kelenga | focus
50 typography
A look back on ANCSA with Native land claims advocate Marlene Johnson
By Vera Starbard (Tlingit/Dena’ina)
Marlene Johnson portrait
Photo courtesy of Huna Totem.
Fifty years ago, Alaska Native land claims were still in the midst of negotiations between federal and state governments, and Alaska Native governments and leaders. The passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) in December of 1971 was still months away, and Tlingit activist Marlene Johnson was chairman of RuralCAP, and Vice President for the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska — not to mention a business owner, Hoonah school board president, and mother.

Marlene would become an integral part of the work toward Alaska Native land claims, which ultimately became ANCSA, regional and village corporations, and the landmark system it is fifty years later.

First Alaskans Magazine sat down with Marlene to get a look back on fifty years of ANCSA.

In recognition of 50 years since passage of the land claims known as the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, First Alaskans will be publishing stories throughout the year to share more voices, impacts, and stories about our peoples’ fight to hold onto our lands.

How would you describe your role in the passage of ANCSA?
I was one of the vice presidents of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida, and John Borbridge was our president. I traveled with him and supported him in his lobby in DC and sometimes to Florida, but primarily in DC. My role was to meet with the groups and listen to what they wanted. And if it was something we were concerned about, take it back to our group we’d discuss it and see if we could agree or get it changed. Just lobbying and listening and working with all the other Native groups from Alaska. That started in the morning and went until late in the evening.

In DC we were lobbying in 1968, ‘69, ’70. At different times we’d go back when our congressional delegation would let us know that we should be there. I was good friends with Sen. Nick Begich, so I got to meet with him a number of times to pass on what we felt we had to have. He worked very closely with us, he worked very, very good on the passage of land claims from the very beginning.

What was your biggest concern regarding Alaska Native land rights prior to the passage of ANCSA?
That congress would pass something that was acceptable to all regions of the state. There was a lot of discussions between the regions and the different people, and there were some disagreements. The big worry was to make sure we got something that all of us could agree on.
How do you think your experience as a woman in the 1960s and 70s was different than that of the men in the work toward passing ANCSA?
One of the big things is I was the only woman on the Tlingit and Haida executive committee. But before that I was the chairman of RuralCAP, and I traveled all over the state and got to meet a lot of people and got to know the leadership. So I kinda got to know what they wanted. Being a woman chairman of RuralCAP was not an everyday thing. But I was fairly outspoken and I got along with most of the leadership of most of the regions, and I’m still friends with a lot of those are still left. That was one of the big things.
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There was a lot of discussions between the regions and the different people, and there were some disagreements. The big worry was to make sure we got something that all of us could agree on.
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You were one of the original founders of Sealaska. What were the biggest challenges in founding a regional corporation?
Clarence Jackson, myself and John Borbridge signed the incorporation papers. One of the biggest issues was to get people to sign up to be shareholders, to believe that we could do that. And that we had the support of the Tlingit and Haida Central Council, and to let them know that we were not doing away with Tlingit and Haida, that we were forming another corporation with a board of directors with the money from land claims, and that we were going to select land. That was quite an undertaking, informing all the potential shareholders of what we were doing.

A lot of our shareholders (that weren’t our shareholders then) didn’t understand what being a shareholder was. We had to do a lot of informational meetings and travel — all over Southeast, Anchorage, Fairbanks, Seattle — anywhere we had potential shareholders. It didn’t take long for those people with a little knowledge to help and understand us. It was an interesting activity.

Was what we have now what you imagined us looking like 50 years later? What is not what you imagined?
It’s not what we imagined. We were land-based, and we still are to a degree. But I don’t think we thought we would get into quite as many activities, get diversified quite as much as we did. Selecting the land of course was a really a big deal and a hard activity. We used a lot more land than we were allowed to select. Having to select land around the villages to make sure the villages were satisfied.

It’s changed, all businesses change. We were first a timber business, and seafood. Those were two things that were natural to our people. We got into a seafood business and we were in it for a number of years and did very well. And of course timber, we formed Sealaska Timber. We did harvesting, plus we purchased the timber from the villages, or did contracts with them to cut their timber. It was a very involved activity for the first few years.

