Table of Contents
Alaska Native Land Claims
Unit 4 - The Land Claims Struggle
Chapter 20 - A Legislative Settlement

Chapter 20
A Legislative Settlement

New bills. Soon after the 92nd Congress convened in 1971, the AFN bill was introduced in the Senate by Senators Fred Harris (Oklahoma) and Ted Kennedy (Massachusetts) and in the House of Representatives by Congressman Lloyd Meeds (Washington). Key features of this bill were full title to 60 million acres of land, an initial payment of $500 million, perpetual sharing in minerals from lands given up, and establishment of regional corporations.

A second bill introduced in the Senate was the bill which had passed in the Senate in 1970, Senator Henry Jackson's bill.

A third bill was introduced by the chairman of the House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, Wayne Aspinall of Colorado. Aspinall's bill provided for the smallest amount of land of the three — about 100,000 acres. Additional lands would be available for subsistence use on a permit basis.

It also provided that the settlement would be administered through an agency largely controlled by the Governor of Alaska. Although the agency would include four Natives, they would be appointed by the governor, not chosen by other Natives. Aspinall's opposition to Native-owned and -controlled corporations was reflected in an internal memorandum of his committee. This memorandum warned about the "lack of democratic controls in a large corporation, particularly with unsophisticated people."

The Aspinall bill was clearly the least acceptable to the Alaska Federation of Natives.

Final campaign. Against a backdrop of continuing intensive publicity efforts by AFN leaders, the Association on American Indian Affairs and others, the AFN launched what was to be its final campaign in the legislative halls for a claims settlement.

Since efforts to amend Senator Jackson's bill before its passage in 1970 had been unsuccessful, the AFN focused its energies upon winning favorable action in the House of Representatives. Even though Aspinall headed the key committee, Alaska's new congressman, Nick Begich, had won appointment to a seat on it. In addition, several other members were sympathetic to AFN's position.

Winning favorable House action was, nonetheless, expected to be difficult. While the AFN had exceptionally capable attorneys, president Don Wright was urged to hire lobbyists — persons who were engaged professionally in persuading congressmen to pass legislation favorable to his clients. The urging had come from Alaskans on the Potomac, an organization of Natives living in Washington, D.C., and others. Based upon his assessment of the difficulties ahead, Wright did employ lobbyists to assist the AFN board of directors and the AAIA representatives in their lobbying effort.

Any bill faced major problems without presidential support. President Richard M. Nixon had delivered a policy statement the preceding year that implied a favorable stance toward Alaska Native claims. But now, in 1971, there was a new militancy among interests opposing the claims, and Natives feared that his administration would introduce a bill like the earlier ones providing only a modest land settlement.

Laura Bergt of Fairbanks

Wright sought the attention of the White House through the National Council on Indian Opportunity, a panel of presidentially appointed American Indians and Alaska Natives designed to provide Native advice on federal policies at the highest level of government. In a letter to its chairman, Vice-President Spiro T. Agnew, Wright said:

The Native people of this country fear that your administration is about to commit the greatest betrayal of the Native people in the history of this nation. I refer to the likely proposal, by the administration for a settlement of the . . . land claims.

Wright's request for a meeting was supported by Laura Bergt, an Eskimo from Fairbanks, and other Indian members of the Council. The meeting was arranged.

Joining Wright and Mrs. Bergt in the meeting with Vice-President Agnew were Al Ketzler of the Tanana Chiefs and State Senator Ray Christiansen of Bethel. Wright's presentation of Native land rights was so impressive that Mrs. Bergt reported, "He visibly moved everyone in the room, including the three Natives who were there . . ." The meeting was considered significant in moving the Administration to a new position.

Oil pipeline. The most important new factor in moving the White House and the Congress toward a settlement was the continuing delay in construction of a pipeline to carry oil from the North Slope to Valdez. Until the claims of Natives to land were settled, it was clear that no permit for the pipeline construction could be issued by the Department of Interior. Many national oil companies and many contractors had made enormous investments in anticipation of pipeline construction and were impatient to move ahead to recover their investments.

How support from the Nixon Administration was won was later summed up by Guy Martin, legislative assistant to Congressman Begich. Martin wrote:

The Natives had a good cause. It was an election year. The Indian rights movement was gaining strength and acceptance. Still, none of these factors could have been a controlling influence at the White House, or even made it possible for Native leaders to see the White House staff without other assistance. This assistance came largely from the oil industry and related business interests, and from the only Republican in Alaska's delegation, Senator Ted Stevens. This was the first of many times that the shared fates of the land claims and the trans-Alaska pipeline would produce a strange coalition of support for the Native cause.

Nixon proposal. The new Administration proposal was presented to the Congress in a special message from President Nixon in early April. It provided for 40 million acres of land in fee simple title, $500 million in compensation from the federal treasury, and an additional $500 million to come from mineral revenues from lands given up. On the same day the Administration's bill was introduced, Wright met with President Nixon. Wright reported that the President showed a willingness to veto any bill providing land which Natives believed inadequate to meet their needs.

The White House commitment dramatically improved the chances of winning a favorable resolution of Alaska Native land rights. No longer did the Jackson bill seem to be the "generous" proposal in which the Senate had taken so much pride one year earlier. The Administration position also changed the picture in the House. Before the announcement of White House support, the AFN had to place its hopes for favorable House action on the endorsement of key Democratic congressmen. Because of President Nixon's personal intervention, Natives could now expect aid from Republican congressmen as well. This meant that the chances for persuading Chairman Aspinall to retreat from his conservative position, which had been poor before, had now become a distinct possibility.

