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Alaska Press Club renames award in honor of influential journalists

John Creed

In 1962, Tom Snapp and Howard Rock started a modest statewide newspaper, Tundra Times, which would prove central to the run-up and then passage nine years later of the largest Native American land claims in U.S. history.

The Alaska Press Club board in early December voted to re-name its annual First Amendment Award after these two courageous newspapermen.

The late Tom Snapp, a Korean War veteran and native of Virginia who would never lose his lilting southern drawl, first came to Alaska to visit his sister with no plans to stay. As a journalist, Snapp took a keen interest in Alaska, including Native issues. The late Howard Weyahok Rock grew up in the remote Inupiaq Eskimo village of Point Hope in Northwest Arctic Alaska, located a couple hundred miles up the coast from Kotzebue. An Army Air Force veteran, Rock served in North Africa during World War II.

Rock was a lifelong artist who knew little about journalism when he and Snapp launched Tundra Times in Fairbanks in the early 1960s. But only if Rock would be the paper's editor and publisher, said Massachusetts philanthropist Dr. Henry S. Forbes, a descendent of American author Ralph Waldo Emerson, would Forbes capitalize the project.

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Snapp, Rock Joined Forces

Snapp agreed to train Rock in newspaper publishing. The pair created the first issue of Tundra Times after setting up shop in Snapp's sister's trailer in Alaska's small, rough-hewn Interior city of Fairbanks, where the paper would publish throughout Rock's editorship but eventually move to Anchorage.

In the fight for passage in the U.S. Congress of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, Tundra Times grew into a potent and unifying voice for Alaska Natives. Rock's little newspaper picked up enormous political clout in the 1960s throughout Alaska and in Washington, DC.

ANCSA recognized Native land claims and made way for construction of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez. Signed into law by President Richard Nixon on Dec. 18, 1971, ANCSA granted Alaska's Indians, Eskimos and Aleuts title to 44 million acres of land. For lands lost in the settlement, Natives received $962.5 million to capitalize some 206 village corporations and 13 Native regional corporations, which today continue to wield considerable social and economic influence in Alaska.

Neither Snapp nor Rock ever made much money for themselves in the journalism profession. Indeed, they were lucky to cover living expenses-if that-as they dedicated themselves to shoe-leather, against-the-grain journalism in an era when reporters still filed their stories using manual typewriters. The age of computer and Internet ubiquity, round-the-clock news cycles, and a media-saturated society was still decades away in Alaska as elsewhere in the 1960s, 1970s, and even into the 1980s.

 

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Making History

The two journalists had history on their side. They worked feverishly in their craft at a time of dramatic social and economic change in Alaska and nationwide. That afforded them the opportunity to shape, not just report on, major events in Alaska history.

Fearlessly, they advanced the values so crucial to a functioning democracy and more equal society, particularly freedom of the press and freedom of speech, two of the five freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Lael Morgan worked for Rock and wrote a short history of Tundra Times as a 1972 Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow.

"Starting a Native paper at this time was very rough because there was distrust against us," said Rock for Morgan's 1972 article. "It took a lot of nerve, really. We had things thrown through the door at night, and I was threatened with beatings and things like that, but somehow we just kept right on going."

"We got into all kinds of trouble along the way," added Snapp. "One thing, the utility company asked for a much larger deposit because none of the incorporators had a credit reference. Once when I placed a long distance call that cost more than $100, the operator called back and told us we had to come down and pay the bill at once . . . in the middle of the night!

"Then there was the cost of printing. Outside I'd paid $3,000 for printing 32 times a year. Here, for 24 issues, they wanted $28,000.

"We were stepping on some awfully big toes," said Snapp.

 

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First Amendment Nominations Now Open

The Alaska Press Club board believes Tom Snapp and Howard Rock embody the kind of spirit and belief in journalism and democracy the press club seeks to spotlight in fellow Alaskans every year.  The organization seeks to recognize courageous journalists or non-journalists who are fearless when promoting or exemplifying First Amendment values.

The press club inaugurated its First Amendment Award in 2007 by recognizing Alaska's premier First Amendment attorney, D. John McKay,  after McKay's decades of advancing and defending press freedom and freedom of  speech on behalf of countless Alaskans and media organizations.

In 2008 the now-former Anchorage Daily News political cartoonist Peter Dunlap-Shohl took home the club's second First Amendment Award.

Who will be 2009's First Amendment Award recipient? The Alaska Press Club is soliciting any and all interested Alaskans to participate in this decision. You do not have to be an Alaska Press Club member to nominate individuals or organizations for the 2009 Snapp Rock First Amendment Award. Click here for the details.

The Alaska Press Club will present the Tom Snapp Howard Rock First Amendment Award at its annual awards dinner on Saturday, March 28, as the final event of the club's annual journalism conference, often called "J-Week." In 2009, J-Week is scheduled for March 26-28 at the Anchorage Senior Center. Journalists, student journalists, bloggers, citizen journalists and the general public are welcome to attend any and all conference activities, including the awards dinner.

 

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Virginia's Tom Snapp Meets Alaska's Howard Rock

Like many who migrate to the Far North from the Lower 48, Tom Snapp never expected to make Alaska his home. Snapp was merely visiting the state while on break from journalism graduate school at the University of Missouri. But the local paper was desperate for a reporter, so he hired on. By November 1961, Snapp found himself covering a statewide Native conference in Barrow, Alaska's farthest north settlement. Coincidence or not, Rock and Snapp were roommates in Barrow.

Toward the end of the Barrow meeting, Snapp kept hearing his own name popping up amid the Yup'ik and Inupiaq languages being spoken at the conference. As a newspaper reporter, Snapp was more than curious about his name getting repeated over and over.

