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Home  >  History and Culture  >  Ancsa at 30  >  Interviews
Byron Mallott

Born and raised in Yakutat, Alaska, Byron Mallott has been active in both the public and private sectors in Alaska since 1965, when he was elected mayor of Yakutat at age 22. In various capacities, he has served every governor since statehood, including Governor William A. Egan, in whose cabinet he served as the first Commissioner of the Department of Community and Regional Affairs. His years of public service, in addition to those appointments previously listed, include his election as Mayor of the City and Borough of Juneau, a term of service as President of the Alaska Federation of Natives, and an appointment by Governor Knowles as Co-Chair of the Commission on Rural Governance and Empowerment. Currently, Mr. Mallott is Senior Fellow, Alaska Native Policy Center and former President and CEO of the First Alaskans Foundation. He is also Clan Leader of the KwaashKiKwaan clan of the Raven tribe of Yakutat and serves on the board of directors of Sealaska Corporation.

Sharon McConnell: Can you describe your background and involvement with the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act?

Byron Mallott
Byron Mallott: For me, the Land Claims effort began in 1965 when I met Emil Notti for the first time. It had really nothing to do with land claims. He worked for the Alaska Human Rights Commission and I had just gone to work for an agency in the Governor's office called the Local Affairs Agency. We were essentially both state employees, at a time when there were very few Native state employees, at least in jobs that allowed you to travel and to deal with substantive issues. Emil invited me to several meetings and would also call me to talk about his views on a host of issues. In so many ways he was my mentor early on. I was a very young man in my early twenties. I had grown up in Yakutat, had gone away to college but then came home. I had been mayor of my hometown, so I was pretty active but on a local level. It was Emil who drew me into the statewide sense of the land claims issue as it began to evolve.

Sharon McConnell: What do you remember from those early years when everyone was negotiating and working together, coming together, trying to get it passed?

Byron Mallott: I remember going to Bethel at the invitation of Emil Notti, where AVCP, the Association of Village Council Presidents, was meeting. The purpose of the meeting was to have the village leaders in the AVCP regions, some 50 villages in the whole Yukon Kuskokwim Delta, define the lands they had used and occupied that would be the basis for their land claims. I recall it was held in the National Guard Armory and have around the room were sheets of butcher paper and maps. People were identifying the lands that they used with pencil and chalk. I listened to the village leaders from the Yupik regions talk about why they were doing this. In addition to identifying lands they used and occupied, there was a lot of discussion about, why we were doing this. It was at that several-day meeting in Bethel that it first became clear to me that there was a powerful value associated with this land claims thing, which we really didn't fully understand yet. The leaders were saying, "Whatever comes of this effort, its purpose is to protect Native lands for future Native generations, to keep the land for us." Secondly, there was a plea from village leaders to educate our children. It wasn't the notion of educating children in the Western sense, although that was certainly implied. It was the notion of keeping our children Native while giving them an opportunity to live in this world. That first became clear to me in that several-day Bethel meeting.

Sharon McConnell: What sparked your motivation to become involved in the community in such a large capacity?

Byron Mallott: Being a young person and having the opportunity. We used to say back in those days that having a "TR" book was power. The "TR" book is a state travel request form where you could go up to an airline counter and essentially fill out a piece of paper and they'd give you a ticket. The ability to travel in the mid-sixties, when air travel was still very, very expensive, and in many ways, nowhere near as reliable as it is today, was something that was really real. Not a lot of people had this opportunity. There I was, this young person, having an opportunity to travel, to go to Fairbanks, to go to Anchorage, to go to Bethel.

You couldn't help but be inspired by what was going on, by spending time with people like Howard Rock, the editor of Tundra Times, or Emil Notti, or Willie Hensley, and by talking to people in my own region like John Borbridge, who in addition to being head of the Tlingit/Haida Central Council at the time, had been both my Alaska history teacher and my basketball coach when I was at Sheldon Jackson School in Sitka. All of the sudden there were these heroes in my life. I mean, real heroes, people I could look up to, people I could learn from, things I was very open to because I was a Native person.

