Eben Hopson


This biography was included in the Order of Service of the Eben Hopson Memorial Services

at the Utkeagvik Presbyterian Church, July 2, 1980.

The son of Al and Maggie Hopson, Eben Hopson 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’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 his disposition, Eben was branded a troublemaker and was prevented from boarding the BIA ship, North Star to travel to the boarding high school.

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 in to the Army when Rebecca was eight months pregnant with their first child. He 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, he served as a bosun’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 and maintenance of the DEW Line sites.

Eben joined the Alaska National Guard in 1949 and, by 1953, had attained the rank of Captain, Command 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 first 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 1960. He served in the Senate until 1965 as Chairman of the Labor and Management Committee.

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 that year. In 1968, after serving as the first Vice-President of the Alaska Federal of Natives (AFN), Hopson moved to Anchorage to become its Executive Director. Under his direction, the AFN became a strong, well-financed federation of the native regional associations of all Alaska. During that time, he launched the Washington, D.C. native land claims lobby that secured the enactment of the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act in 1971 which awarded the Alaskan regional and village corporations a cash settlement of nearly $1 billion and title 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.

Eben left the AFN to become Special Assistant for Native Affairs to Governor William Egan in 1970. Working closely with Egan, he 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, he 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, Hopson 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, from the Arctic coast to the crest of the Brooks Range. Revenues would come from the billion-dollar tax base 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.

One of the most innovative accomplishments 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 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 Alaska 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. But with persistence, Hopson saw the homes built and finally won the financial participation of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (DHUD) in the NSB housing project.

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 with Egan 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.

In 1975, Hopson was re-elected Borough Mayor. That same year he was invited by Congressman John Melcher (D – Montana), Chairman of the House Interior Subcommittee on Public Lands, to send a planning team to Washington to work with the Committee staff to draft legislation that resulted in the transfer of the Naval Petroleum Reserve #4 to the control of the Department of Interior. Earlier in his career, Hopson had been successful in getting the Department of Navy to share with Barrow residents the abundant and low-cost natural gas from the nearby Naval Petroleum Reserve.

With passage of the Naval Petroleum Reserve Production Act in 1976, Hopson saw the creation of a massive three-year, $500 million study of the new National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, which would determine the values and best of uses of that area, roughly the size of Indiana. The Borough’s part in that study showed the area to be rich in historical and cultural values as well as in natural resources.

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 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, called 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 protections, Arctic health and technology, and Inuit culture and education.

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, D.C., 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.

Most recently, Hopson’s efforts were directed toward the environmental protection of the Arctic in the face of oil and gas development. Marshaling the best talent he could find, he mounted a detailed zoning plan for the Arctic coast and presented to the state and nation a Coastal Management Program which he felt provided for an environmentally safe program for the industrial development of America’s Arctic coastline.

As the state and federal governments 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 whale.

Hopson entered Barrow Indian Health Service Hospital on June 16, 1980. After several days in a coma, he expired on June 28, 1980, the opening day of the Second Inuit Circumpolar Conference in Greenland. He was 57 years old. He is survived by his wife Rebecca and his twelve children: Charles, Eben Jr., Margaret, Kathy, Flossie, Pauline, Patrick, David, William, Lloyd, Emory, and Georgianna.