Alaska's Cultures

Alaska Natives Fight for Civil Rights
Paul Ongtooguk

Ideas of civil rights, social justice and equity are related to the basic issues of human rights and how people treat one another. Is it fair? Is it just? Is there a rule of law? Is there access to education? Are children and minority groups protected? How are women treated? All societies and cultures have ways of relating to each other and views of fairness and equity have changed greatly in this country and in the world over the last two hundred years.

In the 17th century when Alaska Native and European societies came into contact, their cultures represented very different notions of civil rights and social justice. In Alaska Native cultures, some societies were matriarchal and some patriarchal with rights accorded by gender. Native cultures frequently were defined by caste systems and voice in decision-making was certainly not shared equally. Slavery was common practice among some and customs regarding justified killing varied widely. In general, people of the same language groups were accorded the rights of the society but people of different language groups were not. On the other hand, while European cultures were also characterized by some of the same practices, they had also developed some different structures. Some of these societies were patriarchal with caste and class systems. Others were characterized by religious and racial intolerance and capitalistic ideology. Nationalism and the expansion of national boundaries drove many European cultural groups to engage in the subjugation of other peoples. At this time neither the Alaska Natives nor the Europeans had developed standards of social justice that are considered more universal today.

When the Europeans arrived in the 18th century to colonize Alaska, they considered Alaska Natives to be uncivilized savages who should either be civilized or conquered. In fact, Alaska Native cultures were complex and sophisticated civilizations but every Native culture was eventually transformed by the military, economic and/or political structures of the Russians and/or Americans. During the initial periods of contact with the Europeans, certain Native societies were devastated by military force and disease. The Russians, and later the Americans, often tried to relegate Alaska Natives to an inferior status with inferior roles. As an occupying power, the Americans imposed a legal system that dispossessed Native peoples of their traditional lands. Additionally, the Russians, and especially the Americans, used the law to limit, undermine and diminish the status, power and rights of Alaska Natives. In spite of these circumstances Alaska Native cultures were not extinguished. Their survival demonstrates the determination, resilience and capacity for adaptation of Alaska Native peoples. In order to win full protection under the laws of the United States, as well as recognition and settlement of land claims, Alaska Natives engaged in a struggle over the centuries consistently challenging inequity, asserting their rights as sovereign nations, and acquiring new tools and skills to better engage in that struggle. In a larger sense, the story of how Alaska Natives fought for civil rights illustrates the changing nature of social justice in the United States as a nation. The ability of Alaska Natives to organize, cooperate and overcome in the face of a hostile environment is but one example of the sustained effort that was carried on by many people in this country in their struggles for recognition, equal rights and an end to a segregated society.

The Aleuts suffered greatly under Russian occupation and nearly ninety percent (90%) of the Aleut population perished during the first period (1740s-1830s) of contact. Nevertheless, Native populations responded to the Russians with both resistance and strategic adaptation.

In providing for the protection and civil rights of Native peoples, the Russians distinguished between the civilized, or conquered, Natives who were accorded some civil rights and the uncivilized, or those who had successfully resisted Russian dictates, who had no civil rights. Also, Natives who were members of the Russian Orthodox Church also were normally accorded additional protection, as the Church assumed an advocacy role for its members sometimes to the displeasure of Russian authorities, as noted in the correspondence of Governor Baranof. The Aleuts, faced with imminent annihilation and considered conquered by the Russians, chose conversion to the Orthodox Church as the best path for survival. Conversion took on such significance that the Orthodox faith became an integral part of what it meant to be an Aleut during this Russian period. This aspect of the period is reflected in the journals and writings of Father Veniaminov who was eventually recognized for sainthood by the Russian Orthodox Church.

