Forgotten tribe

Alaska’s leaders of 1959 surround President Dwight D. Eisenhower at the signing of the Alaska Statehood Act/White House photo

Once again, an Alaska leader is in a battle with federal officialdom more than 3,000 miles away on the opposite coast of the North American continent.

This time it is Gov. Mike Dunleavy pressing to retain state control of the 49th state’s navigable waters in a dispute eerily mimicking the experiences of the Indian tribes of the American West.

The Great White Father in Washington, D.C., seems to find it easier to make promises than to keep promises through the years.

In this particular case, promises made with the intent of furthering the development of what was nicknamed “The Last Frontier” at statehood are up against desires to “save” the last great American wilderness.

The struggle has its roots in the emergence of the American environmental movement.

Much changed in the few short years between Alaska Statehood in 1959 and Earth Day only 11 years later, and the changes have continued ever since. The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) more than doubled the size of the National Park System in 1980.

“Today about 60 percent of all land managed by the National Park Service is in Alaska,” the agency says, although the 663,267 square miles of Alaska comprises but 19 percent of the more than 3.5 million square miles covered by all 50 U.S. states.

About 9.1 percent of the state is national parks. The only state with a greater percentage is Hawaii with 9.4 percent. California is third at 7.5 percent. Thirty-six states have less than 2 percent of their land covered by strictly regulated parks.

And the 54 million acres of parklands in ANILCA were only part of that package.

Along with creating 10 new national parks and preserves, the act established 25 wild and scenic rivers, nine national wildlife refuges, two national monuments and two national conservation areas that preserved 104 million acres of the state.

Another 112,845 square miles remained under the control of the federal Bureau of Land Management, an agency trying to polish its tarnished image as the domain of a rape, ruin and run gang in the early days of the U.S. West.

Western lawmakers tired of the growing preservationist attitudes in the agency lobbied President Donald Trump to move the headquarters staff west to be where they would be in closer contact with the people using lands managed by the agency.

Trump granted their wish last year. Almost 280 of the people occupying the 328 positions slated to move up and quit, reported Colorado Public Radio.

“…Several experts, including former high-ranking Interior officials, said the shake-up has deprived the agency of needed expertise and disrupted its operations,” the Washington Post reported in January. “The bureau oversees all oil and gas drilling on federal lands, which has emerged as a flashpoint in the early days of the Biden administration.”

This is the post-Frontier American West of which Alaska is a large part.

Times change

Change is one of the few guarantees in life. People change. Economies change. Societies change.

How much Alaska has changed is writ simply in the 1960 Census of Population for the new state.

U.S. officials that year recorded the new state home to but 226,167 inhabitants – 174,546 “white” and 51,621 “non-white.” Among the non-white, there were reported to be 6,771 of “Negro” descent; 14,444 “Indian”; several hundred each of Japanese, Chinese and Filipinos; and 28,637 “All Other.”

The Indian population was clearly undercounted. Eleven years later, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 (ANSCA) enrolled about 80,000 in 13 Native corporations. 

The Claims Act was the second of the two biggest changes to rock the state in the years immediately after Statehood. The first was an elephantine pool of oil hidden beneath the frozen tundra near Prudhoe Bay on the state’s North Slope.

Before oil Alaska was a land so poor it faced a tough, uphill road to Statehood.

“One of the strongest arguments against Alaskan statehood had been that with such
a narrow tax base and an unseemly dependence on federal handouts, Alaska could never
be independent enough to even begin to pay its own way,” the late University of Alaska history Terrence Cole has written, though this was not the only criticism.

“The typical arguments made against Alaska statehood (were) noncontiguity with the rest of the country, lack of population, inadequate political maturity, and meager financial resources,” Eric Gislason observed in “A Brief History of Alaska Statehood” written while he was at the University of Virginia.

And then, as now, fishery politics – or what has come simply to be called “fishtics” in Alaska – were in the mix.

“Additionally, Rep. Thomas Pelly of Washington state demanded the right for his constituents to fish Alaskan waters on the same basis as residents,” Gislason wrote. “An amendment was subsequently drafted seeking retention of federal jurisdiction over Alaska’s fish and game resources until the Secretary of the Interior certified to Congress that the state met provisions for their conservation and nonresident access.

“The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner responded to Pelly’s petulance by printing excerpts from Edna Ferber’s impassioned novel “Ice Palace.” The passages featured the character of Thor Storm, the grizzled Nordic pioneer, informing his granddaughter, Christine, about the legacy of Seattle and San Francisco cannery operators’ unmerciful exploitation of Alaska’s fisheries. Ferber’s book had sold well and widely. Ice Palace had such an educative effect on the nation’s populace that one critic was moved to refer to it as “the ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ of Alaska Statehood.”

Still the territorial fisheries, unlike those of today which barely generate enough tax revenue to cover the cost of management and policing, were a vital source of revenue for the territory.