I was very anxious to be involved in Native issues, because I had grown up in a community where, while life was wonderful in so many ways, we also knew there were problems. Alcoholism was a problem, both in the community and in my own family. Many people, after bad fishing seasons, were very dependent on the BIA's general welfare program. To get a few dollars and a stipend from the BIA literally each month made the difference between being able to get through the winter or having a very, very tough time. I just had a sense that our place, the Native place in the world, really was not the right place. We had somewhere else to go, while still being who we were. I'm not sure how that notion was inculcated in me except I think from my mother who just said, "You are a Native, you must be proud of it. You must live with it at the same time you have to be something else. You have to be educated. You have to be successful in Western terms."

The other thing about that time was that it was just a few years after statehood. Alaska became a state in 1959, and so everything about what was going on in Alaska was in many ways brand new. Everybody was energized and everybody felt there was incredible opportunity. That was very much in the air.

Sharon McConnell: I'm wondering about ANCSA itself. What do you think was the promise of ANCSA 30 years ago, and has that promise been fulfilled?

Byron Mallott: When we were developing the legislation in somewhat legalistic terms, I saw ANCSA as a land claims settlement. Obtaining the land and the money was not so much an asset or something to be gained to be used to develop an economic future, but that we were in the process of losing our aboriginal title to land in Alaska by the selections of the State of Alaska, by growing federal classifications, and by the discovery of oil on the North Slope of our state. We needed compensation but at the same time, we also wanted to have lands for those future generations. I think many of the elders felt it was our obligation to seek those lands. So, when ANCSA was eventually passed I hadn't thought of it in terms of being something that was going to be significant in my life. I looked at the money; I looked at the land as the exchange. The federal government and the state government got all of the rest of Alaska and we retained this. It took a while. I don't think I was anywhere near alone in this recognition. It took a while to recognize that this was really a big deal, that all of a sudden these institutions were going to be established, and they were going to have money and they were going to have land, and they had legal obligation and also the opportunity to do tremendous things. So we jumped right into the middle of it and tried to make it work.

I, along with many others, was involved in making ANCSA work as a director of ANCSA Corporations. I was involved at many different levels. It took 10 years for me personally to say, "Wait a minute, what have I done?"—not in a negative way, but in a "Let's take stock of what these 10 years have brought us?" way. From 1972 until 1982, for example, when the corporations were created, we got the money, we got the land, we got into business, we began to learn, we began to make mistakes, we began to do a lot of things. We also began to realize the limitations of these institutions. One of the things that ANCSA did was to create powerful expectations. People talked about a billion dollars and 44 million acres of land; there were headlines in the Anchorage Times and the Anchorage News and the Tundra Times, that said, "Native lives will be changed." That certainly has been the case, but we found, relatively quickly, in the implementation of ANCSA that even a billion dollars and 44 million acres of land don't go all that far when they're divided among more than 200 corporations. All of a sudden we were struggling with relatively modest pieces of ANCSA with some really difficult times ahead.

After this first decade, our shareholders were beginning to question if this was really what it was all about. You know, a few dollars in the dividend, and most corporations pledged to hire shareholders, to train shareholders, and all of a sudden these huge expectations weren't being met. At least, not in the way many people had dreamed. So, the reality began to set in, and that's what I meant when all of a sudden I was, after 10 years, asking, "What's going on here?"

Sharon McConnell: Do you think that shareholder expectations were probably one of the largest unintended consequences of ANCSA?

Byron Mallott: I think so. We began the implementation without really understanding what we were getting into, and if you don't understand yourself it's very difficult to educate shareholders. If I had to do it all over again I would jump up and down, scream and shout, and say, "Before we begin to implement, we have to understand what this thing really is and what it really allows us to do." We didn't do that. We jumped right on the back of all of those expectations that ruled the wild horse.

