Richard Whittaker passed away last week. An attorney, Alaska legislator, city councilman, journalist, commercial diver, Dick did many things and accomplished much in his life, but I will remember him for his passionate commitment to social justice, and most of all for his friendship and unyielding loyalty. I will miss my good friend and the many conversations we had almost every week during the past decade.
Those who knew Dick in his final years may remember him as a curmudgeon. Those who knew him well understood that behind his crusty exterior was a heart of gold.
Rather than mellow with age, he became ever more insistent, always challenging me and others to do the right thing. It wasn't enough for us to mention the problem but to have solutions, to do something.
Dick joined the Alaska Native Brotherhood soon after he became a lawyer in the early 1960s, and was always in our corner, actively supporting Native and rural issues. He served as president of ANB Camp 14, perhaps the only non-Native to serve in that position. He was a lifetime honorary member of Alaska Native Brotherhood, and was adopted into several Tlingit clans.
My association with him began in 1970 when I was hired to manage the Southeast Alaska Community Action Program (SEACAP) in Juneau. It was at this time that he ran for and was elected to represent Ketchikan in the Alaska Legislature.
While in the Legislature he introduced a bill exempting senior citizens from paying property taxes on their homes a law today. During his two-year term, Dick was always at the forefront of progressive legislation.
I moved to Anchorage in 1972 and was employed by the Alaska Federation of Natives. When I became the AFN member on the RURAL CAP board, I served with Dick. He was an early advocate of alcohol programs, protection of subsistence rights for rural Alaskans, and the Head Start program. He supported the introduction of the Head start program statewide, and was instrumental in starting a Head start program in Ketchikan.
During the Alaska national interests lands debates of the 1970s, Dick Whittaker was a leading advocate for adding language to the proposed federal law that would protect rural subsistence rights. He went to his grave with a deep scorn for those who persist in refusing Alaskans the opportunity to add such language to our own constitution.
He constantly challenged me and other young Alaska Natives to do better work. I can remember him insisting we tap the potential of others, bring more people into leadership roles because "we won't be around forever."
When I returned to Southeast Alaska in 1984, I became involved in Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act issues. I knew that Dick had helped incorporate ANCSA corporations in the Ketchikan area and I sought his counsel. During my tenure as president/CEO of Kake Tribal Corp., he helped me negotiate a highly favorable tax advantage known as net operating loss transactions. Other lawyers advised compromise when those transactions were challenged by the IRS, but Dick insisted we not give an inch. He was right, they were wrong, and Kake Tribal and other ANCSA corporations were the beneficiaries of his courage. When complex litigation threatened to undermine our corporation, Dick was there to lend his wise counsel, but more important for us was his "never give up" attitude.
Farsighted as he was, Dick would propose solutions to problems that were barely visible to the rest of us. He was thoughtful, thought provoking and one who preferred to be proactive. He supported and encouraged many Alaska Natives to leadership roles. I was one who benefited a great deal from this encouragement and would not have gone nearly so far without his support.
Dick Whittaker pushed those he believed in and gave us a constant flow of ideas, the strength of his convictions, and constant encouragement. Alaska has lost an original, and I and many others have lost a good friend.
Gordon Jackson serves as manager for business and economic development with the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska.
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