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Take My Land, Take My Life: The Story of Congress's Historic Settlement of Alaska Native Land Claims, 1960-1971

Take My Land, Take My Life: The Story of Congress's Historic Settlement of Alaska Native Land Claims, 1960-1971

by Donald Craig Mitchell

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University of Alaska Press
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The Story of Congress's Historic Settlement of Alaska Native Land Claims, 1960–1971

University of Alaska Press

Copyright © 2001 University of Alaska Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-889963-24-2

Chapter One

The Alaska Federation of Natives

If you're going to make a raid on the United States treasury, you've got to get organized.

Nick Gray, 1965

Between the Alaska purchase in 1867 and Alaska statehood in 1959, rather than defending their own interests Alaska Natives depended for the safeguarding of their land rights largely upon sympathetic non-Natives—from Ivan Petroff and Sheldon Jackson during the nineteenth century to Felix Cohen, James Curry, Harry Truman, and Bob Bartlett during the twentieth century. They did so for a simple reason. As Saul Alinsky, the legendary Chicago organizer, long ago observed, the exercise of political power requires two preconditions: money and people politically conscious enough to know how to spend it. Between 1867 and 1959, Alaska Natives were woefully short of both.

If statehood began an era of new political possibility for non-Native Alaskans, John Kennedy's 1960 election as president did the same for Alaska Natives. Although Kennedy's leadership of the civil rights revolution that arrived on his watch was pusillanimous, when Lyndon Johnson inherited the presidency in 1963, his declaration of war on poverty and his success in persuading Congress to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964 dramatically altered the nation's perception of the legitimacy of the demands of African-Americans and other marginalized citizens for social and economic justice.

In Alaska, the quicksilver changes of the 1960s expanded the political consciousness of a group of mostly young Alaska Natives, a number of whom had attended college and all of whom had spent time in the world beyond Native villages. And thanks to a string of fortuities, for the first time there was money available to enable Natives to organize to defend their land rights.

For Alaska Natives, the era of new political possibility came to its first important fruition on October 18, 1966, when three hundred Eskimos, Indians, and Aleuts assembled in Anchorage, as the Anchorage Daily News reported, to "discuss common problems." In addition to conversation, the organizers of the meeting had a more substantive objective, which was to "exert political pressure" on candidates who were competing for election to statewide office in the November 1966 election to support a fair congressional settlement of Native land claims. The pressure would be exerted by voting.

In 1924, Congress had granted all Native Americans citizenship. But into the 1960s in the forty-eight coterminous states, most Indians who resided on reservations did not participate in the political life of the states in which they lived, among other reasons because they had been discouraged from doing so. In New Mexico and Arizona, for example, the right of reservation Indians to vote in state elections was not settled until 1948, and the first Indian was not elected to the New Mexico legislature until 1964 and to the Arizona legislature until 1966. In Utah, the right of reservation Indians to vote was not settled until 1956. The first Indian was not elected to the South Dakota legislature until 1970.

In Alaska, by contrast, by the 1960s Natives had had a long tradition of participation—both as voters and candidates—in territorial and state elections. The tradition of voter participation began in 1916 when ballots cast by Native voters allowed James Wickersham to win a thirty-one vote victory in his bid for a fifth term as Alaska's delegate to Congress. Candidate participation began in 1924 when Indian voters in southeast Alaska elected Tlingit Indian leader William Paul to the territorial House of Representatives. (In 1928, Paul lost his bid for a third term.) In 1944, Native candidates began to be elected routinely to the territorial legislature after Congress enlarged its membership, in part to encourage that result. In 1955 the delegates who attended the Alaska Constitutional Convention drew the future state's first election district boundaries to afford voters in Native villages an opportunity to continue to elect Native candidates, and in 1959 ten Alaska Natives served in the first Alaska state legislature.

Five years later, in the November 1964 general election, Native voters in more than two hundred villages cast 18.2 percent of the total ballots. Including the votes cast by Natives who lived in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Alaska's other white towns, Alaska Natives cast more than twenty percent of the total ballots.

"When any group of people can pull one-fifth to one-sixth of the total votes in a state," Flore Lekanof, an Aleut who would participate in chairing the October 1966 meeting, noted at the time, "they can exert power." To maximize that power, the date for the meeting had been intentionally chosen. As Emil Notti, the Athabascan Indian who conceived the idea of holding the meeting, would reminisce years later: "We purposely set the date before the November election." Doing so accomplished its objective. "I don't know what happened," one of the candidates remarked at the time, "but all at once we were surrounded by Natives."

