An assassination, the Native American occupation of Alcatraz Island and his own family are major influences in Richard Jackson's life.
"I was in San Francisco the day that Robert Kennedy got shot," Jackson said, referring to the time in 1968 when the former U.S. attorney general was seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. "I saw him coming out of a radio station where he had been interviewed earlier that day. There was almost no one around him. I went up and shook his hand."
The occupation of Alcatraz Island, the site of an infamous prison in the middle of San Francisco Bay, gave him an inkling of what stubbornness and publicity could do to retrieve lost rights. Alcatraz wasn't turned over to Native Americans as demanded, but later become part of the Golden Gate National Recreational Area.
Jackson's mother, Esther Shea, matriarch of the Tongass Tribe, was not one to hide her feelings. Shea, subject of the KTOO video "The Bear Stands Up," hustled to the Ketchikan Daily News and demanded staff write a story about her son when he was named Ketchikan Native Citizen of the Year 10 years ago.
Jackson, 53, was recently re-elected Grand Camp president of the Alaska Native Brotherhood, leading the top governing board for the political, cultural and fraternal organization. ANB was founded in 1912 in part to end discrimination and win citizenship for Natives, rights granted by Congress in 1924.
Since Jackson began his second term, he's been polishing 30 resolutions, many of which will be presented to this year's Legislature. Some have to do with in-house business, such as revising ANB's constitution. But others would have far-reaching effects, ranging from ensuring traditional herring egg subsistence harvesting in Sitka Sound to labeling wild salmon as organic.
Soft-spoken Jackson claims his involvement in the resolutions is limited to trying to master the computer command that will remove the ANB logo from secondary pages, and to putting all the resolutions on the organization's Web site so they're accessible to members. But he can't really ameliorate the aura of intensity that surrounds him. Jackson is a serious man who wants to do good, and one of his favorite words is "accountability." He joined ANB when he realized standing on the sidelines would accomplish nothing.
Jackson served three tours of duty on the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier Coral Sea during the Vietnam War. His intelligence tests were so striking he was encouraged to attend officer training school, but couldn't see himself in that role at that time. During his service, 1967-1971, he received seven medals, including the Vietnam Gallantry Cross.
Jackson then spent nearly 20 years working on the Alaska Marine Highway. He managed to get affirmative action in hiring practices for the highway system, but found his schedule interfering with his relationship with his future wife, Janice. So he went to work on shore, for the Ketchikan Pioneers' Home. He calls Janice, an officer with the Alaska Native Sisterhood, "a gift."
Three years ago, his brother James, 43, was suddenly in need of a kidney, and Richard was a perfect tissue match. While slowly recovering from the successful surgery of Dec. 7, 1999, he decided Juneau would be a more central location from which to conduct business. He is now working as supervisor of maintenance at the University of Alaska Southeast, with a crew of more than 20.
"It's exciting to be here, especially to see the older students," he said. "How can they not contribute to society after they learn more?"
Contributing to society is Jackson's goal for the future. He plans to retire in two years and work full-time for Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood causes.
"I have to do it all in my spare time now," he said.
Over the years, he has studied firefighting, marine engineering, refrigeration and boiler maintenance. He has worked on the Southeast Alaska Land Acquisition Coalition to obtain 23,000 acres to settle the Tongass Tribe's claim that it was left out of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. He worked on the Chief Johnson replacement totem, carved by his brother, Israel Shotridge, and raised in Ketchikan in 1989. He has been an advisor on Native culture for the Ketchikan Visitors Bureau and a board member of the Ketchikan Overall Economic Development Committee. He understudied his present position by serving as the first grand vice president of the ANB from 1981 to 2000, and by serving five terms as president of the Ketchikan ANB Camp.
Jackson is "a strong leader and provides a good vision for the Tongass Tribe as well as ANB," said Priscilla Schulte, anthropology professor at UAS Ketchikan.
He does not see the post of Grand Camp president as a figure who stands alone while governing, but more as the leader of a team. "All the past Grand Camp presidents make up an advisory board," he noted. "Everybody contributes. Every camp is asked for suggestions." His role, he said, is to link everyone together and see that things keep moving forward into a future free of racism.
Ann Chandonnet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.