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Native leader Don Wright dies at 84

Alex DeMarban
Don Wright, who lobbied for passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act as president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, with President Richard Nixon.
Courtesy Doyon Ltd.

Alaska Native leader Don Wright, who played a pivotal role in the Native land-claims movement decades ago, died peacefully in his home on Saturday. He was 84.

A pilot and contractor who helped build Alaska, Wright’s most lasting work began in the 1960s, when he and others organized the Alaska Federation of Natives as the land-claims movement gained steam.

Wright was president of the organization when President Richard Nixon signed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act into law in 1971, creating today’s Native corporations -- some rank among the state’s strongest economic forces today -- and providing 44 million acres and $1 billion.  

Wright fought to get the fairest settlement possible for Alaska Natives, according to an account of his life published in the Anchorage Daily News in 2007. It wasn’t easy. With little money available from AFN, he recounted sleeping on the streets in Washington, D.C., in order to be part of the battle on Capitol Hill.

“I traveled on foot, and a few times I had to sleep on the street by the hot air vents,” he said.  

Wright also talked of maxing out his credit card to fly more than 20 Alaska Natives to the capitol to lobby for the act, until he could be repaid by AFN. “I had no choice as both AFN and I were broke. I got into trouble, but eventually AFN did pay me back,” he said.

Willie Hensley, who worked with Wright and others during the land-claims movement, called Wright’s death a huge loss.  

Wright helped keep AFN together in its early days, Hensley said. Today, it’s the most prominent political group fighting for Native issues.

“He was in a very difficult position because we were desperately trying to hold the organization together,” said Hensley. “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.”

Doyon Ltd., the Fairbanks-based regional Alaska Native corporation created by the act, distributed an obituary on Thursday.

“During his tireless efforts to fight for Alaska Native land claims, Don Wright was instrumental in this historical feat against immense odds,” the statement said. “His commanding personality helped create connections with various valued dignitaries and political advocates which produced positive changes for Alaska Native peoples. Don’s legacy in this matter is priceless to his family and will indubitably affect many future generations of Alaskans.”

Wright was born in Nenana in 1929, to an Athabascan father and a mother from Idaho. He later learned to fly and launched an air service in the Interior village, he said. He also formed a construction company that built air fields and roads throughout the state. Driving the heavy equipment himself, he helped build the first oil-field camp at Prudhoe Bay, before the Dalton Highway was put in, he said in the 2007 account.

Later that decade, Wright focused his energy on the settlement act.   

“He will be revered for his many contributions to family and the Alaskan community,” the obituary sent by Doyon said. “He impacted the state through his work in construction, flight, steamboats, community organization and his immense ability to connect with people from all walks of life which eventually landed him in politics.”

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, said Hensley. It was an important chance to honor Wright’s efforts, Hensley said.

“He was there in a wheelchair and his family was there and it was as a wonderful opportunity to give him his due in a public fashion,” Hensley said.

Don’s funeral and burial will be in Nenana on July 26 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., the obituary said. A traditional potlatch will be held at 6 p.m. The events will take place at the Chief Mitchell A. Demientieff Tribal Hall.

The family has asked that instead of flowers, wright's friends may donate to Alaska USA Federal Credit Union #1859452, payable to Kami Wright.