One interpretation of the arrow that runs through the three letters of the Alaska Native Sisterhood’s (ANS) emblem, shown on their pins and koogéinaa, is that it shows that the group is “always moving ahead,” Ed Kunz told a lunchtime crowd who attended an ANS panel discussion Tuesday.
In discussing the organization’s history, the panel highlighted the dynamic forces that have kept that arrow in motion — the group’s longtime members.
Panel members Marie Olson, Nora Dauenhauer, Edward Kunz Jr., Connie Munro and Doloresa Cadiente, steered by moderator Kim Metcalfe, shared memories of their family history, their own involvement with ANS, and their hopes for the future of the organization, tracing a trajectory that’s covered more fully in Metcalfe’s book, “In Sisterhood: The History of Camp 2 of the Alaska Native Sisterhood.”
Along with the Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB), the ANS is among the nation’s oldest indigenous civil rights organizations. In Alaska, the groups paved the way for other groups, such as the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, which formed in 1935, and the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, established in 1975.
Founded in 1926, the ANS began as an auxiliary of the ANB (which began in 1912), the group quickly established itself as a formidable entity on its own. Like the ANB, the ANS has addressed Alaska Native civil rights issues from the very beginning, as well as focusing on Native education and health, subsistence and land claim issues, and general quality of life concerns.
The group’s focus ranges from personal, community issues — such as helping local individuals and families in need — to broad, statewide concerns.
One of the most famous examples of the ANS’s political reach is the story of Elizabeth Peratrovich’s work in getting the Anti-Discrimination Act passed in 1945, while she was Grand President of the ANS. Peratrovich’s eloquent testimony, prompted in part by Sen. Allen Shattuck’s coarse words about the “savagery” of Alaska Natives, led to the passage of the act in the state Senate, predating the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 by nearly 20 years. Elizabeth Peratrovich Day, an official state holiday, is celebrated in Alaska on Feb. 16 each year.
Peratrovich’s action exemplifies another important aspect of the ANS: the group’s role as a unifying voice for Alaska Natives. Walter Soboleff, interviewed by Metcalfe for “Sisterhood,” described how both the ANB and the ANS made it easier for Alaska Natives from different clans to work toward common goals, while providing “a means of a transition into a different way of living.”
Another important role, both in the past and currently, is the groups’ advocacy in education, both for Native students in the schools and for women who may have dropped out early in order to raise their families.
Doloresa Cadiente, an ANS member since 1990 and one of the panel members Tuesday, said the group continues to work within the schools to combat racism, and that she’s frequently called in to help solve difficult issues. Two recent examples are multiple incidents of graffiti believed to be anti-Native at JDHS, and a derogatory sign displayed on a school bus, both in 2004.
In addition to working for Native youth, Cadiente and others said they hope to encourage the next generation to become involved in the ANS themselves. According to the introduction of “Sisterhood,” Metcalfe says the average age of the women active in Camp 2 is close to 60 years; an influx of new members is needed.
Munro said the group is currently trying to make it easier for mothers of young children to participate, by working out scheduling and child care issues.
In addition to sharing thoughts about the ANS, panel members, most of whom grew up in or around Juneau, also shared more general memories about the area’s history.
Ed Kunz, whose mother Cecilia Kunz was an active member of the ANS from 1929 until her death in 2004, described hearing his father talk about the first ANB hall, purchased by the Alaska Daughters, a precursor to the ANS. The hall, originally used by miners in Douglas, was moved across the channel from Sandy Beach to Willoughby Avenue in 1921, where it was set up on pilings across from the current ANB/ANS location. He recalled hearing that not so much as a window was broken in the transport.
Nora Dauenhauer, one of 16 children, described being raised in the subsistence tradition in Graves Harbor, north of Cape Spencer. The family visits were brought to an end in 1941, however, when the Coast Guard rousted them out, claiming they might attract the attention of the Japanese.
Marie Olson told of running away to Seattle when she was a teenager after getting expelled from boarding school, adding that she spent the rest of her life making it up to her mother. Born in Juneau, Olson lived in California for many years, but eventually returned to Juneau, joining the ANS in 1974.
Connie Munro who, like Metcalfe, is white, remembered being welcomed into the ANS by Edie Ebona Aspen, who at first thought Munro was Tlingit. On learning she was from Vermont, and of Italian descent, Aspen continued to encourage her to get involved, a decision Munro said she’s very grateful to have made.
“It has been, for me, my family,” Munro said. She’s been a Camp 2 member since 1972.
Both the book and the panel focused on ANS Camp 2, the downtown Juneau camp; there are two other local ANS camps, Glacier Valley Camp 70, and ANS Camp 3, based in Douglas. There are also camps elsewhere in the state, and in Washington, California and Oregon. The ANS Grand Camp serves as the umbrella organization for them all.
“Sisterhood” has more in common with the panel discussion than just subject matter. Like Tuesday’s discussion, the book highlights ANS members’ first-hand oral accounts, transcribed from interviews, giving readers the sense that they are listening to the stories rather than reading them. Metcalfe conducted most of the 30 interviews herself, often with the help of Cy Peck Jr.; in a few cases, family members contributed the interviews, and, in the case of founding member Bessie Visaya, a prerecorded interview was used, as Visaya had already died by the time the project was begun. The direct transcriptions preserve each speaker’s oral idiosyncrasies and the cadence of their speech, retaining its natural flow. Dauenhauer, in speaking about the book Tuesday, praised it for this quality, remarking, “I’ve always loved history in the oral style.” (Dauenhauer herself has published many works based on the Tlingit oral tradition with her husband, Richard Dauenhauer.)
Another engaging aspect of the book is the many historic images gathered from various sources -- including Brian Wallace, whose mother, Dorothy Wallace, was interviewed for the book.
Metcalfe is herself a member of the ANS Camp 2, and has been since 1997.
“Sisterhood,” published in 2008, took seven years to write, and was begun with a National Park Service Historic Preservation Grant. It is available at Hearthside Books and through Metcalfe’s Hazy Island Books, a company she co-owns with editor Liz Dodd.
Part of the proceeds from the books sales go toward scholarships for Native students.For more information, on the book, visit www.hazyislandbooks.com.