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Tom Richards: Part Reporter, Part Don Quixote

Laura Waterman Wittstock
5/18/14

The early 1970s were a turbulent time for just about everybody in Indian country. The FBI was busy listening in on presumed malfeasance. The tribal chairmen were trying to make sense of what was becoming a broader divide among their citizens who lived on and off reservation lands. Amidst it all, the growing American Indian Movement was recruiting thousands of ordinary off-reservation Indians into large-scale actions that would eventually put many of their lives at risk.

Tom Richards moved from Alaska to Washington, D.C. to do triple duty with the U.S. Navy; as the new intern for Alaska U.S. House Representative Nick Begich (Dem.), and as a news correspondent for the American Indian Press Association (AIPA).

Following the enactment of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971, Tom became president of Alaskans on the Potomac, a lobby for Alaska Native organizations that monitored implementation of the Settlement Act.

Timothy Egan, writing for the NY Times on January 11, 1993 recalled a December in 1991 when the Tundra Times, Alaska’s premier newspaper aimed at the state’s 80,000 Natives, sank to the point of closure. "When I heard that news it put me in a state of shock, as if a part of me had died," said Thomas Richards Jr., a former editor of the paper. "The first thing I did was hop on my snow machine and spend a couple of days chasing ptarmigan across the tundra."

That quote captured the 1970s sense of Tom we all had in the AIPA newsroom and across the way at the Legislative Review, where I was editor. He was part serious newsman and part Don Quixote. It must have been all that snow and ice some of us thought. When Charlie Edwardsen, Jr. appeared on the scene, we had more than quixotic behavior on our hands. He was the boy wonder of the Settlement work. He had drawn the definitive map of the Settlement area, and despite being a stutterer, got up to point out that the Native areas were never lost or conquered territories. There could be no doubt with him who Alaska belonged to.

Later, when president Richard M. Nixon signed the Settlement Act into law on December 18, 1971, Charlie, the executive director of the North Slope Native Association and Joe Upickson, its president loudly rejected the Act. Congress, the political animal, had decided to use population rather than size of the land and its assets, just what the oil interests wanted. As the news staff struggled to keep up with the moving events leading up to passage, it became abundantly clear that we were getting a glimpse of a 19th Century U.S. government rollover on sovereign Native nations.

Charlie gravitated to our group during his many stays in D.C. and he became fascinated with the game of darts, which many of the Indian staff people played in the evening leagues. Being a harpoon thrower extraordinaire on the North Slope, Charlie felt he was a natural dart player as well. We tried to tell him the dart must not go beyond his peripheral vision for a good throw, but he reared up, throwing the dart like a harpoon, and when its light weight left his grasp, it careened on a wild flight that often wound up in the wall behind the dart board. He would roar with laughter.

The Legislative Review had a dartboard and darts set up in the conference room so the staff could let off steam during long work sessions. Charlie found out about this and he soon was camped in our office for long periods. We would hear the “thunk, thunk, thunk” of Charlie’s darts hitting the board as he learned mastery of the tiny harpoons. The staff, with deadlines to meet and another issue to get out, had to learn how to tune out the noise because it was not going away. His name was “Etok,” and we said “he took” our conference room. Eventually Charlie joined our dart team, but it can’t be said he was our best player.

Lakota Chuck Trimble got us started by designing AIPA, and after bringing Rose Robinson on board as leader and Richard LaCourse as news director, left the work to them. He was probably the finest person we all knew. Chuck had the right idea of bringing in the talent and letting them get the work done. It’s a model I followed for the next 35 years. My boss was less elegant over at the Legislative Review, but he also let us run the magazine, after getting some very terse instructions from Browning Pipestem, a highly respected Indian lawyer. The boss moved on and the elegant Osage lawyer George Crossland came in. His background included advanced degrees in Literature and Law, making him great at turning phrases as well as explaining complicated cases. We listened attentively and learned.

It’s been said over and over that the rich early 1970s produced a mother lode of federal legislation, nationally significant Indian takeovers and occupations, and court cases that kept our young correspondents busy nearly seven days a week. What should be added is a growing number of young Indian professionals were making their way into government, law, and education, ready to make all of that legislation work.

Tom returned to Alaska in 1974 and spent the rest of his career there. He died on March 31, 2014.

Laura Waterman Wittstock’s book with Dick Bancroft’s photographs, We Are Still Here: A Photographic History of the American Indian Movement, will be released in May, 2013.

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