Sharon McConnell: Do you think the values of Alaska Natives have changed because of the Claims Act?

Byron Mallott: I don't think so. I think that Native values have been strengthened during these 30 years, but not necessarily so much as a result of ANCSA. I think, in some ways, it was in spite of ANCSA. It's because we've been challenged so much in every area of our involvement, in education, health, economics, government and our own institutions, and this over-arching effort has been underway for almost 200 years to change us. I think finally Native folks just said, "We realize now that we have this inner strength to be who we are and we're now able to articulate it, and live it in ways that maybe we have not in the past." There was a period of time when we tried to sublimate that. It's time the rest of the world began to understand that. When we began 30 years ago, that wasn't the attitude. There was a sense we had to try to make the Land Claims Settlement Act work in ways that, while fundamentally driven by Native values, had to be implemented in the context of corporate values. When you're a shareholder, corporate values are about individual rights, and about determining value based upon economic return. It's all about expressing your will in a legal sense within a corporation by proxy voting. Corporations aren't democratic or even representative institutions because they weren't meant to be.

So, we were struggling with much of our leadership from the sixties and seventies, immersed in these institutions, in these corporations. I think for a while there, in the seventies and early eighties, we kind of lost of our way in terms of Alaska Native leadership, in really thinking through what this mean to us as Native people. Fortunately, something else was happening at the same time. There was a growing cadre of leadership emerging through Native involvement outside of the ANCSA corporations where a lot of the public policy, media, time, and attention were being focused. They were doing some incredible things, beginning the process of the reemergence of tribes, creating health corporations, changing the educational system, bringing back Native art and Native dance and Native languages. There was a quiet renaissance taking place, which in many ways is expressed powerfully today as it gains a powerful momentum.

In many ways, all of that happened both in spite of and parallel to what was happening in the ANCSA institutions. To me that just expresses the notion that we're a very resilient, resourceful, and capable people, and it shows that the ANCSA corporations and the ANCSA institution is, more than anything else, a tool for a part of the determination of our future. It isn't that broad-based kind of institutional change and public policy and social policy that's going to change our lives, which was part of that expectation at the time ANCSA was passed. It has had, in spite of what we were telling ourselves, a much more narrow focus while a lot of our real strength has grown around us from other places.

Sharon McConnell: What do you think the next 30 years will hold for ANCSA and for Native people?

Byron Mallott: I think it will be a continuation of that across-the-board growth, not just in the ANCSA institutions, but elsewhere, too. I think that ANCSA corporations will be recognized more and more as tools, that while economic success, jobs for individuals, and strong economies and communities are crucial to anyone's success, much else has to happen too. How we govern ourselves, whether we take pride in the institutions that represent us, whether we continue to express values of being Native in ways that the larger society understands and supports and respects are things that are critical to our future and things I know we will continue to work with. ANCSA corporations will become more narrow, economic tools. They will have a powerful place in our lives, because the economy is powerful and financial resources can make a huge difference in the kind of society we have in America. So I'm not downplaying it, but I think that it will be recognized as being not a value-add in institutional framework for our growth totally as a Native people; it will be much more narrow.

For those ANCSA lands -- which are really Native lands -- that have powerful value to us, there will be a rationalization of their future ownership. Economic institutions, like corporations, really don't have use of non-economic assets, so if you can't use land productively in your business it ought to be somewhere else, because it's not efficient for the corporation. We're going to become more and more competitive, efficient, productive, successful. This means that those assets, like land that can't be employed vigorously to advance economic interests of the corporation ought to be placed elsewhere.

In terms of our governance, our tribal jurisdictions need some kind of land base in which to exercise their jurisdictions. Over time we'll see a process of ANCSA corporations turning land over to governance institutions that are outside the corporations and the corporations will retain just those lands they can employ very aggressively in the business. I think that will be a powerful change in how governance in Alaska is exercised. I see tribal government growing.

