Native leader and land claims pioneer passes away at 84

Don Wright with President Richard Nixon. Courtesy of Doyon Ltd.
Don Wright with President Richard Nixon. Courtesy of Doyon Ltd.

A driving force behind the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) and former president of the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN), CIRI shareholder Don Wright passed away peacefully in his home in Kenai on July 5. He was 84.

Wright was born in Nenana in 1929. His father was of Athabascan descent from the village of Tanana and his mother was from Wyoming. He impacted the state through his work in construction, air service in the Interior, community organizations and his immense ability to connect with people from all walks of life, which eventually landed him in politics. He will be remembered most for the pivotal role he played in seeking the fairest settlement possible for Alaska Native people during a tumultuous era.

As AFN president from 1970 to 1972, Wright fought to secure Alaska Native land rights, meeting with President Nixon in 1971 to encourage the nation’s leader to pass the bill that would grant 40 million acres to Alaska Native people and create today’s Alaska Native corporations.

CIRI Chair Emeritus Roy Huhndorf stated, “Don was the right man for the challenging time. He was a tough negotiator and skillful leader.”

Dedicated to settling Alaska Native land claims, Wright spent nights sleeping on the streets in Washington, D.C., and maxed out his credit card to pay for 20 individuals from Alaska to travel with him to lobby for the legislation.

“He was in a very difficult position because we were desperately trying to hold the [AFN] organization together,” Willie Hensley told the Alaska Dispatch News. “We had no funding but he was able to work with the Nixon administration to get their backing for the settlement. We were also able to secure loans from some tribes – I think we borrowed about $800,000 – and he was a big factor in securing that funding.”

“The President and the Congress must decide whether this last chapter [of land rights] is to be written in dignity or dishonor,” Wright had said. On that same day, April 6, 1971, President Nixon sent the ANCSA bill to Congress.

“Don was a visionary. He could see what was possible and knew what it took to make that happen,” said Clare Swan, a former CIRI Director and current chair of Cook Inlet Tribal Council. “His testimony to Congress during the land claims legislation was incredible. It was always about what was best for the people. He was rather prophetic.”

Despite Wright’s declining health in recent years, he was able to attend a 40th anniversary event of the settlement act at the University of Alaska Anchorage three years ago. “It was an important chance to honor Wright’s efforts,” Hensley said.

In addition to helping to build the state and producing positive results, Mr. Wright enjoyed subsistence hunting and fishing, which supported his love for cooking. He is remembered as an impeccable host, welcoming family, friends and strangers into his hand-built Alaskan log cabin on the Chena River.

Mr. Wright is survived by his brothers Alfred, Gareth (wife Miranda) and Jules Wright; former wife and mother of his children Carol Segura; his children Chuck Casper, Darlene Wright, Donald “Sonny” Wright (wife Rosa), George Wright, and Gareth Wright (wife Eileen), 12 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.

A funeral and memorial was held in Nenana, Alaska on July 26, followed by a traditional potlatch at at the Chief Mitchell A. Demientieff Tribal Hall.