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Giving voice to the past: Local writers provide depth to ANB history

Posted: October 18, 2012 - 12:06am
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Members of Juneau's Tlingit community gather in the Thunderbird House circa 1950. Left to right: standing; Joe Johnson, Alice Nelson, Priscilla Corpus, Dorothy James Coronell, Peter Williams, Albert Johnson, Jimmie John, Henry Anderson, Bessie Visaya, Walter Soboleff, Johnny Wise, Jessie Collier Wilson. Seated, left to right; Edward Kunz, Sr., Cecilia Kunz, unidentified, Willie Peters, Frank Shorty, Nellie Willard.   Photo courtesy of Rosa Miller
Photo courtesy of Rosa Miller
Members of Juneau's Tlingit community gather in the Thunderbird House circa 1950. Left to right: standing; Joe Johnson, Alice Nelson, Priscilla Corpus, Dorothy James Coronell, Peter Williams, Albert Johnson, Jimmie John, Henry Anderson, Bessie Visaya, Walter Soboleff, Johnny Wise, Jessie Collier Wilson. Seated, left to right; Edward Kunz, Sr., Cecilia Kunz, unidentified, Willie Peters, Frank Shorty, Nellie Willard.

The Alaska Native Brotherhood is celebrating 100 years this month, a milestone that, among other things, offers an opportunity for Alaskans to find out more about an organization that has played an important role in our state history. One simple way to learn more is to seek out the words of local authors, researchers, and elders for whom the topic is familiar ground -- an opportunity that will be provided on Saturday at the Juneau Douglas City Museum, when Kim Metcalfe and others will present ”The Alaska Native Brotherhood: A Centennial Celebration.” This Coffee and Collections event is being held in conjunction with Metcalfe’s current exhibit of the same name. The free presentation begins at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 20, at the museum.

Metcalfe is the editor of “In Sisterhood: The History of Camp 2 of the Alaska Native Sisterhood.” The book features transcripts of interviews with elders about ANB and ANS history, giving the reader a view of events and the individuals that shaped them that is much more complex and layered than timelines or codified descriptions can allow. The public discussion on Saturday will be organized along similar lines, and include the participation of Tlingit elders Marie Olson (Kaayistaan), and Ed Kunz Jr. (Seitaan), both of whom are featured in the book and are longtime ANB and ANS members.

Also participating in Saturday’s event will be Metcalfe’s brother, Peter Metcalfe, author of “The Sword and the Shield,” an essay about the ANB’s defense of aboriginal land claims. Metcalfe’s essay, like his sister’s collection of interviews, allows readers to gain an appreciation for the complexity of ANB history, the interconnectedness of events and the impact of individuals.

The ANB was formed in 1912 in Sitka, by founding members Peter Simpson (Sitka), Ralph Young (Sitka), Chester Worthington (Wrangell), James C. Johnson (Klawock), Paul Liberty (Sitka), Seward Kunz, (Juneau), Frank Mercer (Juneau), Frank Price (Sitka), George Field (Klawock), Eli Katanook (Angoon), James Watson (Juneau), and William Hobson (Angoon), Marie Orson (Klukwan) and Andrew Wanamaker (Sitka). One of the group’s initial goals was to lay the groundwork for citizenship rights for Alaska Natives in the first decade of the 1900s (the Native Citizenship Act was not passed until 1924).

A second major goal, and one that conflicted at times with the first, was to work for aboriginal land rights. In understanding this complicated aspect of ANB history, Peter Metcalfe’s essay “The Sword and the Shield,” is a very valuable resource. The research project was begun with Andrew “Andy” Hope III (Xhaastánch), the grandson of early ANB leader Andrew Hope Sr. (Khaa.ooshtí) as part of an Alaska Statehood Experience grant. Though Andy Hope died in 2008, before the project was complete, Metcalfe carried it through, relying on the extensive documentation Hope was able to provide.

In the essay, Metcalfe shows how the decades of work undertaken by the Tlingit and Haida of Southeast in the ANB, particularly in bringing suit against the U.S. government in 1929, set the stage for the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980, two enormously influential pieces of legislation. Metcalfe writes:

“In retrospect, it is worth considering one of the great “What ifs?” of Alaska history: What would Alaska look like today if aboriginal claims had been eliminated or settled prior to statehood? It is not difficult to imagine that with no Native claims to be addressed there would have been no Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971 and, of great significance to Natives and non-Natives alike, no ANCSA Section 17(d)(2), by which 80 million acres of Alaska land were set aside for future consideration as national parks and other protective designations. This section — ‘D-2’ — ignited the ‘Alaska Lands Battle’ of the late 1970s that resulted in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) of 1980, which, among other things, more than doubled the total acreage in the United States under wilderness designations.”

 

Inspired by history

One of the people who was affected by Metcalfe’s exploration of history was Ishamael Hope, Andy Hope’s son. Ishmael Hope was inspired after reading the essay to pursue his own research of the topic.

