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Home  >  History and Culture  >  Ancsa at 30  >  Interviews
Irene Rowan

Willy Templeton: Irene, here is the first question. Please describe the background of your involvement in ANCSA.

Irene Rowan: I grew up helping my mom collect money for the Tlingit and Haida settlement. I would go door-to-door with her to collect the nickels and dimes that the old people were willing to give for that fight. Years later while teaching in Bethel, I met Mike Gravel who was running for the U.S. Senate. He said that he would support an Alaska Native Claims Settlement, so my husband and I became heavily involved in his senatorial campaign. In fact, my husband basically ran the campaign. Once Gravel was elected, he hired my husband as the legislative aide and his first piece of business was to start on the Congressional legislation for an Alaska Native Land Claims in Washington, D.C. While in Washington, D.C., I was involved in an ad hoc committee called the Alaskans on the Potomac. We provided volunteer services to those Alaska Natives traveling to Washington to work on ANCSA. We did things like clerical support, setting up appointments, things like that. That's basically what my major role was in the late 1960s and early '70s.

Willy Templeton: Irene, where did you grow up and who was your mother?

Irene Rowan: I grew up in Haines, Alaska. My mother was a Tlingit Indian, Mildred Hotch Willard Sparks, from the village of Klukwan. Mildred Sparks was a lifelong advocate for the Native people. As a child she was one of the first to learn English and did many important translations between government officials and the local leaders. Her bilingual ability allowed her to be a positive catalyst in both the Native and non-Native world. She inspired all of her children to contribute to the betterment of Alaska Natives.

Willy Templeton: And, Mike Gravel's Senate campaign was in what year?

Irene Rowan: 1968. His election was 1968. I was involved with his campaign in 1966, 1967, and 1968.

Willy Templeton: What was the promise of ANCSA 30 years ago? Has it fulfilled the promise? If not, what happened and why?

Irene Rowan: The promise of ANCSA was to return the Native lands to the Alaska Native people. When the legislation was finally passed, it did not return all the land, but it did return land around village areas and compensated for some of the lands taken. In that respect, settling the land claim issues was resolved. However, the Claims Act set up village, regional and urban corporations to manage the lands and funds on behalf of the Native people (shareholders). I then became a shareholder. The role of the corporation was different from that of the tribal government. We didn't envision all the problems that came with it, how difficult it would be to implement such a settlement with respect to the preservation of lands around the communities in certain areas; the combativeness of some of the U.S. citizens by challenging various provisions; and in the selection process of land entitlements. But I think that it's the best thing that has ever happened for Alaska Natives and the State of Alaska.

Willy Templeton: As a bit of a follow-up, you mentioned the combativeness of the non-Native Alaskans.

Irene Rowan: Well, take the case of the wolf hunt, and all of the sudden new trails came into existence on Native lands so that the non-local resident could have easy access to hunting grounds and would be able to build roads or, you know, build a cabin or whatever. There was a real push by some to take Native lands through the easement process, which led to a major court case, Calista v. Andrus. The decision favored Calista. And again, I went back to Washington, D.C., this time as a special assistant to the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs. And my role there was to assist in the implementation of ANCSA and the pending ANILCA. I was a member of the Interior Department task force which reviewed all of the issues such as the easements, enrollment, lawsuits, land exchanges, special amendments found under ANILCA which corrected and helped expedite the implementation process.

Willy Templeton: In the issue of the eligible groups, did you witness any resistance to the formation of village corporations or Alaska Native groups?

Irene Rowan: I attended a cocktail party in Washington, and met the Solicitor for Interior, the solicitor is the major attorney for the Interior Department, and he asked me to help resolve problems pending before the Alaska Native Land Claims Board. He said, "I have all of these village corporation lawsuits against me. Would you please try to get them settled?" I worked with the Assistant attorney for Indian Affairs, the State of Alaska and affected Native corporations in finding resolutions to many of the pending cases. An agreement was made to recognize Salamantof, and another one in the Bering Straits region. We also resolved other village corporation status through land trades and agreements with the State of Alaska. One that comes to mind is in Koniag region. You'll find many of them under the ANILCA legislation as well. There was a great deal of resistance by the State and there were other groups that were adverse to the land exchanges and the village corporation recognitions.

Willy Templeton: In the issue of land trades, Klukwan is a very special corporation in that it has corporate lands and there is a reservation. Did you play a role in the Klukwan situation?

