Eben Hopson

23 JUN 1980

Final Biography

Eben Hopson

The son of Al and Maggie Hopson, Eben was born in Barrow on November 7, 1922. He was the grandson of Alfred Henley Hopson, a whaler from Liverpool, England, who settled in Barrow in 1886. Eben’s introduction to white social institutions began early: he was the first child to be born in Barrow’s mission hospital.

Eben Hopson’s formal education began and ended at the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Barrow Day School. His political career is said to have begun as a pupil in his village school. When he was 15 years of age, Eben wrote to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C. to complain about the school principal’s use of unpaid student labor on small BIA public works projects. When the BIA forwarded the letter to the principal in Barrow for disposition, Eben was branded a troublemaker and was prevented from boarding ship to travel to one of the BIA’s boarding high schools. Many credit his success as a political leader to the fact that he was denied a BIA high school education.

Remaining in Barrow through his teens, Eben worked as a construction laborer. He married Rebecca Panigeo in 1942 when he was 20 years old. Eben was to support his family as a construction worker until 1965. He became a member of the Operating Engineers in 1957.

An all-white Barrow draft board drafted Eben into the Army when Rebecca was eight months pregnant with their first child. Eben was not to see his first son until he returned to Barrow in 1946 after the end of World War II.

Eben underwent recruit training at Nome, Alaska, where he was employed in the lend-lease program that delivered new war planes to Soviet crews stationed at Nome. Later, Eben served as a bosn’s mate aboard an Army tug boat in the 1,000-mile war of the North Pacific along the Aleutian Chain.

Returning to Barrow in 1946, Eben began his political career as a member of the Barrow City Council. During the following two decades he worked on the construction of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line and maintenance of DEW Line Sites.

Eben joined the Alaska National Guard in 1949 and, by 1953, had attained the rank of Captain commanding Company D, first Scout Battalion.

In 1956, Eben was elected to the Alaska Territorial Legislature and, when Alaska became a state, he was elected to the State Senate. He narrowly missed serving as President of the second State Senate because opponents organized it without him during his absence from Juneau to lead an Eskimo Scout Battalion in President Kennedy’s inauguration parade in Washington D.C. in 1960. He served in the Senate until 1965 as Chairman of the Labor and Management Committee.

The Alaska Native Land Claims Movement

In 1965, Eben helped organize Alaska’s first regional land claims organization which entered an aboriginal claim to all of the traditional land of the Arctic Slope Inupiat. He became the first Executive Director of the Arctic Slope Native Association (ASNA) which launched the Alaska Native Land Claims Movement in 1965. In 1968, Eben moved to Anchorage to become Executive Director of the Alaska Federation of Natives. Under his direction, the AFN became a strong, well-financed federation of native regional associations from all parts of Alaska. During that time, he launched the Washington, D.C. native land claims lobby that succeeded in securing the enactment of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971 which awarded the Alaskan regional and village corporations a cash settlement of nearly $1 billion and entitlement to roughly forty million acres.

He negotiated a $225,000 loan to the AFN from the Yakima Indians of Washington State, and went on to secure large Federal grants to pursue strong regional community organization throughout rural Alaska.

North Slope Borough Established

Eben left the AFN to become Special Assistant for Native Affairs to Governor William Egan in 1970. Working closely with Egan, Eben helped shape a new State policy toward the native land claims which enabled State financial participation in the land claims settlement enacted by Congress. At the same time, Eben used his position to further the development of local government in rural Alaska, a Hopson dream since the mid-1950s.

From his desk in the Governor’s Office, Eben insured the State’s cooperation with the Arctic Slope Native Association to organize the North Slope Borough: a plan that would provide the 4,000 residents of Alaska’s eight most northerly villages with the advantages of a county-type home rule municipality, one that would encompass 88,000 square miles, reaching from the Canadian Border to Point Hope on the Chukchi Sea, and from the Arctic coast to the crest of the Brooks Range. Revenues would come from the billion dollar tax base now growing on the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay.

In 1972, Eben left the Governor’s Office to campaign for voter approval of the organization of the North Slope Borough, and for the office of Borough Mayor, to which he was elected.

Hopson Takes on Oil Companies

The advent of municipal self-government on America’s Arctic coast was not welcomed by the taxpayers of Prudhoe Bay. The oil and gas operators challenged in court the Borough’s right to levy taxes. Rejected by the State Supreme Court which upheld the Borough’s right to tax, the operators took their case to the Alaska State Legislature, which put a per capita ceiling on the Borough’s taxing authority, a move which Hopson held was both discriminatory and unconstitutional.

Perhaps the most innovative aspect of Hopson’s career as Borough Mayor was his $150 million Capital Improvements Program (CIP) which used its tax revenues and bonding authority to provide not only civic improvements such as roads, sanitation services, water and electrical utilities, health services, and other amenities long denied northern residents, but also low income housing and locally controlled schools.

Substandard housing in the Arctic had been tolerated too long, according to Hopson. Housing was the single greatest social problem on the Arctic Slope in 1972 and both the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation and the North Slope Borough responded. Upon incorporation, Hopson sold $13.7 million in municipal bonds to finance the construction of public housing for low-income families.

The project was plagued with setbacks which included the capsizing of supply barges on the Alaskan coast, and ice conditions at Nome which prevented passage of other barges for months. Once the supplies arrived, much time was taken hiring and training the local hire personnel which Eben demanded for the housing construction. It as not until February of 1978 that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (DHUD) finally agreed to participate financially in the NSB housing projects.

In spite of these initial setbacks, the CIP became one of the success stories credited to Hopson’s skill as an administrator. Today the Borough enjoys an “A” bond rating on the municipal bond market. Its current annual budget exceeds $95 million and its “open file” policy has won national recognition for honestly in local government.

