Alaska Native land claims defender passes

A courageous decision more than forty years ago opened the way for Alaska Native people to fight for and win a settlement of their ancestral claims to land in Alaska.

In 1966, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall froze the selection of lands in Alaska by the state until Alaska Native land claims could be resolved. By doing so, he created an unprecedented opportunity for the newly organized Alaska Native land claims movement to press for and eventually win passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA).

“One of the other things that I took most satisfaction in the last two years, and again the President and his people gave me support right down the line on this – was in championing the cause of the Alaskan natives and their desire to have land in Alaska,” said Udall in an interview in 1969.

The struggle for Alaska Native rights and lands had been ongoing since the 18th century, with little success. By the 1960s, although Alaska Native people comprised about one-fifth of Alaska’s population, they were in the majority throughout rural Alaska, living in small villages. Away from Alaska’s urban areas, their traditional use of the land continued as it always had.

The emergence of new threats to Alaska Native land rights in the 1960s galvanized Alaska Native communities into greater awareness of the need to respond to these threats. Local and regional organizations such as Inupiat Paitot, Fairbanks Native Association, Association of Village Council Presidents, Gwitchya Gwitchin Ginkhye (Yukon Flats People Speak), Tlingit-Haida Central Council and Cook Inlet Native Association formed and began to press their claims. Howard Rock’s “Tundra Times” newspaper gave Alaska Natives a means of communication statewide. Village councils became increasingly vocal with their concerns over land use and selections such as the proposed Rampart Dam.

The chief threat to Alaska Native land rights came from the Alaska Statehood Act, which, while recognizing Alaska Native land rights, did nothing to assure those rights. The Act also authorized the state of Alaska to select 103 million acres of land in Alaska, which the state began to do without consulting Alaska Native groups.

In October 1966 a strong statewide Alaska Native organization formed, the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN). Seventeen Native organizations were represented at its first meeting; at last, Alaska Native communities had an organization with the focus and resources to represent their interests. However, AFN still lacked leverage powerful enough to compel the state and federal governments to consider its claims.

Then, just a couple months later, Udall implemented his land freeze, and the issue of Alaska Native land claims took center stage in the development of the young state of Alaska.

“And I put a freeze on; I deliberately picked a head-on fight with the state of Alaska and said we weren’t going to let them select further lands until the natives got their lands,” said Udall. “We said we weren’t going to allow the State of Alaska to preempt land and property that the natives of Alaska were entitled to. What I was doing essentially was saying ‘Well, we’ve made all these mistakes in the past.’ The one area where we still have an opportunity to come up with the right policies initially was in Alaska, and at least we were going to try and achieve that.”

Udall’s land freeze brought pressure to bear on Congress, the State of Alaska and the oil industry to settle Alaska Native land claims, opening the way for Alaska Native leaders and AFN to advocate for a fair settlement. Their efforts culminated in the enactment of ANCSA in 1971.

Udall passed away on March 20 at home in Sante Fe, N.M. Who was this man who picked a “head-on fight” to ensure that Alaska Natives were given the chance to defend their ancestral claims to their land, all but ignored for centuries?

Udall’s ties to the West played a strong role in his experience and outlook. He was born and raised in Arizona, the son of a Mormon pioneer family. He served in the U.S. Air Force as a gunner during World War II. After the war, he earned a law degree and opened a law practice with his brother in Tucson, Ariz. He was elected to Congress in 1954 and served in the U.S. House of Representatives until 1960, when President John F. Kennedy appointed him as Secretary of the Interior. Udall served under both Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson in this role for eight years.

Udall’s constituency as a congressman covered all of Arizona except Phoenix, including a number of Native American tribes and reservations.

“They were part of my constituency, which gave me a great deal of insight,” said Udall. “In fact you had enough diversity of people and problems that it was a fairly good cross-section.”

This insight was evident in Udall’s understanding of the diversity of Native American cultures and peoples.

“The problem is so complex, because there isn’t an Indian problem, there are eighty to ninety various Indian groups all over the West, in Alaska, all the villages in Alaska, and people with different resources, different leadership capabilities, different relationships to local governments. Therefore the problem is very diverse, has many facets to it…,” said Udall.

Leadership was a family trait for the Udalls. Stewart’s grandfather, David King Udall, served in the Arizona Territorial Legislature. His father, Levi Udall, served as a judge in the Arizona Superior Court and Arizona Supreme Court. Stewart’s younger brother Morris Udall succeeded him in Congress and served for 30 years in the U.S. House of Representatives. Stewart’s son, Tom Udall, was elected as a U.S. senator from New Mexico in 2009, and his nephew, Mark Udall, was elected as a U.S. senator from Colorado in 2008.

Stewart Udall was a dedicated conservationist who left an enduring impact on the country during his terms as Secretary of the Interior. He presided over extensive increases in federal land holdings, including four national parks, six national monuments, eight national seashores and lakeshores, nine national recreation areas, 56 wildlife refuges and 20 historic sites. Udall’s legislative achievements include The Wilderness Act of 1964, The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and the creation of The Land and Water Conservation Fund.

But for Alaska Native people, he will always be remembered for his principled defense of their land claims and his courageous secretarial order that eventually led to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.