How it happened is a story tinged with serendipity. In 1958, Edward Teller, immortalized in film as the maddest of all nuclear scientists, Dr. Strangelove, arrived in Alaska to promote one of the most irresponsible public works projects ever conceived by man: the underground detonation of a cluster of hydrogen bombs at Ogotoruk Creek, which drains into the Chukchi Sea at Cape Thompson on the northwest coast of Alaska. The purpose was to blast a harbor into the coastline for which there was no use and which would be ice-locked nine months of the year.

Code-named Project Chariot by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the Ogotoruk Creek detonations were part of a larger program—code-named Project Plowshare—that evolved from a brainstorming session that Teller and the physicists with whom he worked at the Livermore Laboratory in California had had in 1956 regarding the possibility of using hydrogen bombs to excavate a waterway across Israel to replace the Suez Canal, which the Israeli-Egyptian war had closed to shipping. Intrigued by the idea of exploding bombs for purposes other than killing people, in 1957 Teller and his colleagues invented Project Plowshare.

When Edward Teller pitched Project Chariot to the non-Native Alaska public, the AEC characterized Ogotoruk Creek as a ground zero located "far away from any human habitation," even though, as Teller and the commission were aware, the site was only thirty-two miles south of Point Hope, a small Iñupiaq Eskimo village.

In 1826, when the English explorer Frederick Beechey discovered Point Hope, Tigara, as the Iñupiaq call the village, had been occupied for a thousand years. The reason was whaling, since the North Alaska Littoral Current, which flows close to the gravel spit on which the village is located, opens leads in the pack ice through which bowhead whales swim by the village on their annual migrations.

But even when hunting is good, life a hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle is harsh. During summer, the temperature rarely exceeds forty-nine degrees Fahrenheit, and in winter it not infrequently drops to fifty degrees below zero. But more than any other element of nature, life at Point Hope is dominated by the wind, a constant presence that sometimes sweeps through the village at speeds in excess of seventy-five miles an hour.

In 1958, Point Hope had been little changed by time. The village had two army surplus diesel generators that provided electricity during part of the day, but there were no telephones and the mail arrived only when the small airplane that delivered it could break through the weather. According to Keith Lawton, an Episcopal missionary who moved to Point Hope in 1959, when he arrived the village consisted "largely [of semisubterranean] sod houses, mission buildings and the school and the village store and the complex that was the national guard building, and a couple of two-story houses, the post office. Those were the buildings that stood fairly high. Most of the rest were low and combined with sod house arrangements."

Neither Edward Teller, who informed non-Native Alaskans in 1958, nor the Atomic Energy Commission, which officially informed the nation in 1959, notified the Point Hope Eskimos of the plan to detonate hydrogen bombs at a location a few miles down the coast where the men hunted caribou. However, by word of mouth, the frightening news made its way into the village. Most Point Hope Eskimos had at best a grade-school education, and many spoke only Iñupiaq. Yet, according to Lawton:

A lot of men went out of the village and served in the armed forces and they came back pretty educated. They toured in Europe and the South Pacific and the states. And some of them got over into European theaters of war. When I arrived at Point Hope I encountered a bunch of very savvy people who were wise to the ways of Eskimo lore and living off the land, but also—if you couldn't say college-educated—very adept at making their way in western culture and American society.

As a consequence, every Point Hope Eskimo had heard of the atom bomb, and everyone thought the idea of setting one off so close to the village was madness. As the Point Hope village council in November 1959 wrote to the AEC: the people do "not want to see the explosion at the near area of our village Point Hope for any reason and at any time."

To calm the concern, in March 1960 three commission employees arrived at Point Hope on a public relations mission that quickly deteriorated into parody. When as many Iñupiaq as could do so had seated themselves on the floor of the Episcopal mission meeting hall to listen to the flak-catchers, one of the Eskimos asked why anyone would want to explode hydrogen bombs under Ogotoruk Creek. Russell Ball, the commission employee who supervised the planning of Project Chariot, answered that while there was no "economic need for the harbor," the detonations would be "a very worthwhile experiment to help us learn how to dig craters."

Rodney Southwick, a commission public relations officer, next asserted that the explosions that had no point would not be set off unless "no one would be hurt, no one would be moved, and your normal means of hunting and fishing would not be interfered with." Then Ball, who was unable to quit while Southwick was ahead, volunteered that "the [radioactive] airborne activity which could reach here could not possibly be enough to cause injury to the people or animals," and that the guards the AEC would post at Ogotoruk Creek after the detonations would prevent villagers from hunting in the area only for "a time short in terms of months, at least."