What’s a good story or memory about trying to pass ANCSA, or the foundations of ANCSA, that you wish more people knew?
I wish we were able to tell people about the support of Nick Begich, and when the politicians — the state and national politicians — we thought we had a deal made. We made the deal at night, and Nick was on a charter flight going to Chicago, and he got a call from his office telling him what happened (changing the deal we made about the land base and the amount of money we were agreeing on.) He turned around, came back to DC, came and met with us, and told us what was happening. All of the Native leadership, we went and were able to get it stopped, get it back on track to what it was supposed to be. That was very important and I’ll forever thank Nick for that.
What is ANCSA?

Interview with Marlene for ANCSA’s 30th Anniversary

Story from ANCSA’s 40th anniversary

How has ANCSA changed the state of Alaska as a whole—whether Native or non-Native?
When you talk about Southeast and all of our villages and their activities, and business activities, and the impact Sealaska has had, as other Native communities have had. We’ve had quite an impact, and the other regions, their Native leadership has had quite an impact. We’ve had quite an impact on Alaska.
People from all over the world study ANCSA when it comes to Indigenous land rights. What do you think the biggest lesson should be?
That Indigenous rights — the rights of the people that were there before — should be recognized. I think that’s the biggest thing. For Tlingit and Haida, all of our villages, they were able to surround and put their arms around the land that belonged to their forefathers, and will belong to their grandkids. That’s really important.
What do you see the greatest benefit of the passage of ANCSA is?
Probably the greatest benefit is the land going to the aboriginal people. The village corporations getting their land, Sealaska getting regional land, the land that belonged to our people now belongs to our people. That’s probably the biggest benefit — other than dividends of course.

For a lot of people that don’t have a lot of money, and don’t have year-round employment, particularly village people and Elders, the dividend is very, very important. It has a very important impact on their lives and their ability to survive.

What do you think still needs work in regards to ANCSA and Alaska Native land rights? What battles still need to be fought?
All of the issues that we as a people have, that our corporations have, they’re all important, and we have to stay on top of it and keep working it. Making sure the politicians know our groups are important, and our people are important. We as a whole can elect or un-elect somebody.
Did you foresee fifty years ago that Alaska Native people would have the political power they would have right now?
I’m not sure — I knew that they were going to be a group that needed to be reckoned with. I learned that while I was at RuralCAP. That if we stuck together, we’d have an impact if we did things. If we stick together we can get a lot done. That doesn’t mean we agree on every issue, because we don’t. Something that may be good for another region may not be good for us, or what’s good for us may not be good for another region. But those issues we have in common, we need to stick together on.

And we have some people that worked really hard. I’m thinking of some that are still around, Aaron Isaacs out of Klawock, Gilbert Gunderson from Wrangell — these guys really worked hard in traveling around and meeting with people in getting what we needed with land claims done. And several of course that are gone now — Byron Mallott, Kahill, Richard Kito, Leonard, Roger Lang — there’s a whole load of them. These guys worked really hard. They’re gone, but their work is never going to be forgotten.

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They were able to put their arms around the land that belonged to their forefathers, and will belong to their grandkids.
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What do you think the next 50 years will look like for Alaska Native land rights?
That’s really hard to say, but I think that some of the village corporations will do more developing, a lot of them still have timber to cut. The regional corporation hopefully will be able to acquire additional land and work with the village corporations to make everybody successful. It’s just going take a lot of hard work depending on what’s happening politically and economically.
Any last thoughts on ANCSA’s 50th Anniversary?
I think people need to know those people that fought for ANCSA were dedicated to the people of their region and Alaska. I’ve heard comments about all the big money the board members get. When we formed Sealaska, we got our transportation and expenses paid — we didn’t get any fees. We traveled all over. Those people working for the corporations and the passage of land claims were doing it out of love for the people and love for the land. I really appreciate them. That’s why I’m so appreciative of people like Willie Hensley and Emil Notti, and others that have passed on now—others that were so dedicated and worked so hard. I will always remember them.
Vera Marlene Starbard is a Tlingit and Dena’ina artist and editor of First Alaskans Magazine — as well as Marlene Johnson’s granddaughter. She is also writer in residence at Perseverance Theatre and writer for the Molly of Denali animated children’s program on PBS KIDS.