The Borough employs over 700 people in municipal administration, education, and construction. It enforces a strict local hire policy: a significant majority of the NSB work force is comprised of Inupiat employees.

Leadership Grows

A strong Democrat, Hopson was called upon to chair the volatile 1972 State Convention of the Democratic Party, and his well-known strength as a mediator enabled the Convention to join peacefully together the young pro-McGovern activist wing of the Party with older Party regulars in a coalition that resulted in a stronger Party organization.

In 1974, Hopson declared his candidacy for the Democratic Party’s gubernatorial nomination and ran against Governor Egan. He withdrew from the primary race after reaching a nine-point political agreement for rural Alaska, including the development of modern communications. Most of the points of this agreement with Governor Egan were later implemented by Governor Jay Hammond who defeated Egan in the General Election.

National Petroleum Reserve Transfer

In 1975, Hopson was re-elected as Borough mayor. That same year he was invited by John Melcher, Chairman of the House Interior Subcommittee on Public Lands, to send a planning team to Washington to work with Committee staff to draft legislation that transferred the Naval Petroleum Reserve No. 4 to the control of the Department of Interior.

The Navy’s administration of the reserve since it was created by President Harding in 1923 was long a source of irritation to the residents of the North Slope, including Mayor Hopson. About that event Hopson wrote, “Without asking us, for it was our land, our Federal government took from us 23,400,000 acres of land, an area roughly the size of the State of Indiana, without any compensation ….Not many people in America knew about this taking of our land in this fashion, and it was not until the infamous Teapot Dome Scandal involving the Naval petroleum reserve in Wyoming that national attention was directed to these reserves, large tracts of land taken from America’s Native people without their consent.”

With passage of the Naval Petroleum Reserve Production Act in 1976, Hopson saw the creation of a massive three-year, $500 million, study of National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, which would determine the values and best uses of the land. The Borough played a significant part in that study of area — rich not only in potential gas and oil wealth, but also historical and cultural significance.

An Environmental Regime for the Arctic

In 1976, Hopson won his party’s Congressional nomination. During that period he had his first bout with cancer and returned from an operation in Seattle to stump both rural and urban Alaska. He used his Congressional campaign to draw national attention to the need for both a national and international Arctic policy to facilitate environmentally safe Arctic energy development.

Hopson viewed a precipitous assault by energy companies on the Arctic — they had already leased rights to over 200 million acres in the North American Arctic alone — as a violation of his Native homeland. He called for the creation of an international environmental regime by which all Arctic nations would agree to follow the same rules in the industrial development of the Arctic.

In 1976, Hopson called upon the Inuit (Eskimo) leaders of Greenland, Canada, the U.S., and the U.S.S.R. to form an international organization, the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC), in order to pursue these goals.

The first meeting of the ICC hosted by Hopson in 1977 in Barrow was the high point in his career. In five days of prodigious work, the delegates hammered out seventeen resolutions on Inuit land claims, Arctic environmental protection, Arctic health and technology, and Inuit culture and education.

This drawing together the far-flung peoples of the Inuit Arctic won Eben international recognition. When Greenland celebrated its newly-won Home rule independence from Denmark in May, 1979, the only one invited to share the podium that day with Queen Margrethe of Denmark was Mayor Hopson.

The Battle of the Bowhead Whale

Hopson’s influence on the international level was greatly enhanced when the International Whaling Commission (IWC) attempted to ban the Inupiat subsistence hunting of the bowhead whale in 1977. Eben traveled first to Tokyo and the next year to London to plead the Inupiat case that the IWC was not authorized to regulate subsistence whaling.

In federal courts in Washington, Anchorage, and San Francisco, Hopson asserted that the U.S. was not authorized to submit the dietary habits of U.S. citizens to the arbitration of the IWC. The bowhead battle put to the test the Native trust responsibility of the U.S. government, an issue not yet fully resolved and embodied in the Hopson vs Kreps suit.

Coastal Zone Management

Most recently, Hopson’s efforts were directed toward the environmental protection of the Arctic in the face of oil and gas development. The mechanism he chose to reconcile the varied opposing interests was the national Coastal Zone Management Act which gave local districts considerable authority in the control of energy development, and which for the first time, mandated both the state and federal regulations to comply with the regulations of the local authorities.

Hopson felt that the North Slope Borough Coastal Management Program would provide all parties with a forum for the resolution of conflicts over the use of Arctic natural resources.

Marshaling the best talent he could find nationally, and even internationally, he mounted a detailed zoning plan for the Arctic Coast and presented to the state and federal government the most thorough and extensive coastal management program in the nation, one based on four years of planning and consultation, a plan which he felt provided both optimum conditions for industry and the protection of the traditional uses of the land.

One of his biggest disappointments was the withdrawal of his Coastal Management Plan in 1979 from State consideration because of the failure of both the State and industry to offer the cooperation the program needed for success.

As the State and federal government approached the Joint Federal/State Beaufort Sea Oil and Gas Lease Sale in 1979, Eben and his staff scrutinized the Environmental Impact Statement and found it wanting in several important areas. He sued to stop the sale and found a sympathetic ear in U.S. District Court Judge Aubry Robinson in Washington, D.C. who enjoined the sale because of the failure of the government to exercise its Native trust responsibility and for neglecting protection of the endangered bowhead.

As Hopson stepped down from the exercise of his office early this year for reasons of health, the case was both being appealed and negotiated out of court. Ever the mediator and negotiator, Hopson knew that no settlement of the important claims of industry, the conservationists, the nation, and his own people would be possible without compromise and agreement.

Hopson left all people a lesson that the U.S. system of government can work for those who need it most. As an ardent Presbyterian, as a passionate patriot, and as one fiercely dedicated to the family and the traditions of his people, he worked the system and found that it responds to the needs of people.