Alaska's Cultures

Tribal Governments and the US Constitution
Paul Ongtooguk

The exploration of the New World by Europeans is typically portrayed in art and film as a romantic adventure. The explorers were certainly a brave and adventurous group, but the images of flags being raised or swords stuck boldly upright in the earth reveal very little about some important principles established during this historical period in Western history. The continuing recognition of American Indian and Alaska Native tribes as sovereign nations in this country happened at least in part because of events that occurred during the Age of Exploration when European and Native American civilizations entered a period of extended contact.

In the 15th century when European countries developed the ability to navigate great bodies of water, a whole 'new world' became available for exploration and colonization. Many European countries, such as France, England, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, and Italy hoped to gain some new world land and profit from its riches and strategic position. At this time the people of Europe were predominately Christian and the Catholic Church was a powerful political force. The Church recognized that if European nations argued, or fought, with each other over new world land that Europe, as a whole, would be weakened. The Church then set about to establish some process by which the exploration and colonization of the New World could proceed with minimal conflict among the European nations. The result of the Church's deliberations has come to be known as the Doctrine of Discovery. This doctrine's goal was to establish the 'guidelines' under which European exploration and colonization were conducted.

In deciding how to bring order to the exploration and colonization of the New World, the Catholic Church considered the example set by Portugal and Spain in South America. Since no agreed upon international rules existed, Portugal and Spain simply decided on a line of division and claimed large parts of South America for themselves. Other western European countries, that had not been included in this agreement, considered this action unfair. What about their share? How could they establish claims? The Doctrine of Discovery addressed this concern.

First, the Doctrine stressed evidence of actual exploration or, in a way, 'proof' of having been there. Evidence could include flora and fauna that were unique to the area. This requirement led to the inclusion of scientists, such as botanists, as well as artists in exploring parties. Maps were also important evidence of exploration and map making was advanced as a science during this period. The European countries were very competitive as they rushed to secure new land and riches. Governments paid for explorers, such as Captain Cook, in order to gather sufficient evidence to validate a claim to an area that would be exclusive from other European countries. Present day Alaska was explored, for example, by the Spanish, the French, the British, and the Russians. The Spanish explored and named the port of Valdez after the Spanish Minister of the Navy and the Russians initially established multiple settlements on the Aleutian chain prior to their colonization in Southeast Alaska.

But what about the people who lived on these 'new' lands? How were they to be treated? What was to be done with them? Amazingly today, a fundamental question at that time was, "Were indigenous people human?" Many colonizing countries engaged in the brutal murder of indigenous men, women and children. Some Spanish conquerors did not consider aboriginals to be human, but rather bipedal animals and they treated them accordingly. These atrocities conflicted with the beliefs of some of the missionaries who viewed indigenous people as potential converts to the Catholic faith. Eventually the conflicting views and practices of the missionaries and the military came to the highest levels of the Catholic Church for resolution. In considering the issues the Church established principles for dealing with indigenous people that were grounded in Christian faith and doctrine.

After extended deliberation the Church decided that indigenous people were indeed human. This determination led to another element of the Doctrine of Discovery: Indigenous people must be offered the opportunity to embrace the gospel, the eternal truth. In practice it is difficult to imagine how offers to embrace the gospel were advanced by the Europeans in a manner that was understood by Native Americans. However, the determination that indigenous people were human and capable of salvation tended to result in more humane treatment, as well as establishing the principle that if war were to occur with indigenous people then there had to be cause and the manner in which the war was conducted would be subject to certain principles of 'just' warfare conduct. Among those practices of conduct were the principles that the women, the young, the old and the unarmed would not be harmed and that reckless destruction would be avoided. Nations today are held to similar standards of 'just' warfare conduct.

The Doctrine of Discovery provided a way by which a country could establish external sovereignty. Once a claim was established as legitimate, perhaps arbitrated through international diplomacy, it prevented other Europeans from making such a claim. The claim of external sovereignty, however, did not mean that the Europeans had a right to the land itself. The church's view was that because indigenous people were human, they had an aboriginal right to their land. Land could be taken only by treaty or trade or through a just war. While a certain amount of land was appropriated to support the needs of the Europeans, the principle that the tribes had land rights has been fundamentally important to the ability of tribes to continue to exist.

Many principles from the Doctrine of Discovery were accepted by the founding fathers of this country. The recognition of tribes, their land rights and the negotiation of treaties with tribes continued, even after the American Revolution. Since tribes were considered as sovereign nations, only the head of a nation, such as a king, could deal with the head of a tribe, such as a chief. The Constitution specifically addressed this issue by providing in the Commerce Clause that only Congress could deal with Indian Tribes. This government (United States) to government (tribal) relationship continues to this day, as does the recognition of Tribes as sovereign nations. Alaska has over two-hundred active tribal governments and thousands of Alaska Natives hold dual citizenship. The principles represented in the Doctrine of discovery influenced the way that Europeans related to indigenous nations hundreds of years ago and these principles continue to influence the thinking of Western nations to this day.