Alaska News

'Etok' Edwardsen, impassioned Native land settlement activist, dies

A brilliant but controversial Eskimo activist who played an influential role during the Alaska Native land claims movement died on Friday on a whaling trip outside Barrow.

Charles "Etok" Edwardsen Jr. was 71.

With his defiant approach and bold views on indigenous rights, Edwardsen became a prominent activist in the 1960s but his influence extended well beyond that era.

Friends, family and those he mentored say he inspired new generations of Native leaders throughout his life.

"Etok was a fierce warrior for Iñupiat rights and a defender of our cultural freedoms, and for this we are eternally grateful," said Crawford Patkotak, chairman of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, the Alaska Native regional corporation for the North Slope.

"He never gave up fighting; he never gave up working for solutions to what Alaska Natives faced," said Victoria Hykes Steere, a professor at Alaska Pacific University who said Edwardsen was a mentor to her as she attended law school in the 1990s.

"He was a major influence not only in my life but for a generation of young Alaska Native leaders," said Evon Peter, 39 and a vice chancellor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Edwardsen, who had a slight cough recently, had traveled to his hometown of Barrow to take part in the spring whaling hunt, an annual trip he made from his home in Fairbanks.

He died while sleeping in a tent on the sea ice used by the Nusunginya whaling crew, family said. His family found comfort in the fact that he died whaling.

"We're all sad, but we're all happy because he was where he'd want to be," said Una Edwardsen, one of his six children.

Rise of an activist

Edwardsen was born in Barrow in 1943 to Charles Edwardsen Sr. and Mary (Nusunginya) Edwardsen.

He was one of seven students in his grade school chosen at 13 to be sent to the Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding schools in Wrangell and Sitka.

By all accounts, those years contributed to his rebellious nature and his proclivity to challenge authority at all levels.

"I became a problem for the school for the simple fact that I did not like what was going on," he said years later. He didn't like the food or being forced to stay on school grounds.

At 18, he was home in Barrow for the summer when 138 Inupiat took part in an act of civil disobedience to fight a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service effort to curb spring duck hunting.

"That was the first time as a kid that I had seen the dignity of a people rise together and a community so strong," Edwardsen testified in a future court case.

Edwardsen, who struggled with alcohol from an early age and battled a stutter, came to see that his purpose was to fight for land rights for the Inupiat.

In 1966, the 23-year-old helped formed the Arctic Slope Native Association to push for aboriginal land rights, a cause that became central to his life.

Planting seeds

"It's a sad day," said longtime Alaska Native leader Willie Hensley, reached on Saturday. "He will be missed."

Willie Hensley was a young man in early 1966 when he met Edwardsen for the first time. In their discussion, Edwardsen emphasized the need for a land claims settlement, a concept many Alaska Natives had not heard of, Hensley said on Saturday.

"So we chatted about land claims, which was really something I was not very steeped in at that point," said Hensley. "He was way ahead of the game. He knew more as a 20-something than most Alaskans and most Alaska Natives did on that issue."

As a graduate student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Hensley later that year wrote the landmark paper arguing for the settlement, "What Rights to Land Have the Alaska Natives: The Primary Issue."

During the land claims battle before Congress, Edwardsen often traveled to Washington, D.C., arguing his case even if he had no money or a place to sleep, friends and family said.

He "cut a wide swath" in Washington, D.C., with "brilliant" ideas that got people thinking, Hensley said.

He angered some people, too.

The 1969 oil lease sale that netted the state $900 million attracted worldwide attention as a symbol of the burgeoning Alaska oil boom and gave Edwardsen an opening to reach a national audience.

He and a small group of high school students carried signs attacking the lease sale as a "$2,000,000,000 Native land robbery" and told the TV cameras the sale was "the rape of Alaska Natives."

The Alaska Federation of Natives board disavowed his tactic, but Edwardsen said the contrast of "big oil and poor Eskimos" made a powerful image for the world.

As for the claims act, Edwardsen fought for a much larger settlement for Alaska Natives than the 44 million acres finally agreed to by Congress.

By setting the bar so high, Edwardsen allowed other Alaska Native leaders to negotiate a compromise.

"He kept taking these way-out radical positions that made us more moderate as far as Congress was concerned," said Hensley. "It was good having him out there to push the envelope."

Politically shrewd

Historian Don Mitchell, former vice president and general counsel of AFN, said there was never a clear answer as to whether the "rageful bellicosity" Edwardsen displayed while lobbying for land rights in the nation's capital was the result of inner torment, political theater or a combination of both.

"But whether by accident or artifice, by being physically present on Capitol Hill, Edwardsen made a valuable contribution by serving as a walking weight on the conscience of at least some of the men who decided the terms on which Native land claims would be settled," Mitchell wrote in "Take My Land, Take My Life: The Story of Congress's Historic Settlement of Alaska Native Land Claims, 1960-71."

Hugh Gallagher knew Edwardsen during the land claims fight and afterward wrote a biography titled "Etok: A Story of Eskimo Power."

Gallagher wrote that Edwardsen was a contradiction in terms, "wild-eyed and mystic, by turns incredibly rude and terribly vulnerable, but always politically astute."

Edwardsen led the Arctic Slope region as the only region in Alaska to oppose the act, said a statement from the Arctic Slope Regional Corp. released on Saturday.

With the late Joseph Ukpiksoun, Edwardsen wrote letters to President Richard Nixon urging a veto of the legislation.

"Etok embodied the resolve and fighting spirit of the Arctic Slope region," said Rex A. Rock Sr., CEO of ASRC. "His contributions to our society sharpened the business acumen of our leadership, always seeking justice and working to ensure the rights of Iñupiat were protected."

Edwardsen never agreed with the settlement, his family said. During a public hearing in 2010, he called ANCSA a "rotten real estate transaction" that Natives should contest in international court.

Widespread influence

A land settlement was just one of Edwardsen's pursuits. Beginning in the 1960s, he campaigned against poverty and in favor of modern sanitation on the North Slope at a time when honey buckets were common in the region.

He played a role in the 1972 formation of the North Slope Borough, a local government that relied on the oil industry for a tax base, Hensley said. The borough brought modern services to villages on the Slope, including flush toilets and running water.

Edwardsen influenced leaders outside Alaska, too, said Hykes Steere, the the APU professor, who is working to create a four-year degree in Alaska Native governance.

Hykes Steere said she was once told by Billy Frank Jr., the Native American environmental leader who died last year, that Edwardsen had inspired him in the 1960s.

Frank saw Edwardsen pounding on the desks of Bureau of Indian Affairs officials in Washington, D.C., demanding to speak with their boss, according to Hykes Steere.

"He said Etok refused to be said 'No' to," Hykes Steere said.

Edwardsen helped inspire the indigenous movement by the Maori people of New Zealand, friends and family said.

Edwardsen, who often said Alaska Natives had endured "statutory warfare," often told Hykes Steere what to read and write about when she was in law school in the early 1990s.

"He inspired a lot of people because he was brilliant," she said.

Una Edwardsen, who called his father a "powerful force," said the family is planning to honor his father with a political rally in Barrow, rather than a funeral, as his father wanted.

Plans are still being made for that gathering, he said.

"Etok" Edwardsen's first-born daughter, Sherri Edwardsen, said her father's legacy will not die.

"His spirit is going to continue to grow and move for the future generations of the Inupiat people," she said.

Correction: This article has been updated to note that the Maori people originate from New Zealand, not Australia as the article originally suggested.

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or

Dermot Cole

Former ADN columnist Dermot Cole is a longtime reporter, editor and author.