Sharon McConnell: Yes, like Albert Kookesh said, the pendulum has gone from the business/corporate world and now we're going back.

Byron Mallott: Well, ANCSA itself was the swinging of a pendulum, you know. We had the reservation system for all of the 19th century and for an early portion of the 20th century where land was placed in Indian hands but not in a way that allowed them to make economic use of those lands. Whereas ANCSA was all about treating the land as an economic asset, and I think that we're going to meet somewhere in the middle.

Sharon McConnell: Well, on a lighter note, Byron, what is one of your most vivid memories in regard to ANSCA and the past 30 years?

Byron Mallott: Documenting the history of ANCSA has always been important and there's so much more to be done. Certainly the definitive book about ANCSA hasn't been written. To look at ANCSA and try to translate a lot of what took place into respectable history is going to be interesting. I remember an anecdote. There was one book written early on about Charlie Edwardsen. A former staff person of Senator Bob Bartlett wrote it, and it's about Charlie's involvement in the Land Claims movement. After the book was published, Sam Kito, who was involved with Doyon at the time, came up to Charlie at a gathering and said, "Charlie, I just read this book, and it really isn't like it was. I was there. I know that whoever wrote that book on your behalf is really claiming a lot of credit for you that a lot of other people were involved in." Charlie Edwardsen was a passionate and powerful speaker and would use a stammer very effectively in order to keep and audience and to draw an audience and to make a point. Without batting an eyelash, he looked at Sam and said, "Wr -- wr -- wr -- write your own damn book."

For some reason that just captured so much of what ANCSA is. It's all in our own perspective, all of us had different roles although we all worked together. In many ways we were all involved with different parts of the same elephant from different regions and different cultures, even within our own Alaska Native peoples.

I also remember one of the first meetings in which we were putting AFN together, and it was above one of the businesses on Fourth Avenue here in Anchorage. There were about a hundred Native leaders from around the state and we were just meeting one another for the first time as we were thinking about forming some institution that would allow us to work together to pursue land claims. In addition to introducing ourselves, we were asked to say what region and institution we represented, because that was important. Well, I was just a young guy, and, as I mentioned, I worked for the State of Alaska and I was very full of myself. I said, "I work for the Governor of Alaska," and they threw me out because this was about Native claims. It was not about government; it was about creating an institution that would represent us as Native peoples. I knew that was a big mistake because I was standing outside the door. So I called my uncle who lived in Yakutat, Paul Henry, and explained to him what had happened and he said, "You need to be back in that room." He said, "You go there and tell them that you represent the five clan chiefs of Yakutat," which I did and which was accepted. For several years I was involved with land claims as a representative of the five chiefs of Yakutat. At the time people would make fun of me. There were all of these institutions: Arctic Slope, Tanana Chiefs, Tlingit/Haida, and then there was this little five chiefs of Yakutat, but it was important.

It's even more important today when people wrestle with the role of tribes and the history of our tribes, both in ANCSA and in the Native community, because those five clans in the late fifties had entered into a financial settlement with oil companies that were exploring for oil in the forelands around Yakutat. And so the five chiefs of Yakutat represented the tribal clans of that region and I was able to represent them within AFN when there weren't, at the time, a lot of direct tribal institutions involved in land claims. But I'll never forget being so quickly shown the door when I gave the wrong answer to the question, "Who do you represent?"

Sharon McConnell: Are there any final comments you would like to add?

Byron Mallott: There are a couple things about ANCSA that I don't think any of us really anticipated and one of the most profound is the fact that ANCSA is a very much a living document, that it has been changed many, many times over the years by Congress, at the request of Alaska's Native peoples. It has been changed, not just in technical or non-substantive ways, but in some very powerful ways which gives me real hope for the future of ANCSA because it means we can continue to change it as our needs change. We can have ANCSA reflect that. I don't think anyone at the time thought much about that but it's become a powerful reality that is important for our future.

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