“Back then, salmon played the role that oil later played,” the Alaska Historical Society records. “Fish taxes provided 80 percent of the revenues for the territorial government and the services it provided. Salmon canneries generated most of that: 4 percent of the value of raw fish. Fish traps were also heavily taxed: $1,200 per trap permit, plus 5 to 25 cents per fish on top of that, depending on volume, and even more. This was partly punitive. Alaskans hated fish traps and taxing them heavily was a profitable way to discourage traps.”

Shaped by oil

Oil changed everything. It sparked the demand for the settlement to aboriginal claims to all of the land in the state and in the process led a lot of Alaskans who had previously claimed to be white or other to embrace their heritage.

When the 1960 census data is broken down in greater detail it is revealing in this regard. The Native community of Kotzebue above the Arctic Circle in Northwest Alaska was reported to have a population of 265 “white,” nine “negro,” and 1,016 “other” in 1960.

Today about 74 percent of Kotzebue residents identify as “American Indian and Alaska Native alone” with the “white alone” population at 512. There is no category for “halfbreeds,” a term once common in Alaska that amazingly still hangs on in the remote village of Aniak on the Kuskokwim River where students at the local school in the 1970s named their sports teams The Halfbreeds.

Along with changing how Alaska Natives viewed themselves and how other Alaskans viewed them, the Claims Act – a treaty of sorts to take the place of reservations – granted them 44 million acres of land and nearly $1 billion that along with other federal legislation to follow helped make the Native-only corporations created by the act some of the biggest and most powerful businesses in the state.

They formed 19 of the top 20 in the Alaska Business 2020 Top 49ers list of successful companies.

Meanwhile, the Statehood Act – itself a treaty of sorts with those fewer than 225,000 early Alaskans – set the stage for a flood of revenue into state coffers and the creation of the Permanent Fund Corporation that now manages a $74 billion investment fund that helps provide all Alaskans an annual dividend of $1,000 or more.

Oil wealth and the dividend, for better or worse, radically changed the national view of Alaska from the once poor state to the stinking rich state, a view that might more than anything have shaped Alaska’s future since the 1970s.

By late in that decade, in the wake of the Arab oil embargo, Alaskans were joking about how they had become the “blue-eyed Arabs of the north,” an image that would come to haunt them as the pressure built to preserve wildlands and curtail or “even eliminate, Western states’ ability to raise revenues through severance taxes on resources removed from their soil,” as Sara Terry wrote in the Christian Science Monitor in 1982.

She also observed that “in the 23 years since statehood, relations between Washington and Alaska have been difficult at best. The situation has been inflamed, certainly, by what Alaskans see as the federal government’s heavy hand in the divvying up their state….But today tempers no longer flare as they once did.

“Some residents still complain about the 1980 Lands Act, which gave the federal government 225 million acres of Alaskan land, and fret that the transfer of 104 million acres to state control has been too slow. But observers note general relief that the controversy finally has been settled.”

But the controversies never really ended.

At the heart of them remained the Statehood Act – that treaty of sorts that the federal government made with the fewer than 225,000 members of the tribe of Alaska in 1959. The deal was to ensure that Alaska was generally treated like all the other states, but it hasn’t worked out that way.

Along with seizing or trying to seize powers over navigable waters elsewhere managed by the states, the federal government has repeatedly interfered in the management of fish and wildlife, a role long reserved to the states; tried to pre-empt a state determination as to whether it is safe to mine the Pebble Project – a copper, gold and silver find potentially worth billions of dollars; stopped work on a road it was hoped would connect the fishing community of Cordova to the state highway system; and more.

That many Alaskans supported these federal interventions doesn’t negate the fact they deviated from the agreement made at statehood that Alaska would manage Alaska affairs, though it’s not like the state’s residents have been made to suffer.

Times changes, and on balance, the change in Alaska has been generally for the better.

Of the more than 60 percent of the population reported to be living rural in 1960, a significant number were still living off the land. It was an unimaginably hard life, a life few today could survive.

Even in a romanticized film from that time, sleeping in a bed where the pillow is a “log,” starting the fire in a flimsy wood stove every morning to warm a tiny cabin, cutting wood by hand at 30 degrees below zero, chopping ice to melt for water and just general surviving looks like a staggering task.

Not that anything in Alaska of 60 years ago was much like the Alaska of today. Anchorage, then already the state’s largest city, was home to barely more than 44,000 people. The George Parks Highway connecting it to Fairbanks wouldn’t open until 1971.

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough, now a booming bedroom community outside of Anchorage, was home to the farming community of Palmer, population 1,181, and Wasilla, a stop on the Alaska Railroad, with a population of 112.

The Census, which at the time broke population numbers down into urban, urban-fringe and rural, recorded no “urban fringe” in the new, 49th state, and only seven places numbering 2,500 or more people.

“Spenard,” long since swallowed by Anchorage, was one of the seven that made the list. The state’s “native” population was then defined as resident, the distinction of being Alaska Native with a capital “N” having yet to arise.

Less than a third of that “native” population reported having been born in Alaska. Of those living rural, almost 20,000 were reported to be living “without income” on a true subsistence lifestyle, and more than 45,000 – about a third of the rural population – were getting by on less than $1,500 per year (about $13,300 when corrected for inflation as of today).