Alaska Natives also resisted the Russians militarily. Chief Katlian, for example led a Tlingit resistance in the Sitka area. Following a second battle with the Russians, Katlian and the Tlingits of Sitka withdrew along a preplanned route across the island leaving the Russians to enjoy a sense of victory that was cut short with their realization that they needed cooperation with the Tlingits for food and goods. The Russians finally convinced Katlian to return to the Sitka area, but the condition of the return of the Sitka Tlingit was not as conquered people. Rather they returned as military but not social (in the eyes of the Russians) equals. ( see for the "Kiksa.adi Survival March of 1804.").

Other examples of Native resistance included the Athapascan resistance in the Prince William Sound area, the burning of the Russian trading post in Nulato in 1851, and the destruction of the attempted Russian colony in Yakutak. While the Russians had a clear advantage with their "tall ships" in areas of coastal Alaska, the active resistance of Native peoples was an effective deterrent in limiting and containing Russian settlements and ambitions.

When the United States purchased the Russian rights to Alaska (1867) it brought a different framework for dealing with the protection and civil rights of Alaska Natives. For example, Native peoples were viewed, in general, by the Americans as being at the bottom of the ladder of civilization. The U.S. government defined its mission as providing assistance to move Alaska Natives out of this lower status and into higher levels. U. S. Indian policy in the 19th and into the 20th century was shaped by this view. One example of such policy was in 1884 when the Commissioner of Education for the United States banned Native languages in Indian schools and declared an English only policy. Additionally, Alaska Natives were not granted citizenship in the United States and while Indian rights to land title were recognized, those rights were often ignored.

Economic development in Alaska was partially shaped by the Mining Act of 1874 which allowed only two groups of people to stake mining claims: 1) citizens or 2) immigrants of good standing which typically meant 'white' immigrants. Alaska Natives were excluded. Wages were often discriminatory with white males getting paid more than Natives who did the same work. White hire preferences for business, government and community jobs became standard practice. Natives were not allowed to testify in civil courts against whites and Native children were barred from attending white schools. Society was segregated with "whites only" signs and in some cases entire communities were off limits to Native people. Alaska Natives have fought back for over one hundred years to gain some measure of equitable civil rights.

Military resistance to the superior force of the United States proved to be an ineffective strategy, as it was typically met by an overwhelming and brutal response, as in the shellings of Kate (beginning in 1869) and Angoon (1882). At the same time there were other instances of Native peoples trying to assert their rights in a nonviolent confrontational fashion. These attempts, likewise, did not result in improving conditions. In Sitka, for example, when the U. S. army pulled its troops out in 1877, Alaska Natives asserted to the white settlers that they had rights and a role to play in Sitka. The whites were thrown into a panic and pleaded for protection from the government. A British ship, the nearest resource, was sent to the harbor. Also, during the Klondike gold rush, the Indians who controlled access to Chilkoot Pass (originally built by Indians as a trade route) tried to tax miners who were using the trail, just as they taxed other Indian tribes who used their trail. The U. S. Army, however, stepped in on the side of the miners essentially stripping the Indians of their property rights.

The consequences of the Mining Act of 1874 were enormous. Since Alaska Natives were barred from staking claims and since mining was the primary source of wealth in the Territory, Natives were prevented from the opportunity to accumulate wealth. Again, Natives throughout Alaska tried to establish their right to be treated as equals. In Circle, Rampart, Crooked Creek and other places Alaska Natives staked and filed claims following established procedures only to have them taken by whites with the legal justification that Natives were not U. S. citizens or immigrants of good standing. Despite Native pleas to the federal authorities 'white' Alaska prevailed in setting the terms of the social and economic conditions and establishing who would become the power brokers in the Territory.

Some Alaska Natives, in trying to balance the power of the white miners and the U.S. military, allied with the missionaries. Missionaries during this time were often government officials as well as religious figures and their agenda was to civilize and to convert the Natives. Alaska Natives were anxious to have the missionaries set up schools so that the young people could learn about the other world and be more successful in facing the unknown future. The Tlingit and Haida peoples, for example, understood that not only basic education, but also higher education was necessary to respond to the lack of land title, racial discrimination, and the lack of opportunity to participate in the civil government of Alaska. William Paul, a brilliant Tlingit Native leader successfully earned his law degree during the Territorial years in 1920.

