Author: Jessica Lee, Cultural Sovereignty Fellow
First published in the Association on American Indian Affairs News on Indian Affairs Spring/Summer 2019 edition.
For over sixty years, Alfred Ketzler, Sr., a former Board Member of the Association on American Indian Affairs, has served Native Country and the rights of Alaska Natives. In 2019, we honored Alfred by acknowledging the many extraordinary contributions he has made throughout his more than one-half-century-long tenure with the Association on American Indian Affairs.
Alfred was born and raised in the Athabascan village of Nenana. Alfred’s uncle was the famous Chief Thomas,(1) who was among the head Council of Chiefs that organized in 1915 to protect Alaska Native land rights. That same year the Chiefs held a meeting with government officials to protest the construction of the Alaska railroad through a burial ground in Nenana and to voice their concerns on other issues affecting Alaska Natives. The strength of their alliance and advocacy resulted in the railroad line avoiding the burial site in Nenana.(2)
In 1959, the Alaska Statehood Act threatened the livelihood of Alaska Natives. The Statehood Act granted Alaska the right to appropriate 103 million acres from “public” domain. The Act stipulated that Native lands were exempt from selection. However, the State swiftly moved to commandeer lands clearly used and occupied by Native villages. The State also claimed royalties owed to Alaska Natives from federal oil and gas leases on Native lands. In addition, the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management began to process the State selections without informing affected villages and ignored claims that Alaska Natives already had submitted.(4)
In the wake of the injustices of the Alaska Statehood Act, an Alaska Native land rights movement emerged from all areas of Alaska. Letters detailing unfair circumstances from Alaska Natives poured into the Association on American Indian Affairs’ offices.(5) In response, the Association quickly moved to create a field program in Alaska to address these issues.(6) One such issue occurred in 1960, when John Nusungingya, an Inupiat Eskimo of Barrow, was arrested for shooting ducks after the hunting season had passed. Two days after he was arrested, 138 other Alaska Native men, in protest, shot ducks and demanded to be arrested.(7) The protest was a success and all charges against the men were dropped.
Further controversy ensued with the State’s selection of lands in central Alaska, specifically in and around the Village of Minto, that would severely hinder traditional Athabascan hunting and trapping activities. The State wanted to establish a recreation area, construct a road to make the area more accessible, and believed that the area could be used in the future for oil extraction and other resources. Another major controversy on the Association’s radar in 1961 was the impending atomic blast at Cape Thompson, 30 miles south of the Village of Point Hope known as “Project Chariot.”(8)
The Association in Alaska
With all these issues in mind, the Association journeyed to Alaska on a fact-finding trip, taking care to visit as many Alaska Native villages as possible. In 1961, Dr. Henry S. Forbes, chairman of the Association’s Alaska Policy Committee, La Verne Madigan, (Executive Director 1955-1962) and William Byler (Executive Director 1963-1981) met with Alaska Natives to address land and hunting rights issues.
While in Alaska, the Association became involved with the Village of Minto, offered guidance, and condemned government officials for not properly notifying villages when the State unilaterally selected lands that were the traditional territories of Alaska Natives. The Village of Minto eventually filed a protest with the U.S. Interior Department, asking that the federal agency turn down the State's application for the land.
The Association also visited the Village of Point Hope. The Association held a meeting with its leaders and committed to assisting Point Hope in their fight to stop the operation known as “Project Chariot,” an impending atomic blast 30 miles south that would have devastated that Village. The Association worked to make sure the atomic blast was halted.
At the same meeting, the duck hunting situation that erupted in Barrow was also addressed. The Association assisted the northern Alaska Natives by holding a conference in Barrow on November of 1961, which received the attention of high-ranking officials from the U.S. Department of the Interior. The conference subsequently led to the establishment of Inupiat Paitot (the People's Heritage), one of the first regional Native American organizations.(9)
Alfred and the Association
In January 1962, the Association first came into contact with Alfred, who was at the forefront of the Alaska Native land rights movement, spearheading much of the advocacy to protect Aboriginal title to the land. Between 1962 and 1963, Alfred worked diligently creating and gathering maps that outlined traditional hunting, trapping and fishing lands and obtaining signatures from Alaska Natives to petition President John F. Kennedy for the protection of their Indigenous ways of life. President Kennedy forwarded these maps and petitions to the Secretary of Interior. The federal government used these maps as evidence to freeze the State’s land selection process. Alfred's maps were also used to organize the land base for the 43 Villages of the Tanana Chiefs Conference for their ownership.
In June 1962, Alfred organized a meeting of 32 Villages at Tanana.(10) The Association contributed to Alfred’s efforts by aiding with the cost of transporting the Chiefs to Tanana, ensuring their attendance.(11) At the meeting, participants formed a regional organization called Dena’ Nena’ Henash, “Our Land Speaks.” This organization later went on to become Tanana Chiefs Conference, although it was not formally incorporated until 1971. The Tanana Chiefs Conference formed as an Alaska non-profit corporation, with the mission of advancing Tribal self-determination and enhancing regional Native unity. Alfred served as Chairman for Dena’ Nena’ Henash, and later became the first President of the Tanana Chiefs Conference.
