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The Founding and Formation of the
Northwest Alaska Native Association

William L. Hensley
March 28, 2000

I thought that it might be best if I iterated the events that led to the formation of NANA. I have mentioned the graduate paper I wrote at the University of Alaska in May of 1966 for Judge Jay Rabinowitz’s Constitutional Law class. I titled it "What Rights to Land Have the Alaska Natives: The Primary Issue". This paper was instrumental in helping me to understand some of the historical, legal and political circumstances surrounding the question of what rights Alaska Natives had to land. I came to the conclusion that most of Alaska was still in aboriginal title and our claims had never been extinguished. I also came to the conclusion that if we permitted the Statehood process of land selection to proceed, we would be losing an opportunity to secure land and only be allowed a pittance in financial compensation.

This paper was followed by a letter to Senator Ernest Gruening which was precipitated by an article in the Fairbanks Daily News Miner which said something to the effect that "what we need to do is pay off the Natives and get on with the development of this land". My letter to Gruening was printed in the News Miner, the Anchorage Daily News and the Tundra Times. This letter precipitated a meeting between myself and Senator Gruening later that spring where we discussed my views on land claims and his view that it was the Secretary of Interior and his department that had done nothing to resolve the issue.

On May 6, 1966 while I was still at the University of Alaska, I wrote each of the villages in the Kotzebue area a four page letter. (I included Point Hope and Candle, as well.) In the letter, I explained who I was and what prompted me to write about Native Land and Land Claims. I explained what I perceived as the rationale for the claims based on what I had read for my paper as well as the essence of the court cases that had been decided and the compensation for lands taken. I also suggested that they meet in a village meeting to select someone to attend a meeting in Kotzebue where we would have representatives from the BIA and BLM there to discuss the land issue. I told them that this was an urgent issue because I understood that the Secretary of Interior was being pressured not to accept any further land claims and to continue approving state land selections under the statehood act. I said that we should get together prior to June 15, if possible. At that point, I was desperately concerned about the prospect of vast state land selections that would complicate our claims. The state was attempting to make selections around the railbelt between Anchorage and Fairbanks which prompted objections from Indian villages in the vicinity.

As it turned out, I could only raise enough money to make an initial trip to Kotzebue. The first meeting on Land Claims in the Kotzebue region took place on Tuesday, May 24 in the BIA school. The person who had loaned me $10 to buy stamps in Fairbanks to mail the letters to the villages in early May, Harry Pannick, was on hand to help me with the first meeting. About 50 people appeared in spite of the fact that we had no means of broadcasting the meeting. It was mainly word of mouth and posters. The purpose of this meeting was: (1) to inquire if there was interest in land claims issues and if there was interest in forming an association in the Noatak, Kobuk and Selawik river drainages. (2) explain why a land claim should be made and the laws on which the claims would be based. (3) to explain that other regions in Alaska were moving ahead with claims. (4) to explain the Tlingit-Haida settlement. (5) to explain Senator Gruening's interest in a cash settlement and his view that Natives were being "obstructionists" by filing the claims. (6) Emphasize the need for the villages in the Kotzebue area to make a regional claim and (7) to hear local people make a statement. Those who did speak were Tony Joule, Jacob Stalker, Harry Pannick and Tommy Fields. The conclusion was that an assembly of representatives from each village should not be delayed long in order that a claim could be made for the region. A decision was made to meet again on June 10.

On June 1st, I again wrote each village council to announce the June 10th meeting at which time we would have a BIA realty officer and someone from the Bureau of Land Management come to discuss land claims, allotments, Native townsites, restricted and unrestricted deeds and other issues. In that letter I stated that in the May 24th meeting "There was much interest shown in a regional association such as the North Slope Native Association in Barrow. There is no doubt that such an organization would help our area in many ways. It would give us a bigger voice in how our towns and people develop."

