Shareholder remembers her father’s ANCSA efforts

Darlene Wright remembers exactly where she was 40 years ago when the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) became law. She was among those crammed shoulder-to-shoulder in a room at what is now Alaska Pacific University as President Nixon announced via speakerphone he had signed legislation that would shape the future of Alaska Native people, as well as development of the state.

A teenager at the time, the now-CIRI shareholder recalls how her family’s home became a gathering place for settlement activists, a place of constant coming and going, where her mother’s moose soup and her grandmother’s bread and cinnamon rolls helped fuel the fight. Her father, CIRI shareholder Donald Wright, was president of the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) back then. Under the slogan, “Take our land, take our life,” he was among those working tirelessly on the issue.

“I told President Nixon that the historical dimensions of this legislation are immense,” he reported to AFN. “Either it will go down in history as the most enlightened and equitable act of the U.S. Government toward Native Americans, or it will be recorded as merely the last chapter of a tragic record of expropriation of Native American land and property rights. The president and the Congress must decide whether this last chapter is to be written in dignity or dishonor.”

The effort to secure Alaska Native land rights began when the serious implications of the state’s land selection of more than one hundred million acres under the Alaska Statehood Act of 1958 came to be understood. The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission’s proposed plan to detonate a string of nuclear devices at Cape Thompson on Alaska’s North Slope in 1958 also helped to galvanize Alaska Native leaders to take action to establish aboriginal land rights. In 1966, then-Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall imposed a land freeze that halted the issuance of oil leases on federal lands.

In October 1967, AFN members met, resolved their differences, including overlapping land claims, and became a unified voice. The discovery of oil and plans to build the trans-Alaska pipeline in 1968 magnified the issue to the nation and created further pressure to settle. After decades of struggle, the ANCSA settlement, signed by President Nixon on Dec. 18, 1971, provided about 44 million acres of land and $963 million for the creation of 12 regional and more than 200 village corporations charged with improving shareholders’ quality of life. The pen Nixon used to sign the Act was given to Donald Wright as a gift.

His daughter doesn’t remember any big celebration.  

“In our home it was relief. And then it was, ‘What’s next?’