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Home  >  History and Culture  >  Ancsa at 30  >  Interviews
Walter Hickel

Walter J. Hickel was governor of Alaska from 1966 - 1968 and again in 1990 - 1994. He served as U.S. Secretary of the Interior from 1969 - 1970. In 1992, he founded the Northern Forum, an association of 30 northern regions, which he serves as Secretary General. His recent book, Crisis in the Commons: the Alaska Solution, explores how Alaska's experience can assist other regions that live with and depend on commonly owned lands and resources.

Ronald Spatz: What was your first involvement with the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act?

Walter J. Hickel
Walter J. Hickel: My first involvement was when I ran for governor in 1966. When I first traveled to interior Alaska, it became clear that the elders understood the commons. If they caught a whale, it wasn't "my whale," it was "our whale." They didn't have a tradition of land ownership, but they decided they had to claim title to the land to protect their way of life on the commons and to benefit from the mineral resources of Alaska.

After I was elected governor, I put together a group called the Governor's Special Task Force on Native Claims to study this issue. They recommended that 40 million acres of Alaska's 365 million be conveyed to Native Alaskans through for-profit corporations, while allowing Natives to continue to use the remaining federal lands for subsistence purposes. As part of the settlement and to fund the start-up of their corporations, they asked for $65 million.

However in 1967, Interior Secretary Stuart Udall recommended a settlement of only 8 to 10 million acres, while leaving it to a designated court to determine the dollar amount.

In 1968, when President-elect Richard Nixon's advisors asked me to consider taking the job of Secretary of the Interior, I turned them down. I didn't want to go. Finally, the President called and said, "Wally, I've selected you for Secretary of Interior. I wouldn't want it to become public right away. Keep it quiet. We'll announce it here from Washington." And he hung up. I cried, but I took the job.

In February or March of 1969, a month or two after I was sworn in as Secretary, the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement came up. President Nixon called a meeting in the White House. There were several cabinet departments represented.

The people from Treasury said, "There's no economic claim." The legal people said, "We purchased Alaska from Russia; there's no legal claim." The vote at the table was five to two against a settlement. Then the President turned to me and said, "Wally, what do you say?" I said, "I agree that there is no legal claim and there is no economic claim. But, Mr. President, this is not a legal or economic issue. This is a moral issue."

I can still see his eyes. He just stopped a moment, and he said, "I'm going with Wally." Two years later, with his support, Congress settled the issue.

By the time I arrived in Washington, the terms of the settlement were about 10 million acres and $185 million cash. I argued that $185 million wouldn't work. And the odd thing about that, and I only realized it later, was that key members of Congress thought I believed it was too much money. When they asked me, "What do you think they need?" I said, "$500 million!" It shocked them, but the President supported me.

Ultimately, $500 million came from the federal government and an additional $500 million was designated to come from future State of Alaska oil revenues.

After I left Washington, when I'd go back to DC, I'd talk with Senator Henry Jackson, the Chairman of the Senate Interior Committee and the principal author of ANCSA. And even many of the early opponents came around to a large land settlement. Some of them said, "Well at least that's one way to get more land out of the federal government's hands and get it to the local communities."

I remember talking to Governor Bill Egan one time -- a Democrat, a great friend, and a good Alaskan. He said, "Well, you know, at first I thought 44 million acres was too much. But, Wally, you know, that does get the decision-making out of Washington and puts it in Alaska." And that's the secret to managing the commons.

The key, as far as my role was concerned, was winning over President Nixon, who became a strong advocate for a settlement. And that came down to that simple sentence: "Mr. President, this is not a legal or an economic issue. This is a moral issue."

Ronald Spatz: It's interesting that the President was moved by that, because he wasn't always.

Walter J. Hickel: No, I understand that.

Ronald Spatz: What in your experience shaped that sense of morality about the Alaska Natives?

Walter J. Hickel: Well basically I wanted to get the decisions on Alaska's land in the hands of the people of the local area. There's a great deal of ignorance about Alaska in the South 48 -- not malice but ignorance. As to Native lands, they are still collectively owned -- as they have been throughout history -- but now corporations own them, not individuals. And the important thing is that the decisions of how the land is used and cared for are made here.

That's also true of the 103 million acres of state lands. The decisions are made here. And that's the concept I took to Russia in 1992 when President Mikhail Nikolayev of the Sahka Republic (the former Yakutia) and I were in Moscow. I urged them to move the decision-making process on Sahka's diamond industry from Moscow to the region. Even if the local people make mistakes, they will sort them up, and the land and the people won't be exploited.

Ronald Spatz: Some of the Alaska Native leaders still say it's not enough.

Walter J. Hickel: How much is enough? It must be realistic. Everybody is born somewhere. My folks came from Germany over one hundred years ago. I could say, "Where's my land in Germany?" I think 44 million acres was an excellent settlement compared to what they might have received. Right or wrong sometimes comes down to the art of possible. And that was possible, and it worked.

Ronald Spatz: There was optimism and hope 30 years ago in many Alaska Native communities about ANCSA. When you look back over the past 30 years, how do you feel it's worked?

