Etok's vision put Alaska Native land claims on a grander scale

Like many, I was saddened at the passing of Charlie Edwardsen, Jr. of Barrow. Known as Etok, his Inupiat name, Edwardsen was one of a handful of Native leaders who hugely influenced the Alaska Native claims movement as it gathered force in the 1960s.

In my opinion he has never been given proper recognition for that.

He was a visionary at a critical time -- the very beginning -- when big vision was needed, and he had the forcefulness of personality to get others to pay attention to him.

Let me explain:

In the early-to-mid 1960s the Alaska's Native land claims movement was gathering steam partly because Native people saw the new state of Alaska selecting lands, which they felt were theirs, and selling land or leasing it, to oil companies among others.

Aboriginal land rights were being asserted at the time, starting among the Athabascans in Interior Alaska. The Inupiat of northern and Northwest Alaska had meanwhile become politically organized in response to a U.S. Atomic Energy Commission proposal to blast harbors on the Chukchi Sea coast with nuclear devices. The AEC ultimately dropped the plan.

I first met Etok in 1964 in Al's Café in Barrow. I was in Barrow working as a warehouse laborer at a nearby Air Force radar site, and I spent as much time as I could in the community, to meet people.

I was fascinated when Etok laid out his vision, and his plans, for land claims. Oil exploration was just starting in the central North Slope area -- the state had held lease sales -- and Etok felt the land belonged to the Inupiat and had been stolen.

His goal, he told me, was to get the Arctic Slope Inupiat to file a vast land claim across their traditional lands, the entire slope from Point Hope to the Canada border, an area bigger than Minnesota.

It was a breathtaking concept.

But what came next was, in retrospect, prophetic. Etok believed Congress would ultimately be pushed into approving the Alaska Native claims and that oil would make it happen.

Remember, this was 1964. Large oil discoveries weren't made at Prudhoe Bay until 1969. Just as Etok predicted, North Slope oil was a deciding factor when Congress eventually approved the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971.

Back to Etok: His frustration, as we sat over coffee, was getting more conservative community elders to see the need to act, to file a land claim, to be bold. Being forceful and bold wasn't polite in the culture.

Etok did help form a group with young people interested in community affairs, and I remember them all. Others were Lester Sulvu, James Nageak and Abel Akpik as well as Etok. I joined too, the only member not an Inupiaq.

This was the Barrow Improvement Board, and its first project was local water and sewer improvements, honey-buckets being still the norm in Barrow at the time. The town elders saw this as a bunch of youngsters bent on challenging the old order, which was correct.

I left Barrow for Fairbanks to work for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, but stayed in touch with my Barrow friends.

Etok wanted the Barrow Improvement Board to do more, to be an activist group and to file the big land claim, but he couldn't persuade the others. In frustration, he persuaded two like-minded others, Joe Upicksoun Jr. and Sam Taalak, to form the Arctic Slope Native Association. The big land claim, across the entire Arctic slope, came soon after. The Barrow Improvement Board, I recall, went on to become the Barrow Lion's Club, and continued a focus on good deeds.

The land claim made a big splash. As a cub reporter at the News-Miner I wrote articles about the ASNA land claim, encouraged by the editors and more experienced colleagues.

The Arctic Slope filed the first big, regional land claims. There had been previous claims filed but they were localized for lands near villages, for example. This was breathtaking in scale -- credit Etok for that -- and it inspired other regional Native associations to also file big land claims.

Soon all of Alaska was blanketed with claims and when Interior Secretary Stewart Udall put the screws on, stopping federal land transfers and state land selections until the claims were resolved, the train started moving.

The need to get clear land title in 1968 and 1970 for the what was to become the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System was what really sealed the deal because it brought the state of Alaska finally in line for a settlement (the state had previously been ambivalent and even opposed to a land settlement.)

Of course, Etok still believed the oil lands had been stolen and that the Arctic Slope people got shortchanged in the actual distribution of lands, an opinion shared widely in the region.

As the claims act was implemented and the Native corporations were formed Etok also became disenchanted, believing that the corporate form of the settlement would be corrupting, in the long run.

A lot of people shared those views and it has given rise to the influential tribal movement in Alaska now seen as a counterweight to the Native corporations.

As for lands being stolen, I believe there's a germ of truth to it, at least in this way: A few years after the claims settlement the U.S. Interior Department wanted to acquire environmentally-sensitive lands owned by Arctic Slope Regional Corp., the region's development corporation, on the southern North Slope.

A land exchange was negotiated. ASRC would give up those lands in exchange for mineral rights under 92,000 acres of surface land selection made by Kaktovik village within what is now the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

No one knew if there was oil but ASRC was willing to take the gamble in the belief that the government would allow development if oil were found.

The government reneged on that. When it was decided that only Congress could approve oil exploration in the northern coastal plain of ANWR the lands owned by ASRC and Kaktovik were included. Etok was right. This was theft, because I think now that Congress will never open these lands.

Looking back at it all, without Etok's vision the land claims, and the resulting land settlement, would no doubt have been more modest.

Here was one remarkable person, an individual with vision and forcefulness, who influenced history at a critical juncture. I was proud to have known him.

Tim Bradner is a natural resources writer for the Alaska Journal of Commerce.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.