Suffice to say, the Alaska with which the federal government cut a deal at the end of the 1950s was a far different place than the Alaska of today, and the U.S. Congress knew it. Alaskans of today are much better off.

Whether that grants the federal government the authority to tamper with the deal it made is a value judgment, but tamper it has.

15 replies »

  1. Ive got to say it appears dunleavy has spine and is forward thinking. As he says ,Alaskans have the right to use and manage their own waters and the lands beneath them. Dunleavy if you run for Governor again i will give you my vote for standing up for Alaskans and our liberty. The feds have no just right to say anything about our lands and water . Good job Dunleavy for following through on this legal fight! Vote Dunleavy!

    • DPR,
      I agree…it appears Governor Dunleavy is standing up to this Biden cabal front and center.
      It is about to get more serious in 2021 then 2020 as the Dems attempt to roll out basic income through more stimmies & their newest attack on personal liberty (the vaccine passport).
      The articles of confederation guaranteed free movement around this country for all U.S. Citizens.
      The Constitution further addressed this…as did MANY court cases that set strong precedence in America.
      I also suspect we see some strong attacks on the second amendment in the next few years…buckle up it is about to be a bumpy ride the next few year down the road.

  2. Kelly, Kelly, Kelly 2022!!!! Problem solved.. Murkowski enjoy your Chinese food with Uncle Joe and Mitch.

  3. We need to set Alaskas lawyers to fighting federal income taxes. Its not right. Its not morally acceptable to force people to pay for things they don’t agree with and enable an immoral and corrupt federal government. The time has come for states to stand up and and abolish federal income tax in any form . Its very divisive and prejudiced. Disgustingly biased. Not to mention a distict relic of slavery by the king!

  4. We should all come together as one tribe . The federal racism decisions were a travesty. Every one should have a right to be in a tribe.

  5. Time to move the capital to the central part of Alaska so more people can be fully involved. Eliminate land taxes based on value to encourage long term investment,artists and building of beautiful structures/ ranches/ farms ect . Perhaps implement a modest state sales and import tax. If bouroughs have a land tax it should only be a one time tax . My land in Denali borough has no taxes at all . A more straightforward tax on all natural goods harvested for profit from Alaska would be wise . Stream line it a bit . If you make money off Alaskas resources as a business then a tax should be in order. Be it Washington fishermen or Canadian mining interests. The tax could be partially based on danger to the environment with money going into an investment fund to pay for any long term reclamation for buisnesses that fail and cant up hold their responsibilities. There should be absolutely no federal lands or parks in Alaska . Let Alaskans manage them for a profit if needed. The feds have no full understanding of our needs and we dont need to be babies relying on moma fed . It damages thought and independence. Where is the pride ? Our state system needs complete overhaul.

    • From the Statehood Act:
      The Submerged Lands Act of 1953 (Public Law 31, Eighty third Congress, first session; 67 Stat. 29) shall be applicable to the State of Alaska and the said State shall have the same rights as do existing States thereunder.

  6. All I see is a governor in way over his head,constantly hobbled by misguided and continually loosing legal grounds.
    He’s abdicated his real responsibilities and now needs a strawman topic to wrap his flag around.
    While the navigable water issue seems to have some legal merit,its counter weighted by his admins horrible legal standing record.
    He’s tried to fashion himself as a mini me to Trump.
    Issue by decree,argue the merits later..
    All the while,the state continues to go more broke,due to lack of leadership.
    The pandemic relief $’s,will be like a mini excon valdez.
    Great while it lasted,but still no long term viable solutions..

  7. Not too focused on the chest pumping with Washington, but I am concerned that Mike Dunleavy will once again re-instate the “emergency” declaration with help of his minions in AK leg…this is not the right direction that we should be heading when C-19 cases are around 150 a day.
    The depressing thing is that this is all being done in the legislature for the main reason of continuing increased welfare benefits (including foodstamps) for those who would normally NOT qualify for these benefits.
    This is not the way to rebuild the economy after a year that C-19 fascist mandates deliberately destroyed many small businesses throughout the state.
    We are quickly moving towards a basic income, a Socialist way of doing business in America all B/C of a virus that 99.6% of the population survives from just fine.

    • The fed is like metastatic cancer . Cut it out . It reaches for more power like sugar to cancer . Remove the feds from all state borders. Turn all land and fish/game management back to Alaskan citizens. Theft is theft . The feds have twisted the laws to legalize theft. Its time to throw them from our state . Let their corrupt hands stay in DC . Give the feds no leniency . They use our tax money for immoral purposes , dragging us to the lowest denominator. Accept no more foreign wars and no more tyrant actions by a runaway federal government. Return power to those who justly own it . The people. The feds have absolutely no just right to manage our waterways nor any part of our lands . Legislate the feds out of Alaska .

      • That ship has sailed. Best to focus on getting supplies and get your self ready for the crash. The federal government debt is 130% of GDP. Total unfunded liabilities are truely insane.

      • Kevin, you are partially right but there is still time if we pulled together and threw off the federal shackles.

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