Native leaders were discussing the possibility of Snapp working with Rock, certainly an accomplished artist but decidedly not experienced in journalism. But Rock had been destined for distinction since birth.

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Village Shaman Predicts Newborn's Fate

Indeed, when Rock was born in a sod igloo in Pt. Hope in 1911, "a shaman predicted that this boy would become a great man," writes Rock's biographer Lael Morgan.

That prophecy was thought curious among villagers, given that Rock was born a frail child who preferred art and books over the community's mainstay for survival, hunting and fishing. In fact, Rock would go on to study art at the University of Washington where he would develop admirable artistry and writing skills.

Nevertheless, his most enduring legacy would not take flight until he was a middle-aged man in his early 50s.

At the Barrow conference in 1961, Eskimo leaders wanted Snapp and Rock to start some sort of publication focusing on Native issues. Native leaders did not believe the Alaska press was giving their issues a fair shake when mentioned at all.

For example, in the late 1950s and early 1960s in Alaska, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and its head, Edward Teller, were pushing a bizarre scheme called Project Chariot. The AEC wanted to blow out a deep-water harbor between Kivalina and Pt. Hope in Northwest Alaska by detonating up to six thermonuclear bombs.

The people of Point Hope fiercely opposed Project Chariot. They feared such a potent nuclear blast-many times more powerful and than the atomic bombs the Americans dropped on Japan during World War II-would contaminate traditional fishing and hunting grounds with radioactive waste while causing unimaginable, devastation to their traditional homeland.

Not to mention the potential for radioactive fallout to be carried by prevailing winds hundreds if not thousands of miles from the blast site.

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Powerful Forces Back Project Chariot

Nevertheless, representatives of major institutions in Alaska passionately endorsed Chariot, including: business, political and religious leaders; Anchorage Times publisher Bob Atwood ("It is a wilderness with no trees, no nothing!" wrote Atwood. "Nobody would want to live there."); Fairbanks Daily News-Miner publisher C.W. Snedden; and former University of Alaska President William R. Wood, whose administration fired two professors after they publicly opposed Chariot as dangerous and wrong-headed.  (One of the professors, William O. Pruitt, in order to find work in his field, was forced to emigrate to Canada, where he eventually became a citizen and prominent scientist.)

In news and editorial pages both, Alaska's press cheerleaded Chariot. In those days, Alaska Native viewpoints received scant attention in the state's existing press.

According to author Dan O'Neill's history on Project Chariot called The Firecracker Boys, News-Miner reporter Albro Gregory repeatedly referred to the homeland of the Inupiat in and around the proposed Chariot site as "this bleak outpost."  In the Aug. 21, 1959, issue of the News-Miner, Gregory proclaimed, with no evidence beyond AEC's claims in its press releases, that "these Natives, largely living a primitive life, would not be disturbed by the proposed action or suffer future ill effects."

The reporting and editorializing by Alaska's traditional press on Project Chariot had compelled Alaska Natives and a budding environmental movement in Fairbanks, led by pilots/conservationists Celia Hunter and Ginny Wood, to find alternative ways to circulate another point of view.

"When the top blew off the reactor at the Soviet Union's Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986, the explosion released 40 million to 86 million curies, according to one estimate," writes O'Neill. "But the Project Chariot detonation, at its smallest configuration of 280 kilotons, would have vented fission products into the atmosphere totaling 1.5 billion curies . . . That much radiation would equal the amount vented by seventeen to thirty-eight Chernobyl accidents."

Project Chariot became a major motivator to establish a statewide newspaper outside Alaska's existing political and economic power structure. In October 1962, less than a year after the Barrow conference, Snapp and Rock launched Tundra Times, which Rock would edit and publish in Fairbanks until his death in 1976.

 

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Snapp Instructs Rock

Snapp and Rock struck a deal when launching the Tundra Times.

"I said that I would train Howard in all phases of journalism, but after a year and a day I would leave, and that's what happened," Snapp explained in a 1989 documentary on Rock's life called Portraits of Leadership: Chief Katlian and Howard Rock.

"After a little while, he was better than I was on make-up (page design) . . . with his artist background," Snapp said. "The make-up was very good in that paper."

As a Tundra Times reporter, Snapp wrote about the environmental dangers of Project Chariot. After Snapp left the Tundra Times, he continued in various journalism ventures in Fairbanks until in 1970 he launched the All-Alaska Weekly, a feisty independent paper that would grow into a fearless, often hard-hitting local institution over the next 17 years.

Tundra Times never quite regained the same prominence it enjoyed under Rock after his death in 1976. (He died within days of putting out his final issue.) As Alaska modernized, other technology such as radio and satellite television began offering more communications option beyond print journalism, especially in rural Alaska. Other regional newspapers sprouted as well.

Consequently, the need for a Tundra Times-like statewide newspaper gradually lessened and finally officially died in 1997 after a 35-year run, according to the website of Barrow's Tuzzy Consortium Library, where the newspaper's archives are kept.

 

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Remembrance

In declining health, Snapp sold his beloved All-Alaska Weekly in 1987. A series of publishers tried to make a go of the paper until each ran out of operating funds, including Tom Alton (today an editor at UAF's Alaska Native Language Center); Brian Rogers (currently University of Alaska Fairbanks interim chancellor); Andy Williams (former News-Miner city editor); and Joe Sitton (former state legislator). Snapp's paper finally folded in the early 1990s.

Once an unstoppable fireball of energy, in later life Snapp suffered health problems including heart disease, diabetes, and a series of strokes. Snapp died in 1995 at age 66. He was about the same age as Rock when he passed away after a battle with cancer nearly 20 years earlier. Yet never to be forgotten.

 

Susan B. Andrews and John Creed are journalism/humanities professors at Chukchi College, a Kotzebue branch of the University of Alaska. Creed is president of the Alaska Press Club board.