Tlingit leader remembered for land claims role

Tlingit leader John Borbridge Jr. died Tuesday. He was a significant player in the campaign for Alaska Native land rights.

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Tlingit leader John Borbridge Jr. speaks at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 2011. (Photo courtesy of UAF)
Tlingit leader John Borbridge Jr. speaks at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 2011. (Photo courtesy of UAF)

Borbridge was a teacher and coach in Juneau and Sitka before being drafted in 1965 to lobby for aboriginal interests in Washington, D.C.

He went on to head up the Alaska Federation of Natives and the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska.

In a 2011 address, Borbridge stressed that the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was about much more than creating corporations.

“It is the story of the people who are members of the tribe beginning to understand the extent and nature of their rights and the rights that they have asserted through their predecessors,” Borbridge said.

In the late 1950s, Tlingits and Haidas won partial compensation from the federal government for the land they lost when the United States took over Alaska.

Tlingit Haida Central Council President Richard Peterson says Borbridge led the charge to include all tribes in the next Congressional battle.

“During the original talks for the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, there was a lot of desire from other regions to leave Southeast out because they felt like we’d already been dealt with. … I know he worked to make sure we were included,” Peterson said.

In his address, at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Borbridge said he knew tribal members needed more than money.

“We wanted land. That was the dream I had for our people. Land. It is cruel to be living in the midst of beautiful land, land that belonged to the Forest Service, belonged to the state of Alaska or territory of Alaska,” Borbridge said.

Once ANCSA became law, Borbridge became president of Sealaska, the regional Native corporation for Southeast Alaska.

The Central Council’s Peterson says he’ll be badly missed.

“As with any of our elders, you lose that piece of history, that resource you can turn to and talk about why we did what we’ve done and why it’s important to what we do today,” Peterson said.

There’s no word yet about services.

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Ed Schoenfeld is Regional News Director for CoastAlaska, a consortium of public radio stations in Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, Petersburg and Wrangell. He primarily covers Southeast Alaska regional topics, including the state ferry system, transboundary mining, the Tongass National Forest and Native corporations and issues. He has also worked as a manager, editor and reporter for the Juneau Empire newspaper and Juneau public radio station KTOO. He’s also reported for commercial station KINY in Juneau and public stations KPFA in Berkley, WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and WUHY in Philadelphia. He’s lived in Alaska since 1979 and is a contributor to Alaska Public Radio Network newscasts, the Northwest (Public Radio) News Network and National Native News. He is a board member of the Alaska Press Club. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, he lives in Douglas.