A suggestion that came from the first Conference in Barrow was the creation of a newspaper or bulletin to be circulated through Alaskan Villages as a means of disseminating relevant information. By October 1, 1962, the first Tundra Times editorial was released and announced: Natives of Alaska, the Tundra Times is your paper. It is here to express your ideas, your thoughts and opinions on issues that vitally affect you. . . With this humble beginning we hope, not for any distinction, but to serve with dedication the truthful presentation of Native problems, issues, and interests.(12)
The newspaper was created by Howard Rock, along with Martha Teeluk and Alfred. Howard became the editor of the newspaper and his assistant was Tom Snapp. Dr. Henry Forbes from the Association was the sponsor of this newspaper.13 The Tundra Times was controlled and edited by Alaskan Natives to help strengthen and unify their voices, but also to help keep villages informed. Alfred was quoted in a Washington Post article as saying “Before we started this newspaper, there was little communication among the natives in these widely separated villages, especially the interior… many of them weren’t being informed about the land grab.”(14)
Fighting Land Grabs
Alfred was one of the first people to propose Congressional action to “fight land grabs” rather than going to court. As a guest speaker at the second Inupiat Paitot Conference (also sponsored by the Association), Alfred said:
Your grandfathers and mine, left this land to us in the only kind of deed they knew: by word of mouth and our continued possession. Among our people this deed was honored just as much as if it was written and signed by the President of the United States. Until recent years, a man's honor was the only deed necessary. Now, things have changed. We need a legal title to our land if we are to hold it. … We must ask Congress to do this.(15)
Alfred firmly believed that Alaska Natives ought to be given title to the land that their ancestors inhabited from time immemorial. He feared that Alaska Natives would have to abandon a life of fishing and trapping in the villages for a handout existence in the cities. Fueled with passion and desire to preserve his culture and protect Indigenous Peoples rights, he continued his advocacy by travelling to villages in Alaska with representatives from the Association urging them to file claims and protest against the Interior Department to protect their land, or it could soon become property of the State of Alaska.
Rampart Dam and Land Freeze
In 1963, Alfred led protests against the Rampart Dam proposal(16) and the State’s land selections, which resulted in Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall’s decision to freeze State land selections until Native land claims were settled.(17) This accomplishment was no easy feat, but rather was the cumulative product of years of advocacy by Alaska Natives, along with the help of the Association on American Indian Affairs, among others. Alfred worked tirelessly to organize a state-wide coalition of Alaska Native leaders to push Udall to protect Alaska Native villages.(18)
Secretary Udall’s freeze, however, was soon attacked by newly elected Alaska State Governor Walter J. Hickel, condemning Udall’s failure to act on the State selections as illegal. The Governor filed a lawsuit to force Secretary Udall to complete the transfer of Native lands around the Village of Nenana in 1967. The Association, along with representatives from the Village of Nenana, quickly became involved in the case, Alaska v. Udall, 420 F.2d 938 (9th Cir. 1969), which was instrumental in protecting Alaskan Native land from misappropriation. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the State’s attacks on Secretary Udall’s land freeze and reaffirmed that traditional Native use and occupancy created legal land rights; thus, lands subject to Native use and occupancy were exempt from taking under the Statehood Act. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the State's appeal, protecting the Ninth Circuit’s ruling.(19)
In 1969, Secretary Udall formalized his land freeze through the issuance of Public Land Order 4582. The Association wrote in its Newsletter, Indian Affairs: “The freeze, in addition to preserving Native land rights, also helped block construction of the 800-mile pipe-line to carry crude oil from the rich Arctic oil fields on the Beaufort Sea south to the all-weather port of Valdez on Prince William Sound. Despite enormous political pressures by the oil companies and the State of Alaska, the freeze was reluctantly extended by Secretary Hickel and later by Secretary Morton to protect Native interests while Congress was considering their claims.”(20)
Clearly, Alaska Natives standing up for their land rights created a lot of tensions in Alaska in the late sixties. The land freeze made oil companies restless. These companies spent a significant amount of money conducting exploration but were unable to proceed with work until the freeze was lifted. The State of Alaska was eager to be awarded title to their “selected” land and Alaska Natives were lobbying Congress to be given rightful title to their Aboriginal territory along with compensation for lands that had already been taken. Pressure was mounting on the federal government to make a move. The 90th Congress from 1967 to 1969 introduced six bills addressing Alaska Native land claims but did not act on any of them. The land freeze, which was to expire December 31, 1970, was extended twice through December 7, 1971.(21) Alaska Natives maintained that they required a minimum of 80 million acres of land to continue their traditional ways of subsistence and for economic development. However, it was quickly evident that the United States would never approve such a bill, with one representative introducing legislation awarding only 100,000 acres of land to Alaska Natives, and they knew a compromise must be made.