The prospects for favorable House action were also improved when Aspinall's committee heard the testimony of Governor William A. Egan. Except for the AFN proposal that mineral revenue sharing be in perpetuity, Egan largely supported the AFN position, stating that a 60-million-acre settlement would be acceptable. Unlike his predecessor, the governor agreed to a two-percent share of state mineral revenues with Alaska Natives.

Congressman Begich played a key role during the summer of 1971 in keeping the legislative process going. Aspinall threatened, almost weekly during that summer, to call off the subcommittee sessions, which would have the effect of closing the door to a settlement. Each time the threat was made, Begich convinced Aspinall to allow the process to continue. He pleaded with congressmen of widely differing opinions to find areas of agreement so that prompt action could be taken. Begich agreed with the provisions sought by Alaska Natives, but he rarely argued for them openly within the subcommittee. Although he was frequently criticized by AFN leaders for not taking an advocacy role, Begich maintained that his most important job was to keep the subcommittee moving, and that the AFN had votes for 40 million acres in the subcommittee anyway.

With pressure upon Congressmen growing from the Native lobby, oil interests, and the Nixon administration, there was increasing agreement that a settlement had to be achieved. Begich called together AFN president Don Wright, Aspinall's staff assistant, and Alaska Attorney General John Havelock, and agreement was reached on the specific terms of settlement.

House bill. On August 3, the subcommittee reported its recommendations to the full committee. It provided for 40 million acres of land, with 18 million acres available for immediate village selection and 22 million acres to be selected after the State completed its selection authorized under the Statehood Act; $425 million in compensation to be paid from the federal treasury over a period of 10 years, and $500 million to be paid toward the settlement from the State's mineral revenues. It also incorporated the concept of regional corporations sought by the AFN. The subcommittee package was a tribute to Begich's role as an architect of the House compromise. One veteran lobbyist observed, "It is the best individual achievement I have ever heard for a freshman congressman."

When the subcommittee bill cleared the full committee and was brought to the floor of the House in October, it faced a strong challenge from congressmen favorable to environmental interests. Representatives John Saylor of Pennsylvania and Morris Udall of Arizona proposed an amendment to the bill which would have extended the land freeze for another five years and provided for strict controls over the uses of lands. The Udall Amendment was opposed by the AFN, the State, the Administration, oil interests, and the House leadership. Although conservationists waged a fierce campaign, the amendment was defeated after two days of debate. On October 20, by an overwhelming vote of 334 to 63, the House of Representatives voted to accept the committee's land claims bill.

Senate bill. After it had become apparent that the House was going to pass a land bill, the Senate moved swiftly to act upon its own version of the claims settlement. In dealing with the House, the AFN was also developing its strategy for Senate legislative action. The Senate considered itself to be more generous in dealing with Native affairs than the House, and Native leaders relied on competition between the two bodies of Congress to produce a favorable Senate bill.

The Senate Interior Committee, reporting its recommendations after a short meeting on September 15, performed as the Native leaders had expected it would. Its bill provided for $500 million to come from mineral revenue sharing and $500 million from the federal treasury — $75 million more than the House bill. Under one land option of the bill, Natives could obtain 50 million acres, but 20 million acres would be only for subsistence use, not owned outright.

The Senate bill provided for only seven regional corporations, but also one for urban Natives, another for Natives living away from Alaska, and two statewide corporations. It also provided for a land-use planning commission proposed by Senator Mike Gravel of Alaska.

In November the Senate bill reached the floor and, with but little opposition, was adopted by a vote of 76 to 5.

Since there were differences in the two bills, each house appointed senior members of its Interior committees and members of the Alaska delegation to a conference committee. Their task: to produce a bill acceptable to both the House and Senate.

Compromise bill. The conference committee began meeting in late November and concluded its work on December 3. Of the several dozen compromises reached in the 29-page bill, the key features were generally favorable to the AFN position. Title to 40 million acres would be confirmed. The amount of compensation was set midway between the Senate and House versions at $962.5 million. And there would be 12 regional corporations established to administer the settlement.

On December 14, the conference committee version of the bill was adopted by the House by a vote of 307 to 16 and by the Senate by unanimous consent. One step remained before it would become law: the President needed to sign the measure.

Before signing the bill into law, President Nixon wanted to know whether the settlement was acceptable to Alaska Natives. There were provisions in the legislation opposed by AFN, such as the tax provisions. And some things sought by AFN, such as mineral revenue sharing in perpetuity, had not become part of the legislation.

Final approval. On December 16, from all over Alaska and from other states more than 600 delegates assembled in Anchorage at a special convention to consider the settlement. AFN president Don Wright called upon them to study the bill and weigh its provisions. Claims of Natives to almost all of Alaska would be given up in exchange for title to about one-ninth of the state's land area plus compensation. Two days later, by a vote of 511 to 56, the Alaska Federation of Natives accepted the settlement. By special telephone arrangements, the President was advised of the acceptance. Then the delegates, standing motionless and silent, heard the President say, "I want you to be among the first to know that I have just signed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act."

The struggle by Alaska Natives for a claims settlement was at an end. Implementation of the act would now begin.

Alaska Native Land Claims Copyright 1976, 1978 by the Alaska Native Foundation
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