Walter J. Hickel: It's been a great step forward. They've made a lot of progress in the last 30 years, but there's a long way to go. And it has to do with using the commons to the benefit of the region. Some of the simple issues in the Arctic need to be addressed and probably the Native corporations could have pushed a little harder. And access is one of the bigger problems still to be addressed.

Ronald Spatz: What progress would you like to see?

Walter J. Hickel: Well the Red Dog Mine is a good example. They're doing a good job. And you have to be real. If you're going to continue to live out there, the lifestyle is going to be different than it is in the Lower 48. And there are great opportunities. There's an awful lot of progress from that standpoint, and there's a long way to go yet.

Ronald Spatz: Were there any unintended consequences of ANCSA?

Walter J. Hickel: I don't know for sure. My vision of the Arctic is that it has great opportunities and great wealth. There's no reason for poverty out there. But poverty in the Arctic is more severe than poverty in a temperate zone. That's why subsistence is so important. I've always said that the people who live on the river systems in rural Alaska should have first call on wildlife resources in times of shortage. Because if you live at Point Hope, you can't go across the street to buy dinner. They're going to have to live from the natural bounty of the land. Feeding your family out there is different than it would be in downtown Anchorage. That has to be faced; it's got to be settled. Access is another thing. You have to push for access, because what good is a great resource if there's no access to it? Some people -- mostly environmentalists oppose access, to keep it like it is. That won't work.

Ronald Spatz: Do you see a spiritual side?

Walter J. Hickel: Absolutely. I've said this to the Russians and I've said it to a lot of people. You can travel the world around the temperate, tropic and subtropical areas on any continent, and I've done that. But when you get north of 60, or especially north of the Arctic Circle, there's a spiritual feeling to the land. The elders know it. It has nothing to do with any special kind of religion. It's a spiritual feeling. That's the uniqueness of the Arctic. It's something that's different.

Ronald Spatz: Has ANCSA changed Alaskan Natives?

Walter J. Hickel: It did because it gave them responsibility. They had to manage, in their corporate structure, 44 million acres. So far, they haven't really used much of the natural assets they have on their lands, but that will happen down the road.

Ronald Spatz: As a businessman did you anticipate the success of the Native corporations?

Walter J. Hickel: Sure. Forget about the $1 billion. If I had 44 million acres, I'd be wealthy. But you have to make it work. Some of the corporations have taken their investments outside of Alaska. I always thought, and I'm not being critical, that those investments should be in Alaska, because the settlement was made that way. If they just become money managers, they won't be as successful as if they manage the assets of their land.

Ronald Spatz: What do you see in the next 30 years for the Alaska Native communities?

Walter J. Hickel: They are going to become stronger. Alaska will become much more settled, because the wealth that's under the ground in Alaska in oil and gas alone is tremendous. Even America sees that the resources of Alaska are vital resources for the world. There are trillions of tons of coal in the Arctic, but it doesn't have any value if there's no access. Are they going to mine a trillion tons of coal in California or Kentucky? They're not going to be able to do that. The environmentalists had a good idea about protecting land, but I think there are three things you have to take into consideration in the world, in this order: people, people's needs, and nature.

In the early 1960s, some groups started to put nature ahead of people. You can't do that. You'll have a revolution. If you don't take care of people and their needs, you're not going to take care of nature. God didn't put the resources on this earth to be locked up. He put them on the earth to be use. But you have to be careful in a capital system. Free enterprise allowed to run totally free will destroy itself. So manage people, their needs, and nature, and you'll do it as God intended for the earth to be.

Ronald Spatz: What's your favorite ANCSA story?

Walter J. Hickel: My favorite ANCSA story hasn't happened yet. When the settlement took place, the corporate leaders had an obligation to do something with it, and they started managing their money. That's important. But the $1 billion settlement is not much when you talk about the potential of the resources on those 44 million acres. The big story will be as they make those resources work for the benefit of the whole, without destroying their culture and lifestyle.

Ronald Spatz: As a man who has devoted much of his life to building Alaska, what is your philosophy about the future development of Alaska?

Walter J. Hickel: I see in three dimensions. When I look at Prudhoe Bay, I don't just see oil. I see Alaska as having the greatest potential on earth for quality of life.

I gave a speech in 1955 about the future of Alaska; that was over 45 years ago. I said, "Alaska will stabilize at around one million people with about half of them, or 600,000, living between Talkeetna and Homer, 100,000 around Fairbanks, and the rest in villages in the Arctic and southeast." I don't see Alaska as being -- I hate to use this -- a mess like California, with that many people. I see using our resources for the benefit of the people both in our state and those who live other places and need the basics of life we can provide. We have to look at Rural Alaska and see where the assets are.

And some of our greatest assets are in the ocean, and we're beginning to understand that the ocean is all commons. It does not belong to any one individual and is at risk because when no one owns it, no one cares. That's why I put the Community Development Quotas (CDQs) together when I was governor to try to eliminate the raping of the ocean.

Now there's greater oversight and our village communities are starting to say. "Hey, we're going to process some of these fish onshore."

And we have Individual Fishing Quotas (IFQs) that allow fishermen to realize "I can catch my halibut when I want to and not when I have to in a dangerous 48-hour derby."

This is all part of the reality, the responsibility and the riches of the Arctic north. I always say that the "three Rs of the Arctic" are reality, responsibility and riches -- and they have to go hand in hand.

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