I learned that Canadian Justice Thomas R. Berger died April 29. Many in Alaska will recount his work leading the Alaska Native Review Commission, as he conducted an in-depth review of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 for the Inuit Circumpolar Conference in 1983. I remember traveling with Jimmy Stotts of Barrow (Utqiagvik) to Vancouver, B.C., to convince him to undertake the work. I recall the thoughtfulness with which we were received in his study by Justice Berger; I especially remember the kindness Mrs. Berger showed us as she welcomed us into their home.
After considering the matter, Justice Berger accepted the charge. The Alaska Native Review Commission was by and large welcomed by the Alaska Native community — there being but few individuals in the Native community hostile to the idea of a Canadian jurist undertaking a review of U.S. federal Indian law in Alaska.
The Alaska Native Review Commission was a remarkable undertaking by any standard to affect U.S. federal Indian law. And Justice Berger’s report, entitled “Village Journey,” established the standard by which any review of U.S. federal Indian policy would be gauged.
Of the many statements made before Justice Berger during the Commission’s hearings that I found of “interest” were given by Douglas Jones and William Van Ness, staff assistants, respectively, to U.S. Sens. Mike Gravel and Henry “Scoop” Jackson. Douglas Jones stated that the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 was a form of “social engineering.” And William Van Ness said, “The act was... a very radical effort at social engineering and it was done on a very, very calculated basis.”The fact that “Village Journey,” Justice Berger’s report, remains as pertinent today as when it was first released in 1985, attests to the integrity of the man Thomas R. Berger.
I suspect that as he approached the “high bench” following his passage, he was prepared to argue for those whom no one else would defend but one other man.
Archie N. Gottschalk
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