In September 1971, the Senate and the House released bills providing for 40 million acres of land. After amendments, the bill – named the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) – provided 44 million acres of land and 962 million dollars and created Alaska Native Corporations. Alfred and other Native leaders lived in Washington D.C. for weeks during the process of negotiating this settlement. On December 16, 1971, 600 Native delegates held a meeting to discuss ANCSA. After debating for two days, the delegates took a vote and the settlement was accepted by a vote of 511 to 56.22 ANCSA was signed into law on December 18, 1971.
Indian Child Welfare
Running parallel to the Alaska Native Land Claims struggle was the Indian child welfare crisis. A study conducted by the Association revealed in 1969 that in most states with large American Indian populations, roughly 25 to 35 percent of Indian children had been separated from their families and placed in non-Native homes as part of federal assimilation policies. These foster care placement and adoption practices were another attempt at assimilating Native Americans by stripping them of their identity and culture at birth or early in their childhood.
In custody proceedings, the State of Alaska gave preference to Native homes in cities. One example of this was Carle v. Carle, 503 P.2d 1050 (Ak. Sup. Ct., 1972), a custody dispute between a Native living in an urban area and a Native who lived in a village. The trial court judge held in favor of the urban Native because that judge found that the village way of life would ultimately have to change and that the best interest of the child was to place him in the urban setting away from cultural practices. The Association worked for over a decade to reunite Native American families, published research on disproportionate placements, and testified before Congress, which subsequently led to the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978. Alfred, who by that time was serving on the Board of Directors of the Association, was a part of these efforts. He submitted to Congress figures relating to state placements and jurisdiction issues in Alaska.(23)
In the 1980s and 1990s, Alfred and the Association supported successful efforts to amend ANCSA to deal with some of its flaws, and to support the efforts of the Gwich’in peoples to prevent oil and gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Today the Association works in partnership with Alaskan Native villages, alerting them whenever their ancestral belongings and sacred and cultural items go up for sale at auctions or are improperly displayed at museums. The Association has supported several Alaskan Native Youth Culture Camps over the past two decades, including the Native Village of Afognak Youth Culture Camp, Sealaska Heritage Institute Language Immersion Basketball Camp, and the Cheesh-na Summer Youth Program. In addition, the Association has donated tens of thousands of dollars to Alaska Native students to help fund their undergraduate and graduate degrees.
Honoring Alfred Lifetime Achievements
Since his involvement with the Association’s advocacy in 1962 and joining the Board in the 1970’s, Alfred has served the Association in several roles, most notably as Board President. Alfred recently retired from the Board but never missed a meeting and always offered thoughtful and poignant advice. He continues to work on advancing the rights of Alaska Natives. In recognition of his life’s accomplishments, he received an honorary Doctoral Degree from the University of Alaska in 2004.
The Association honored Alfred during their 2019 spring Board of Directors’ meetings with a beautiful medallion with the Association’s symbol created by artist Matagi Sorensen (Yavapai-Apache). As one of our longest serving Board members, friend and fellow advocate, the Association thanks Alfred and his family for their lifelong dedication to serving their communities and all of us in Native Country.
1 Ketzler, Alfred R. Ketzler, Alfred R. 1962-1983. MS 131: 9, The Association of American Indian Affairs Archives, General and Tribal Files, 1851-1983: General Files. Mudd Library, Princeton University. Indigenous Peoples: North America (AAIA Archives).
2 http://www.newsminer.com/features/sundays/communit y_features/how-athabascan-leaders-crafted-the-tananachiefs-conference/article_e283aec4-2830-11e5-beb5-f38b0 df28137.html.
3 See note 1.
4 http://www.alaskool.org/projects/ancsa/reports/rsjones1 981/ancsa_history71.htm.
5 Inupiat: Point Barrow Conference on Native Rights, 1961- 1962. AAIA Archives.
6 See note 5.
7 http://www.alaskool.org/projects/ancsa/landclaims/land Alfred Ketzler, Sr., November 2018 Association on American Indian Affairs Medallion by Matagi Sorensen. 5 claims_unit4_ch14.htm.
8 See note 7.
9 See note 7.
11 See note 1.
12 See note 7.
13 See note 7.
14 Dena' Nena' Henash: Second Tanana Chiefs Conference, 1962-1963. AAIA Archives.
15 Ervin, Alexander M. "Styles and Strategies of Leadership during the Alaskan Native Land Claims Movement: 1959-71." Anthropologica 29, no. 1 (1987): 21-38.
16 See note 10.
17 See note 10.
18 Arthur Lazarus Jr. & W. Richard West Jr., The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act: A Flawed Victory, 40 Law and Contemporary Problems 132-165, note 6, p. 133 (Winter 1976).
19 See note 4.
21 See note 18.