"How Not to Settle the Claims"

by C. Robert Zelnick

Anchorage Daily News, March 21, 1971, p.4

Washington — The board of directors of the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) held a meeting here last week which could serve as an object lesson in how NOT to achieve a reasonable land claims settlement.

Although the meeting—involving the entire 24-man board—had been arranged approximately two weeks in advance and the state’s Congressional delegation "invited" to attend, Sen. Gravel sent word that he would be out of town and Sen. Stevens said he would be "unavailable." Neither Gravel nor Stevens sent representatives to the session, held on the afternoon of March 15 in the Capitol Hill Hotel. Congressman Nick Begich did appear in person.

The meeting’s format was deceptive. Ostensibly on the table was a vaguely worded motion requesting the Alaskan delegation’s support for the AFN position on the claims, particularly the federation’s demand for 60 million acres of fee simple land.

What in fact occurred was a rock-headed demand that Begich become not only the bill’s prime sponsor in the House but that he go down the line with that position, rejecting any and all compromise approaches. The atmosphere at the session, according to first-hand observers, at times resembled that of a kangaroo court.

Tables were pounded by a few of the more virulent board members and ash trays went flying. Abuse was heaped upon ultimatum.

Begich was threatened with a loss of political support by the self-proclaimed "militants" of the Native movement—militants whose chief constituencies, I might add, have always been based somewhere east of the Potomac River.

In the end the "motion" passed with but a single dissenting vote, that of state Rep. Carl Moses, whose appreciation of the legislative process apparently runs deeper than that of his peers.

Begich, to his credit, stood firm. He repeated his earlier expressed willingness to introduce the AFN bill for consideration by the House Interior Committee on which he sits, but would not commit himself to adopt the position as his own.

He chided the board for confusing its role of advocacy with his own role of reconciliation and compromise. He warned that an extremist, obdurate position on his part now would offend senior Interior Committee members and ultimately jeopardize his chances for appointment to the crucial House-Senate conference committee on the legislation. And he requested that he be judged on his final accomplishments with respect to the bill rather than on the basis of preliminary oaths of adherence to the AFN cause.

Begich thus escaped from the session with his flexibility intact.

The meeting was indicative of the AFN’s lost stature in this town. A year ago neither Gravel nor Stevens would have ignored a request to appear in front of its board. And Begich would have thought twice before asserting his independence.

But the AFN, yielding to internal political pressures largely of its own creation, has become wedded to a position on the claims with little to recommend it and no hope of passage. And an interest group—any interest group—that does that is in trouble.

What needs to be understood by the AFN is this: The demand for a fee simple grant of 60 million acres of land is without legal, moral, political, or economic justification.

It results not from any need to protect an existing way of life, not from any desire to achieve parity among the various rural villages, and not from any sensible notions of a wise land management policy. Rather it has derived from the tortuous convolutions of Native politics during the past two years—the battle between Alaskan and East Coast attorneys, the grab for potential oil and mineral lands, and the desire of the AFN to maintain harmony within its own ranks, most notably with the "militant" Arctic Slope Native Assn.

To oppose the current AFN position is, of course, to demean neither the claims themselves nor the need for their prompt and just resolution. (Rep. Ed Edmondson, D.–Okla., for example, a firm friend of the Alaskan natives, has similarly refused to become prime sponsor of the AFN bill in the House.)

Rather, there appears to be growing recognition in Washington that a settlement must be fair to all Alaskans, Native and non-Native alike. In this respect, the Jackson bill—last year’s S.1830—appears to avoid several of the pitfalls into which the AFN of Harris Bill tumbles. The Jackson bill:


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