When the three AEC representatives finished speaking, an Eskimo woman stood and spoke at length in Iñupiaq. But the translation was brief. "The more you talk," the translator explained to Ball and Southwick, "the more scared she gets."

When Ball and Southwick departed Point Hope, they likely did so confident that three hundred Eskimos living at one of the most geographically isolated locations in North America could not stop what the Atomic Energy Commission had decided would be done. But the Eskimos were not without allies, one of whom was James Hawkins, the Alaska area director of the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).

To obtain administrative control of the area that Teller's bombs would crater, in 1958 the AEC had asked the Department of the Interior to withdraw 1,600 square miles of federal land surrounding Point Hope and Ogotoruk Creek. In response, the department temporarily withdrew the land from the public domain, and then published notice of the request for a permanent withdrawal in the Federal Register, the U.S. government's official publication to which no one in Point Hope subscribed. Three years later David Frankson, the president of the Point Hope village council, learned of the request for a permanent withdrawal and in February 1961 wrote James Hawkins, whose office was in Juneau, to ask the area director to do what he could to prevent the request from being approved.

The thirty-nine-year-old Hawkins was not a career bureaucrat. He was a holdover Republican political appointee who was as politically astute as he was razor sharp. In 1957, Bob Bartlett, who as a leader of the Alaska Democratic Party kept a watchful eye on the opposition, privately identified Hawkins as a "comer in the Republican Party." Consistent with that assessment, a stranger who met Hawkins in 1961 described him as "an exceptional young man—attractive, intelligent, frank yet tactful, and extremely well informed."

When he read David Frankson's letter, Hawkins realized that as a holdover political employee of the Department of the Interior's least influential bureaucracy, there was little he could do on his own to persuade his superiors to defy the AEC. So he advised Frankson to write to the Association on American Indian Affairs (AAIA).

The association had been organized in New York City in 1922 as the Eastern Association on Indian Affairs by a small group of socially prominent white "friends of the Indian." At various times the Eastern Association Board of Directors included such men of public reputation as George Bird Grinnell, the editor of Forest and Stream magazine; Ellwood Hendrick, the curator of the Chandler Museum at Columbia University; Herbert Spinden, the curator at Harvard's Peabody Museum; the painter Frederick Dellenbaugh; and Oliver La Farge, a scion of an old and socially prominent Rhode Island family.

Although his Harvard degrees were in archaeology, by occupation La Farge was a writer, a vocation he pursued to early success when his novel Laughing Boy, which "simply described what [the author] had seen" during field trips to archeological sites on the Navajo reservation, bested Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms to win the 1929 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

That same year La Farge joined the board of directors of the Eastern Association, and in 1933 was elected its president. In 1937 he merged the Eastern Association (which in 1934 had changed its name to the National Association on Indian Affairs) with the American Indian Defense Association, a competing "friends of the Indian" organization that had been founded in 1923 by John Collier, whom President Roosevelt in 1933 had appointed commissioner of Indian affairs. In 1946 the merged organization was renamed the Association on American Indian Affairs.

Prior to resigning as executive secretary of the American Indian Defense Association to become commissioner, John Collier had spent his time and the Defense Association's members' money lobbying Congress and the Department of the Interior on behalf of Indian causes. The members of the Eastern Association, by contrast, devoted themselves to such above-the-fray activities as sponsoring benefit performances of The Pirates of Penzance to raise money for hiring nurses to work on reservations.

In 1946 when he returned to the association board after a wartime leave of absence, Oliver La Farge decided to reinvigorate the Defense Association's tradition of political activism. At his direction, the AAIA hired an executive director; in 1947 began publishing the American Indian, a quarterly magazine, and Indian Affairs, a monthly newsletter; in 1948 retained Felix Cohen, who recently had resigned from the Department of the Interior, to serve as general counsel; and in 1950 organized committees composed of board members and nonmember experts to investigate subjects such as Indian health and education.

Despite those changes, the AAIA remained what the Eastern Association had been: a small group of socially prominent whites who dabbled in Indian affairs. But in addition to its board members' social connections, the association possessed another important asset: a middle-class atheist raised Irish Catholic, La Verne Madigan.


Excerpted from TAKE MY LAND TAKE MY LIFE by DONALD CRAIG MITCHELL Copyright © 2001 by University of Alaska Press. Excerpted by permission of University of Alaska Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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