country was not inclined to give land to Native people. The Tlingit and Haida had spent 35 years in court, trying to get some compensation for the lands they’d lost. They won seven million dollars and not one square inch of land. We knew that it wasn’t going to be an easy fight, but the Native people persevered. Had people known the mountain that they were going to try to climb, they might not have started, but it was out of sheer ignorance that we started this climb, not knowing how hard a battle it was going to be. Anybody who understands Washington knows that trying to get anything through Congress is almost impossible.

It took only five years to get a major piece of legislation passed that perhaps to convey 40 million acres virtually takes a war. And, of course, not everybody was happy. There were lots of problems, but what we were after was the opportunity for our various little nations to have something of their heritage in that land that they were so intimate with. So they would be able to carry on their existence as a people for a long time into the future, and at the same time, have some say in their own future. That was the hope and aspiration of many of the people involved in pushing for the Land Claims in those early days.

I notice that Emil is out there too. There are a lot of people like Emil who stood up and took a stand, and it wasn’t easy even at that particular time to do that, because we had been more or less doing what the system had asked us to do for several generations by that time. It wasn’t easy to say no to the system, and when we said, even in our own quiet way, “this is our land,” it was like fighting words. If you think subsistence has been a battle, you should have been through this one.

There’s a lot that has been written, and there’s a lot that still needs to be written by our own people, because everybody is making their own interpretation about what transpired. There are some people who are sort of ashamed of the settlement for some reason. Well, I’ll tell you this, I think had we waited any longer, we probably would have never had the opportunity to get the act passed that did pass, and we would have been shuttled over to the Indian Claims Commission to try to get a few cents an acre, which had been the practice with the rest of the American Indian community. Here we are in Alaska, with over 40 million acres in our control when the millions of Indians who live in the lower 48 only have 50 million acres today – and that is really federal land held in trust for them, and we have 40 million acres that we own and control.

Anyway, I ramble on, but we did not go after this Land Claims Settlement because we wanted to have big corporations. What we had hoped was that our people would use their land as a home and as a place to carry out their existence, to allow their unique cultures to flourish, while at the same time try to keep ourselves connected with the rest of the world. The Native people put a strenuous amount of effort into these alien institution called corporations and they mastered them. Before that, Native people were referred to as savages who needed to be changed, who had to be converted to a different way of life, herded out of their little villages and into great urban centers. People who didn’t have an education, hunters and fishermen and housewives, took this settlement and ran with it, learned how to work it, and are still moving forward.

We have a complicated situation here in Alaska, but I think what the Native people have shown the world what is possible through their innate common sense. The world can look at Alaska and say, “How can we use this experience to allow people throughout the rest of the world who are in similar situations to have a stake in the future of their land?” I think that is a legacy that we can be proud of. Thank you very much.

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