Irene Rowan: In 1975, I was elected as the president of Klukwan, Inc. As chairman of the board and president, my first task was to get us recognized as an Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act village corporation. The reason we did that is that we had 253 shareholders. Of the 253 shareholders, about 80 of them were members of the Chilkat Indian Village IRA. That left the rest of us disenfranchised. Donna Willard, attorney, and I went to Washington and worked with Senator Gravel's staff to develop legislation recognizing us as a village corporation entitled to a share of the compensation and land. That task was accomplished through the ANCSA amendments in January 1976. The legislation also provided that the lands originally conveyed to Klukwan, Inc., would have to be returned because of the existing lease between the Chilkat Village IRA and U.S. Steel. Once the legislation was signed into law, we had to set up the corporation – establish an accounting system, issue stock to shareholders, write bylaws and Articles of Incorporation and begin the land selection process. We learned in May of 1976, legislation was required allowing us the right to select land outside of our area. In September legislation allowing Klukwan, Inc., to select land outside its withdrawal area, and the Terms and Conditions of the Cook Inlet Region land settlement was signed into law. In the end, we selected land that was located on a little island off Prince of Wales in Southeastern. Champion Timber Company had given up its timber lease there so we negotiated with the Department of Agriculture and the Forest Service to get those lands because it was out of the way making easements, access and other concerns unnecessary.

Willy Templeton: Were there unintended consequences of ANCSA developments that no one foresaw?

Irene Rowan: Oh, yes. ANCSA failed to solve many of the problems. Number one, the Alaska Native community was not largely acquainted with the whole concept of the business world. So, a great learning experience had to take place to teach people what a corporation is, what shareholder rights are, reading financial reports, and other important business mechanisms. So, that was a real learning experience. There was a problem with selecting the lands. There was a problem with the government conveying the lands. There was confusion by everyone about what the Claims Act really meant – many of the other outside tribes believed we had sold our rights. One thing that I think is clear is that ANCSA was a land settlement. It has nothing to do with tribal rights.

Willy Templeton: How has ANCSA changed Alaskans, particularly Alaska Natives? What values of Alaska Natives have been changed or challenged?

Irene Rowan: There have been some great changes. In the beginning stages of implementing ANCSA, you found basically three groups. These were the modern Alaska Native, the transitional Alaska Native, and the traditional Alaska Native. You have basically three different aspects working together to implement the legislation so that it benefited all shareholders, regardless of where they lived. This caused a value struggle – do you use the land entitlement for subsistence purposes or do you develop it to generate profits to be used for dividends. The village corporations, in some cases, didn't like the idea that the regional corporation owned the subsurface estate – again the value of land use was debated. The wonderful thing about the Claims Act was the whole idea that it incorporated the value of sharing of Alaska Natives through 7(i) of the Claims Act. Today there are fewer problems with ANCSA, and far more educated and experienced Alaska Natives. The sad fact is that we did not really think about the next generation – there were just too many items to address in the beginning. Plus, it was felt by many that over the years, some major concerns would be addressed. One item is the children born after 1971. There was a provision in the 1990 legislation that has tried to remedy the issue. Each of the regional corporations is implementing that legislation differently. Meaning we have a generation of young Alaska Natives who are not shareholders. So that leaves a challenge for the younger generation, along with keeping the corporations viable - land protected from adverse action and wise investments to generate profits needed for dividends. It's been exciting to watch the Alaska Native community grow in so many positive directions.

Willy Templeton: What does the next 30 years hold?

Irene Rowan: I think that the next 30 years will be exciting. We are now enjoying a whole new generation of educated Alaska Natives. We have Native nonprofit corporations running housing programs, providing health and social services, conducting research in many fields, and programs for scholarships to name a few. These corporations came about because of ANCSA where Native leaders learned of opportunities for Native Americans. We have a lot more opportunities for Alaska Natives today than we did 30 years ago. Today, we have Alaska Natives inspired and motivated to go into the fields of medicine, science, education, engineering, private business and all sorts of fields. The Native corporation scholarship programs and corporate jobs have had a great influence for our young. They may not be shareholders but they are sharing in many of the ANCSA benefits. We see the Native corporations playing a real role in the economic and social development of the State of Alaska. The oil and gas fields may run dry but the Native community will generate a healthy economic and social climate – the future brings hope.

Willy Templeton: What is your favorite ANCSA story?

Irene Rowan: Oh, gosh. I had dinner at one of the fancy restaurants in Washington, D.C., and Charlie Edwardson, the true ANCSA war hero, was making the point and arguing about the Claims Act and the legislation and what it should look like. He was quite angry, got up and he was so mad that he just pulled the table cloth right off the table. Not a dish moved! Then there was the time I was so lonesome for Alaska, I saw this gentleman getting into the elevator and excitedly asked – "How are things in Alaska, how long will you be in town, how do things look for the legislation?" He said, "Irene, I'm your neighbor here in Washington!"

Thank you for letting me share my experience.

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