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The power struggle at the heart of Bob Bartlett’s Alaska statehood bill

  • Author: Steve Haycox
    | Opinion
  • Updated: December 10, 2019
  • Published December 10, 2019

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, seated center, probably signing the Alaska Statehood, with Vice-president Richard M. Nixon, seated left, and the Alaska delegation behind. Alaska delegation includes, far left to right, Ralph Rivers, Ernest Gruening and Bob Bartlett. Others are unidentified. Circa January 3, 1959 (National Park Service Photograph) Creator Rowe, Abbie

Dec. 11 is the anniversary of the death of Bob Bartlett, one of the most effective and successful politicians in Alaska’s history. He served as Alaska Delegate to Congress from 1944 to 1958, and as Alaska’s senior U.S. senator from 1959 until his death in 1968. His contributions to Alaska were many and significant, for which he has been widely and highly acclaimed. Perhaps above all was his commitment to Alaska statehood, toward which he worked assiduously throughout his career.

He was a quiet, non-confrontational politician who mastered the art of finding consensus which allowed him to advance his causes and issues. On a visit to Alaska in 1974, Sen. Sam Ervin, who chaired the Senate Watergate Committee in 1973, said that of all the people with whom he had served in the Senate, Bartlett was the most gentlemanly and persuasive. As delegate, Bartlett helped facilitate Alaska’s transition from World War II to the Cold War, monitoring the many defense department contracts for post-war military construction in the territory. He was especially attentive to the Interior Department’s encouragement of veterans to settle permanently in Alaska. During the 1950s, he worked closely with statehood advocates in Alaska and with Ted Stevens, then serving as legislative counsel in the Interior Department, with the Alaska statehood bills as one of his primary responsibilities.

As U.S. senator, Bartlett facilitated the Alaska Mental Health Enabling Act of 1956, which established the Alaska Psychiatric Institute in Anchorage. The facility allowed institutionalized mental health patients to be housed in Alaska rather than Portland, Oregon, where they had been treated throughout the territorial period. He worked to provide facilities for disabled persons in federal buildings long before Congress’s passage of the Americans Disabilities Act of 1990. He took especial interest in the U.S. Coast Guard and that service’s large role in monitoring and protecting Alaska coastal waters, and in fisheries legislation, critically important to Alaska’s wild salmon industry. He introduced the Alaska Housing Act, which guaranteed low-interest home mortgages. He generated legislation that provided funding for construction of the airports at Fairbanks and Anchorage, the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the Eklutna power plant near Anchorage. He helped put together the earthquake assistance package in Congress in 1964. More than 300 of the bills he introduced became law, a record still unequaled. He is regarded as a friend of Native Alaskans.

In 1916, James Wickersham, then serving as Alaska Territorial Delegate, introduced the first Alaska statehood bill in Congress. His bill included a provision that the people of Alaska disclaimed any right or title to land that might be subject to Native title. Such a provision had been included in statehood bills from the late 1880s. But when Bob Bartlett introduced his first statehood bill, in 1947, it did not include the disclaimer. One of Alaska’s most outspoken opponents of statehood, W.C. “Fish” Arnold, who represented the Alaska Packers’ Association and other cannery operators in the territory, had objected to its inclusion. He had steadfastly urged a delay of statehood until Alaska Native land claims had been sufficiently addressed by Congress. Native land claims were a complicated issue, he understood, and Congress was unlikely to take up either Native claims or statehood in the near future, a tactic which historian Donald Mitchell called particularly clever and skillful. Bartlett wanted statehood to move forward in Congress, and he did not want it stalled because of Native land claims. In this, he reflected the thinking of a majority of his constituents who supported Alaska’s lucrative salmon fishery, and also statehood.

But leaders of the Alaska Native Brotherhood, and their attorney James Curry, understood the significance of the omission of the disclaimer; it would jeopardize future land claims. The ANB and their attorney immediately informed Bartlett and others that Alaska Natives, as represented by the ANB, could not support Alaska statehood without the disclaimer being included in the act. Neither would the National Congress of American Indians, a national Indian advocacy group that worked with the ANB and its attorneys. Bartlett and other members of the House Committee on Territorial and Insular Possessions understood that without ANB and NCAI support, a statehood bill would have no chance of passage through either body of the U.S. Congress, that sensitive had Americans become to indigenous rights by 1947.

In 1948, Bartlett introduced a new statehood bill, this time with the disclaimer included. Bartlett had learned that Alaska Natives were adamant and would not yield on their insistence that potential Native land rights be acknowledged explicitly. This put Bartlett in the middle of a contest between Native rights and Alaska’s future, to which Alaska’s economic development was critical and which might be threatened by Native land claims. He worked hard to find a compromise, trying to please both his Native and non-Native constituents. It was a nearly impossible challenge. As the statehood cause progressed, Bartlett argued that it would be best to take out the disclaimer with the promise that Congress would independently and early take up the issue Alaska Native claims. This may have seemed reasonable at the time. The future would show that hope to have been enormously problematic.

In the end, the statehood bill that passed Congress in 1958 included the disclaimer. But it also included a provision for Alaska to be titled to 104 million acres of land within the new state’s boundaries. Few people recognized in 1958 the fundamental contradiction between these two provisions of the act. But it did not take long for state leaders to understand, for as the state began to make its land selections in 1959, Natives began to protest those selections on the ground of the disclaimer. The confusion led the Interior Secretary in 1966, Stewart Udall, to enjoin the state from making further selections and the Bureau of Land Management to convey any further title until such time as the claims issue had been settled by Congress. At that time, 12 million acres had been conveyed to the new state. The issue would finally be resolved in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980.

Bob Bartlett was sensitive to Native rights in Alaska. During the statehood battle, he wrote to the Alaska Native Brotherhood that “the campfires of Alaska are visible from Washington, D.C.” Why, then, did he omit the disclaimer from his early statehood bill, and later, when pressured both to leave it in and to take it out, did he try to satisfy both sets of constituents by making a flawed promise that Congress would take up Native claims in the future? He was constrained by his times. Looking back from the early 21st century, we can say he was constrained by history. He surely wanted the disclaimer in the statehood act, out of political concern for support from the ANB, and out of a genuine and independent concern for justice for indigenous people. But his non-Native constituents, and his political colleagues, were willing to put Alaska’s economic future ahead of Native rights.

Biographies of Bartlett tread lightly on this issue. Historians reconstructing the context address it more fully. Popular culture needs heroes and tends to overlook the complications and contradictions in the lives of those it chooses to admire. Historians cannot follow suit. They must explore the inconvenient truths that may not fit the stereotypes popular culture demands and persists in elevating. Virtually all lives are characterized by inconsistencies and contradictions. So too, then, must their biographies.

Steve Haycox is a professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage. This column was condensed from a longer article on Anthony Dimond, Ernest Gruening and Bob Bartlett that appears in the Fall 2019 issue of the Alaska Historical Society journal, Alaska History.

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