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Home  >  History and Culture  >  Ancsa at 30  >  Interviews
John Shively

John Shively has served in a variety of positions, including executive director of the Rural Alaska Community Action Program, executive vice president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, and senior vice president and chief operating officer for NANA Development Corporation, where he participated in the development of the Red Dog Mine. Shively also served as chief of staff for Governor Bill Sheffield, chairman and CEO of the United Bancorporation Alaska, Inc., commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.

Ronald Spatz: Tell us about your involvement with ANCSA.

John Shively
John Shively: I came to Alaska in 1965 from New York State as a VISTA volunteer. I'd intended to come up and spend a year in Alaska, and then go back home. My first duty station was Bethel, and then I was transferred to Yakutat. In Yakutat there was a young man named Byron Mallott who was about three months older than me. He was the mayor, and he had called me down there to help put the city back together, because the city had problems. He was one of the young leaders who became very active in the Native claims movement, and he got me interested in it. Then I met Willie Hensley and I went on to do some other work for VISTA. Then I did some work for AFN, and then I worked for Byron when he became head of RurALCAP. We became very active in the final years before the settlement trying to educate people in rural Alaska about the settlement.

Ronald Spatz: What did you do in regard to the act?

John Shively: I didn't do much in Washington. People like Byron Mallott and Sam Kito and Willie Hensley went to Washington. I stayed home. In RurALCAP, we had regional organizations that were federally funded; we called them Regional Development Corporations. We held our little RurALCAP meetings and then we would adjourn and meet as the Areawide Native Organization. These Native areawide organizations were non-profits and, in some cases, not even formal organizations, but they had made the claims that had been put on Alaska. They'd made up the membership of the AFN Board.

So, the regional organization members would sit and talk about what was important for the Bethel area or what was important for Bristol Bay. Their representative to the AFN Board would take that to AFN. Then, people who were board members from villages would take some of the information back home. That part of it didn't work as well, but you have to remember that in the late 1960s, most of the villages in rural Alaska didn't have telephones. There was no radio at all unless it was Armed Forces radio or in some cases a church radio station, but certainly not the kind of radio that we see with public radio that's issue-oriented. You know, most people didn't even have electricity in their homes. Transportation was very spotty. Lots of villages didn't have airstrips, so it was a very different place. It was very difficult to communicate in those days.

I helped develop materials and strategize how to educate people. I sometimes went out and did the educational seminars in regional areas or in villages. I also went to AFN Board meetings.

After the Settlement Act passed, I became a lot more active. At RurALCAP, we immediately began to educate people about what the Settlement Act meant and what they had to do. Then when I moved to AFN, I became involved in the fight between the Native community and the federal and state governments trying to undo the Settlement Act. I did most of the staff work on that.

Ronald Spatz: Did ANCSA live up to its promise?

John Shively: It's hard to say. Clearly, it didn't solve every socio-economic problem in rural Alaska, but I don't think it was ever intended to. On the positive side, there are corporations, mostly regional, but some village corporations, that are very strong financial institutions. Business leaders from Native corporations sit as equals around the business roundtables in this state. They've used that position to influence other business people on issues like subsistence. Some of the corporations have done a fairly decent job of hiring shareholders and giving them jobs. If the Native corporate structure wasn't there, you wouldn't have that.

Also, Natives control over 600 million dollars in healthcare alone. The ANCSA model said Natives can control, and that was not what we did with Native Americans back in 1971. We let the government control. It was really the Claims Act that started this whole idea of self-determination. A lot of these non-profits are now multi-million dollar operations that started as spin offs from the for-profit corporations to deal with social service needs. The standard of living in rural Alaska is clearly better than it was in 1971. There is now electricity, I think, everywhere. Sewer and water are still problems. Transportation is much better. Communication is much better. There are economic challenges, however, that are still great and need to be addressed.

Ronald Spatz: Were there unanticipated consequences of ANCSA?

John Shively: Yes. You've got to remember the whole thing was driven by trying to get control of some land. Willie Hensley wrote the initial paper that showed, (A), there were some rights that had never been resolved, but, (B), it was apparent to everybody that the state was grabbing land that belonged to Natives. So people wanted to get control of some of that land, and that's happened.

One of the things that was unanticipated, for me personally, was the number of corporations that have turned around and sold their land. I also did not anticipate that some of the corporations would be as strong as they are today. We all believed they'd survive, but these are huge, well-run, strong businesses.

I also would have never expected to see such a cultural explosion. For example, in the late 1960s in Bethel, we tried to get a dance group going. We ended up with three kids and a couple of elders. Now there are dance groups all over the state. I think that it really has benefited the culture in ways that maybe people hoped for, but I don't know if people anticipated.

