On Dec. 18, 1971, the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act was signed into law. And one Alaska Native man worked tirelessly to help his people get to that agreement. His name was Howard Rock, and according to several sources, he was destined to be a leader from the time he was born.

In 1911, near the village of Tikigaq, Howard Rock’s shaman grandmother predicted he would become a great man. More than 50 years later, the prophecy came true. Rock, small in stature, did indeed become a giant among men.

In October 1962, the Point Hope Eskimo was asked by the Arctic Slope Native Association to start the Tundra Times with Fairbanks journalist Tom Snapp. Through the newspaper, Rock, a soft-spoken man, changed the way many Native people saw themselves by actively encouraging them to have pride and respect for their heritage and cultures – and to fight for them.

Rock, through his newspaper, unified Alaska Natives by “knowing the hearts and minds of the people,” Alaskan leaders said. At a time when there was often disharmony around the state, Rock pushed for the formation of a statewide gathering of Natives, helping to set the stage for the first Alaska Federation of Natives convention.

Perhaps more than anyone else, Rock helped weld together the frontier state’s 55,000 Natives for their successful years-long fight to win the largest aboriginal land claims settlement in American history, wrote Stan Patty of the Seattle Times. Patty said Rock was their voice; at times about the only calm voice when crescendos of dissent threatened to tear Alaska apart.

Thanks in part to Rock’s activism, the fledgling AFN began demanding land and money from the federal government. When the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was signed into law in December 1971, Rock hailed its passage as “the beginning of a great era for the Native people of Alaska.”

In 1975, Rock’s leadership was recognized with Alaska’s Man of the Year award, which he shared with U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens. That same year, the newspaper was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for meritorious public service.

Rock died of cancer on April 20, 1976.

A granite headstone and the rib of a giant bowhead, which typically pay tribute to a mighty hunter, mark his final resting place in the tundra about a mile from Point Hope. But Rock’s legacy – that of Alaska Native unity and activism – lives on.

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