Ishmael Hope, a local writer and storyteller, already knew quite a bit about the ANB through his family’s extensive involvement: his great grandfather was Andrew Hope Sr., who joined the ANB as a teenager in about 1914 — and the man for whom the ANB Hall on Willoughby is named; and his grandfather, Andrew John Hope (Khaalgéikw), who went by John, was also heavily involved in the organization, as was his father, Andy. But Metcalfe’s essay pointed up aspects of the ANB’s history that had been obscured from him.

“I had heard growing up about William Paul, and the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood leaders, but then I went, ‘Wow. These guys did unbelievable things.’ And they’ve been mischaracterized and stereotyped, I think.”

Hope is exploring some of his research in a new play “The Defenders of Alaska Native Country,” a work in progress that was read this past spring at Perseverance Theatre. Hope said the play is for him a way to honor ANB history and the elders who lived it. Like the Metcalfes’ works, Hope’s play, which includes reenactments of historical events that are as close to the truth as he could make them, gives depth to ANB history, presenting a past that is full of the complexity of human interaction.

Hope based the play on historical transcripts, letters and other documents he studied at Sealaska Heritage Institute and the University of Alaska library system. One of the things that struck him in his research was the fact that many of the important leaders, those who played an instrumental role in moving the aboriginal land claims issue forward, have not been remembered. Their names have fallen into obscurity.

For example, Frank Johnson (Taakw K’wát’i), who along with Hope’s great-grandfather helped organize the lawsuit against the United States government that Metcalfe describes as setting the stage for ANCSA, “Tlingit and Haida Indians v. United States.” They won the case in 1959.

Another is William Paul, the first Alaska Native lawyer, and a man who “by force of brilliance and persistence was a leader, whether anyone liked it or not.”

“He was totally in your face which is different from the Tlingit ideal of humility. But he needed to be. It was all hands on deck — they were fighting for their lives,” Hope said. “He was incredibly, totally egocentric and brilliant and warrior-like and, ultimately a hero, a very human hero.”

Hope’s play also features Peter Simpson, one of the original ANB members; Roy and Elizabeth Peratovich, well-known civil rights leaders; and Charlie Jones (Shéiksh), who became “Chief Shakes,” among others.

 

Strong in both Tlingit and Western ways

In addition to calling attention to unrecognized leaders, Hope’s play highlights how some of the early ANB leaders were able to combine their Tlingit worldview with Western framework — meetings, the court system, and government procedures. History often presents the early leaders as having abandoned the traditions of their culture; Hope doesn’t see it that way,

“The mere existence of one world view doesn’t have to exclude another. They both can live in a way that really enhances each other,” he said. “That’s what the Alaska Native Brotherhood leaders largely did, that’s what I try to tell in the story, that they come out of the Tlingit world view, speak the Tlingit language and really adopt new ways and have them come together. And you just see how much they enriched the community by being strong in both Tlingit and Western ways.”

“They were master parliamentarians, they knew how to get things done, they knew how to leave a paper trail through the minutes being taken and the letters that were written,” he said. “They knew how to unite as a people even if they had very deep internal disagreements.”

In her “In Sisterhood” interview, elder Marie Olson makes a similar point about Tlingit tradition setting the stage for the ANB’s success as a social and political body. The founders of the ANB, Olson says, were able to draw on their indigenous traditions to make the group strong. For example, working together to reach a consensus was something that came naturally to the ANB leaders, she said, because that is the way Tlingit society operated traditionally.

“If you look at the process of how the Lingit Naa Káani Yán, the speakers of the different houses, when they got together and they had to settle a dispute, they did it on the consensus basis. .... That’s the process that was transferred over into the ANB.”

Going one step further, Walter Soboleff (Khaajaakhwtí) said in his “in Sisterhood” interview that the ANB was able to build unity across clan lines. Soboleff joined the ANB in 1930.

“We took (the ANB and ANS) serious because it was a means of transition into a different way of living. And it was a good tool. It helped bring people together, Whereas before that the clan was the working force... The ANB and ANS just seemed to bring us all together to work as a united group.”

Each of these writers and researchers -- Kim Metcalfe, Peter Metcalfe and Ishmael Hope -- succeed in bringing ANB history to life in ways that history books could never do. Part of how they do this is by tapping in to the power of specific, individual human voices and by not simplifying complicated moments in history.

“As far as I’m concerned, an accurate portrayal of the ANB acknowledges its complexity and the richness of that complexity,” Hope said.

Hope also said that the contributions made by the Metcalfes are right in line with the work that their father did in the Native community.

Their father, Vern Metcalfe, “a super likeable guy by all indications,” served in the Territorial Legislature in the 1950s, and first became involved with the Native community by announcing for Gold Medal Tournaments. He later became involved in recording Tlingit history.

“Listening to his interviews with Alaska Native Brotherhood leaders in the ‘90s was totally eye opening,” Hope said. “He was so close to the Native community, really deeply close. So Vern’s children, Peter and Kim Metcalfe, they’ve kept that up.”

•••

For more on “in Sisterhood,” published by Hazy Island Books, visit www.hazyislandbooks.com.

To read “The Sword and the Shield” online, go to www.ankn.uaf.edu/ANCR/Southeast/Chronology.

For more on Hope’s work, visit his website at alaskanativestoryteller.com.

For more information about Saturday’s presentation, visit. www.juneau.org/parkrec/museum.

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