Ronald Spatz: As a follow-up, the idea of social engineering comes to people's minds when they think of ANCSA and yet I think a lot of people would say, hey, that's not what this is about. Read the language. It doesn't really have it in the corporate model. So my question is as a model of social engineering do you see this thing as integral to that or is the impact, the social impact, coming from elsewhere? In other words, it's coming from a need that is now being met because there's some economic power. In other words, does economic power allow people to get to the other needs?

John Shively: There's no question; the answer to that is yes. If you have more economic power, you can do more things. For example, the Native community could not have built the Native Heritage Center 30 years ago. Now they're able to do things like that. But I would not undercut the fact that the people have used the Native corporations in a way that I think was maybe not anticipated by a lot of non-Natives.

At the end of the settlement, Governor Egan, who had been a strong supporter, was under huge pressure from the business and labor community all of the sudden. In fact, the unions, who had supported the Natives, switched sides right at the end when they saw the settlement was going to take place. I've always been convinced that most non-Natives didn't think much of Natives, and so they never thought they could get a settlement. Once they understood it, they tried to stop it.

Governor Egan and other members of the delegation put together a deal that would have maximized the distribution of resources from the Settlement Act. It really would have made it very difficult to consolidate some of the wealth that has been consolidated and to do some of things that have been done. This was a conscious effort, as far as I can see, to undercut the act and to ruin it. Well, thanks to Mike Gravel and Lloyd Meads, it was stopped. But it didn't stop the governments and non-Native institutions from continuing to try to undo it. What is interesting to me, though, is what's now happened and probably started happening in the 1980s. If you ask the business community today if 40 million acres was enough or if it should have been 60 million or 100 million acres, they'd support as much land as possible being put into Native hands, rather than putting it where it is now, in federal and state hands. They didn't anticipate the positive impact that Native corporations could have, and it's too bad, because it would have been a much stronger settlement if the business community had been a little more open minded.

One other thing that's sort of amusing about the Settlement Act -- there's a thing right in the front in the first section or two that basically says you can't use any money from the Settlement Act to support political campaigns, which is what I call the Ted Stevens' amendment. He put it in there because he was terrified that they were all going to give the money to the Democrats, because most Natives were Democrats. Ultimately the corporations found a way to make that statement meaningless, and Native corporations give lots of money these days -- to Ted Stevens among other people. But there was a fear that Native Corporations wouldn't do the right thing.

Ronald Spatz: What impact has the success of the corporations had on Native Alaskans?

John Shively: Clearly there are people who have opportunities now that they wouldn't have had otherwise. There are two to three thousand Natives who work at the for-profit Native corporations, and thousands more who work for the non-profits. The concept embodied by the Settlement Act that Natives could run their own institutions -- whether they were corporations, health corporations, Native non-profits -- has paid huge dividends to some people and given people many more opportunities than they would have had if more traditional models had been used. But it has not helped everybody.

Ronald Spatz: Where do you see it failing the most?

John Shively: Village Alaska. We just have not found a way to share the wealth of our whole state with people in rural Alaska. The wealth has ended up concentrated primarily in Anchorage and, to a lesser extent, in Fairbanks. At the same time, our population has grown, and there have been huge additional impacts on subsistence resources. The people in the villages are getting it from both sides, fewer subsistence resources and limited economic opportunities. There's a lot of social dysfunction in the rural communities and it's something that no one has a good answer for.

Ronald Spatz: What do you see for the future?

John Shively: I wouldn't have predicted this, and I don't like to predict the future. Native Alaskans are going to be around, whether our economy continues to expand or whether it implodes. They have learned how to play in an economic and social world. They will continue to do that. They will have their fair share of influence. Over time, the corporations will grow.

Ronald Spatz: What's your favorite ANCSA story?

John Shively: I lobbied for AFN during 1986, and I was a chief lobbyist in 1991. The administration secretary, Stuart Udall, and his deputy secretary, Don Pearlman, hated the idea of taking away individual rights from shareholders to protect the group. One of the things we had realized early on was that corporations were going to issue stock to people born after 1971. Then, as they also began to inherit stock, you basically pyramid the stock and that didn't make sense.

We sat around and talked about developing something else and came up with this idea of life estate stock, which was stock that would be distributed to individuals as long as they were alive and when they died, that stock would be canceled. Their children would get their own stock issued separately. But we didn't know how to get this idea into the amendment. So I met with Don Pearlman, and he said, "Well, you've got this whole problem of all this stock, blah, blah, blah and it's going to be a big mess and you have to keep track of it." I said, "Yeah, you know, do you think there's a possibility that you maybe just have it for the shareholder's life?" He said, "That's an excellent idea." I said, "Why don't you propose it, Don? It would be a good amendment for the administration to carry." It was, of course, something we wanted and they ultimately did carry it. I use this as an example, because I've seen it happen again and again as the Native community works in Washington. When they know they have the right idea, they just keep after it.

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