Barry Jackson, who suggested Native corporation model, dies at 88

The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was the worst indigenous rights settlement in history, except for all the others.

In addition to reworking Winston Churchill's famous dictum  on democracy that way, attorney Barry Jackson also liked to say that the 1971 law was a political miracle, not a perfect solution, but an acceptable deal made possible by a unique set of circumstances at an important moment in Alaska history.

“ANCSA is by far the most successful indigenous economic development project. I know of no others that have led to billion-dollar global corporations,” he wrote in 2010.

The 1971 law provided more than 44 million acres of land and nearly $1 billion to settle Native land rights claims. 

As one of the behind-the-scenes architects of ANCSA, Jackson's most important contribution may have been something that is taken for granted today in Alaska—the 13 regional Native corporations and the 200 village corporations that emerged from the law.

The veteran Fairbanks lawyer and politician died July 31 at 88 in the Pioneers Home. A memorial service is to be Aug. 23 at 7 p.m. in the Bible Baptist Church.

A retired major in the Marine Corps, Jackson was still working on a Stanford law degree when he visited Alaska in 1957 and became enamored with the place.

He served as Fairbanks city attorney during the early years of statehood and later opened his own law practice, handling a wide variety of issues. A Democrat, he served in the state Legislature and became an outspoken advocate for the recognition of Native land rights.

Jackson did legal work for the Fairbanks Native Association, Nenana, the Tanana Chiefs Conference and in 1967 for the newly formed Alaska Federation of Natives.

In “Take My Land, Take My Life,” a history of the land claims movement, Alaska lawyer and historian Don Mitchell writes that it was Jackson who came up with the idea of the state-chartered Native corporations that are leading elements in the Alaska economy today.

Jackson said it was a way for the U.S. to learn from its past mistakes in dealing with Native Americans in the Lower 48. Money and land would not go to municipal or tribal entities, but to companies owned by Natives.

Mitchell says that because Jackson was among the first to put a Native land settlement ideas on paper, the proposal he offered for the Fairbanks Native Association quickly gained momentum in Washington, D.C.

Jackson, who in later years referred to himself as an “engineer of political economy,” said the corporate model to manage land and money was a way of allowing Natives to become independent, an alternative to the reservations in the Lower 48.

It was a way of gaining freedom from the control of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the U.S. Interior Department, he said.

“I approached the task with the idea that we’re going to try and do something that was better than anything else that had been tried,” Jackson told Mitchell.

In testimony to Congress in 1968, Jackson said that keeping “villages frozen in history” would deny Native Alaskans privileges that others in American society took for granted.

"The thing I was concerned about was the right of Alaska Natives to have free mobility within American society," Jackson said.

In his 2001 book, Mitchell wrote that Alaska Native leaders debated and became strong advocates of the corporate approach, though in recent decades some younger Native leaders have found this to be “politically incorrect in the new age of Native tribalism.”

In a three-day Senate hearing in 1968 in Anchorage, more than 60 Native leaders representing every Alaska Native group, there was no opposition to the section about Native corporations.

In the years after the approval of ANCSA, Jackson complained bitterly that Congressional leaders punished him and other attorneys for their work by limiting their fees, shortchanging them by millions. He failed to win his case in court, arguing that he had oral and written contracts under which he deserved to be paid more.

"I was emotionally committed to the effort and felt sooner or later we would get something for the Native people," he told a reporter in 1978. At that time he estimated that he had spent two-and-a-half years on the settlement work.

In 2009, Jackson wrote, “During the struggle for ANCSA, we did not disclose all of what we were doing or that I was the architect. I was a mere drafter; the leaders made all of the decisions. Had we been more transparent, we would have failed.”

Dermot Cole5 Comments