Ownership of Alaska land powers Eskimo activist

Posted: Sunday, November 25, 2001

"Etok: A Story of Eskimo Power" by Hugh Gregory Gallagher. (Paperback, Vandamere Press, 272 pp., photos, $16.95)

Originally published in 1974 by G. P. Putnam's Sons, this biography has been unavailable for 20 years.

Rage and frustration drove Etok - Charles Edwardsen Jr., an Eskimo from Barrow - to haunt the corridors of power in Washington, D.C., repeatedly telling officials that the Russian sale of their Alaska Territory had nothing to do with ownership of Eskimo land. He was partially inspired by his father, who organized the first union strike and picket line north of the Arctic Circle.

Etok drank too much, cared nothing for dress codes and was handicapped with a stutter. But his passionate sense of the rightness of his cause carried him along. He researched, prepared speeches and press releases, wasn't afraid to confront men such as Gov. Walter Hickel, and was befriended by Sen. Bob Bartlett - for whom writer Hugh Gregory Gallagher then worked.

Gregory met Etok in 1965 when Etok was 22. The young man had made his first trip to Washington to testify on the Bartlett Native Housing Bill.

After years of light banter with Edwardsen about his land claims notions, Gallagher finally "got it" in August 1971: "Suddenly I understood for the first time what he had always been saying. The Eskimos own the land of North Alaska, the Arctic Slope. All others are trespassers. Congressional action should have nothing to do with charity, welfare, or anything else."

"Etok" is the story of how one man whose great-great grandfather was a shaman used his eccentric, angry powers of persuasion for Alaska's rural poor, working to get them "the dignity of property."

Over the years, he testified against the nomination of Hickel as secretary of the Interior, against the election of William Egan as governor and for the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. In September 1970, he was appointed executive director of the Arctic Slope Native Association and began a year of lobbying in Washington. His efforts were supported by each evening's bingo proceeds from Barrow.

"There were many times when he had to stay in his room, unable to check out, because bad weather at Barrow had cut into the bingo proceeds and he was without money," Gallagher writes. "No wonder Charlie developed a reputation for cadging meals and bumming cigarettes."

Etok was one of many players in the rise of Eskimo power, but he was an important one who refused to compromise whose story deserves telling and re-telling.

During a visit to Alaska in February, the author spoke as a guest in the Bartlett Lecture Series at the University of Alaska Southeast. Gallagher, 67, is an expert on disability legislation, foreign policy and presidential history. A graduate of Oxford University, Gallagher served in the Johnson White House and as a Senate staffer when he was the only person on Capitol Hill in a wheelchair.

Currently, Gallagher lives in Maryland. Etok lives in Fairbanks.

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at achandonnet@juneauempire.com.

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