Native groups were also learning how to organize and use the power of organizations to advance their cause during this time. The Presbyterian missionaries in Southeast Alaska formed the Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB) and Sisterhood (ANS) organizations to promote white American culture among the Natives. The by-laws of these organizations prohibited participation in potlatches, the speaking of Native languages or the practicing of Native religions. However, once these organizations were in place, the Tlingits and Haidas took advantage of this Western tool and shifted the agenda to promote the interests of Native peoples in ways not anticipated by the missionary groups. The ANB and ANS, for example, were important organizations for Natives as they pursued the right to become citizens of the United States. Also, in interior Alaska, the Tanana Chiefs protested (1915) the taking of lands for the Alaska Railroad without consent or compensation. The federal government ignored these protests but from the confrontation came the idea of a formal Tanana Chiefs Conference to promote the social, civic and educational well being of Alaska Natives.

By the 1920s some Native leaders had developed a sophisticated enough understanding of Western and American law to try to move the issue over land into the court system. A generation of attorneys, such as William Paul, had been prepared to take on the fight and organizations such as the ANB and ANS were making the pursuit of Native land claims a part of their agenda. The federal court was not a neutral venue. White males were in control. However, despite these odds, the Tongass Case in 1935 was accepted by the Indian Claims Court. Because the land claims were based on the argument that Natives had traditionally used and occupied the land, evidence had to be presented to support that contention. The effort that went into the gathering of evidence was substantial and strategic. Elders were interviewed, maps were drawn, data providing specific information from households and families about subsistence hunting and gathering were prepared. The case was finally resolved in 1967 and while the settlement was eventually accepted by the Native communities, the social and cultural cost was significant as families, clans and tribes were bitterly divided over the conditions, including the lack of return of any Native land and the monetary value placed on the land taken.

In the meantime, Native people across the State continued to organize to protest the taking of Native lands without consultation or compensation. The Rampart Dam Project and Project Chariot were both defeated in part because of organizations such as the Fairbanks Native Association, the Tanana Chiefs Conference and the forerunner of the Arctic Slope Native Association. In response to Project Chariot the first Native newspaper, The Tundra Times, edited by Howard Rock, an Inupiat artist from Pt. Hope was launched. The Tundra Times played a critical role for Native people in reporting news and advocating for Native issues.

By 1966 Native organization advanced as a state-wide effort and the Alaska Federation of Natives was formed. This organization was critical as the discovery of oil on the North Slope precipitated the settlement of Native land claims in the form of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971. While some continue to debate the merits of this Act, it is widely acknowledged that the Native leadership in negotiating under tough conditions with the federal government was remarkably tenacious and more successful than anyone might have predicted.

The transformation of Alaska Natives from being considered by America as marginalized societies to legally recognized equals occurred because of the sustained effort carried on by many people for over a hundred years. In each generation, Native leaders contributed their talents and were supported by Native people who had a long-term commitment to dismantle a system of inequity that had been set up by others. While many non Natives contributed to the effort, it was the determination of Native peoples that kept the vision alive. Their persistence in creating educational opportunities, integrating Western structures into their cultures, resisting unfair policies and mandates, and registering protests with the federal government were deliberate actions taken to achieve a goal. Success has been manifested in many ways. For example, today, several of the regional corporations formed under ANCSA have become so important that they are economic engines for the State. Additionally, Alaska Natives are active in politics and many of the State's most prominent politicians and government officials are Alaska Native. Alaska Native cultures are featured in the tourism industry and museums and private individuals from around the world seek and collect Native art. As traditional Alaska Native cultures intersected with American European culture, the standards and definitions of civil rights and social justice in this country evolved. The success achieved by Alaska Natives has resulted in a future for Alaskans and Americans that is filled with increased possibility.