Each village was encouraged to select one or two representatives to attend the June 10th meeting or to write a letter appointing someone from the village who was in Kotzebue. Or as a last resort, they could ask me to represent them. I concluded the letter by stating that "This will be one of the most important steps in deciding our own future."

The meeting on land claims that took place in Kotzebue on June 10th resulted in the filing of a land claim encompassing 30 million acres. There were delegates from Ambler (Mark Cleveland), Noatak (Dana Naylor), Kiana (Eugene Geffe), Kivalina (Oscar Swan), Deering (they asked me to represent them) and another 70 people from Kotzebue.

The meeting lasted four hours and included a discussion on the general land situation and the laws on which a claim would be based, claims that were being made by other Native groups, allotments, townsites and Native townsites. The action taken to claim the land was a unanimous action of the people attending the meeting. I had a large map and took a large black marker to designate the area claimed on behalf of the villages sent it to the BLM in Fairbanks. On June 13th, Robert Hilton, Chief, Division of Land Office for the BLM acknowledged the June 10th "Assertion of Native Rights" and gave it the number F-035294 on behalf of the Northwest Native Association and the Village Councils of Kotzebue, Kiana, Kivalina, Kobuk, Noatak, Noorvik, Ambler, Deering, Buckland, Shungnak, Candle, Selawik and Pt. Hope. This action was important in that it froze the disposition of any lands to any third party such as the state or any applicant without the approval of the regional organization.

At this point in time, the previous general meetings we conducted were without a formal organizational structure and the land claim made as an "association" of Inupiat people. The filing I sent in to the BLM was for the "Northwest Native Association". So it became imperative that some formal structure be created.

Due to the seriousness of the times and the many events that were unfolding, an organizational meeting of what became the Northwest Alaska Native Association (NANA) was held on July 6 in Kotzebue. Those invited or attending were: Herman Banger, John Nelson, Jr., John Schaeffer, Jr., Frank Gallahorn, Noah Jessup, Charlie Sours, Louis Reich, Leo Ferreira, Lennie Lane, Jr., Douglas Sheldon, Percy Ipalook, Jr., Harvey Vestal, Clarence Allen, Ronald Brown, Ernest Norton, Willie Hensley, Vernon Richards, Dick Curtis, Margaret Russell, Elmer Armstrong and Herman Reich.

The group selected officers and a board of directors and took a series of actions. Elected President was John Schaeffer, Jr; Harvey Vestal, 1st Vice President; Dick Curtis, 2nd Vice President; Margaret Russell, Secretary; John Nelson, Jr., Treasurer; Ernest Norton, Historian and Willie Hensley was appointed Executive Director. Other directors elected were Lennie Lane, Jr., Percy Ipalook, Jr. and Ronald Brown.

The purpose of the organization was to speak on behalf of the NANA region in a strong voice; pursue a land claims settlement; educate the Inupiat on how to secure allotments and titles to property; improve housing, education, health and economic conditions; to participate in the political process; to promote and enhance the Inupiaq culture; and to communicate and interact with other Native organizations that existed or were in the process of being formed.

The group proceeded to let the world know of its existence. Inasmuch as 1966 was an election year we promptly issued a press release announcing support for the incumbent, Bob Bartlett for U.S. Senator; Mike Gravel for U. S. Representative; Bill Egan for Governor and Willie Hensley for State Representative. Harvey Vestal was selected as head of the Membership Committee and Willie Hensley to set up the next general meeting.

The press release by NANA stated: "Under the stimulation of the controversy generated by the selection of Native lands by the state, the Eskimos of Northwest Alaska have united to preserve and insure the continued use and occupation of their traditional lands."

The announcement also indicated that they would actively promote development while insuring participation of Eskimo people as well as working to improve social and economic conditions and political involvement.

This is how the initial formation of the Northwest Alaska Native Association came about. I must add that Noatak, through Charlie Bailey was one of the first to respond to my initial letter of May 6th as well as Evelyn Conwell, city clerk for Kotzebue who was encouraging when she indicated that there was positive interest in the land claims issue.