One of Alaska’s most respected men died this week in 1976. Howard Rock, editor of the Tundra Times newspaper, united Alaska’s Native people and helped lead them into the new world when crude oil and land claims dominated the news.
In 1911, near the village of Tikigaq, 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 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.
“He was the most soft-spoken man,” said reporter Tom Richards, who worked at the Tundra Times from 1968 to 1974. “But he had tremendous impact with just a few words.”
After taking on the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission to prevent an Arctic atomic test project, Rock used the Tundra Times to fight the federal government on behalf of Aleuts virtually enslaved in the Pribilofs.
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, he (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. He added that 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 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.
“I’ve never seen anybody die the way Howard died – he went in a blaze of glory,” Richards said. “His eyes had a burning light.”
A granite headstone and the rib of a giant bowhead whale, which typically pay tribute to a mighty hunter, mark his final resting place in the Tikigaq tundra about a mile from Point Hope. But Rock’s legacy – that of Native unity and activism – lives on.