Tlingit civil rights hero William Paul Sr. remembered

Juneau residents gathered to share their memories and impressions of Tlingit civil rights activist and lawyer William Paul Sr. last week on what would have been Paul’s 130th birthday, May 7, one week before Sealaska Heritage Institute's May 15 dedication of the Walter Soboleff Building’s archives facility in his name. The meeting, organized by local lawyer and researcher Kathy Ruddy for the second year in a row, welcomed input from about a dozen participants, some of whom knew Paul personally, with a larger goal of bringing recognition to Paul’s contributions to Alaska history.


Though not yet a household name in Alaska, Paul is recognized by scholars as a pivotal figure in the history of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, and was the first Native attorney in Alaska, as well as the first Native legislator. An early member of the Alaska Native Brotherhood, the country’s first Native civil rights organization, he worked to secure a wide range of civil rights for Alaska Natives beginning in 1920, including voting, citizenship, fishing and school desegregation. Those who attended Thursday’s meeting described a passionate orator and advocate who argued for Native rights in many different contexts, from ANB halls in Southeast to courtrooms in Washington D.C., and who was able to work from within the nation’s political and legal system to fight for equal rights for his fellow Tlingits and other Alaska Natives at a time when such rights were far from a given.

At the beginning of Thursday’s gathering, before passing the microphone to master of ceremonies Debra O’Gara, Ruddy pointed out that Paul and others who worked alongside him were trailblazers in the civil rights movement not just in Alaska, but in the entire nation.

“This is significant political history,” Ruddy said. “And Alaska is unique in having the civil rights leap forward years before the rest of the country -- we were leaders in the rest of the country.”

The most senior members of the meeting, Tlingit elders Selena Everson, 86, and Ethel Lund, 83, both said they remembered hearing Paul’s name all the time when they were kids; both were raised in active ANB/ANS families.

“He was in the Legislature before Ethel and I were born,” Everson said. “... What if we didn’t have leaders like William Paul? What if we didn’t have leaders like Mildred Sparks? They laid the groundwork for us to carry on, and we are doing the best we can. Their words and their characters stay with us today.”

Lund said she eventually came to know Paul personally and learned a great deal from him in the political arena, beginning with her days as ANS secretary in Wrangell.

“I have great admiration for this man,” Lund said. “We still are facing some heavy issues, but we haven’t seen the leadership of the type this man provided us at that time.”

Former Juneau mayor Bruce Botelho, who interviewed Paul in the 1970s while making a documentary on racism in Ketchikan, said he was able to get a sense first-hand of Paul’s gifts as an orator.

“(He was) incredibly charismatic, erudite, (and had) incredible recall about specific events,” Botelho said. “He was a great orator, a great storyteller, but, most importantly, an incredible strategist. Everything he did was calculated. I mean, he had a plan to achieve.”

Paul was known to be a very controversial figure and developed many political enemies during his lifetime. In the early 1920s he was accused of manipulating voters by instructing illiterate individuals in how to cast their ballots according to his specifications, and in 1928 of accepting campaign donations from the canned salmon industry, a group whom he publicly shunned. In 1937 he was disbarred on the grounds that he had defrauded a client, and was not readmitted until 1959.

“People either held him in the highest regard, or thought he was a scoundrel ... -- and he was a bit of both,” Botelho said. “I think we just don’t hide the blemishes or the fact that he was a controversial figure. I think he was proud to be controversial. He’s a person who I think had a real strong sense that he was right in his causes, and perhaps it colored in some respects his judgment in terms of how he went about achieving those resolves.”

Botelho said he must be judged on the “totality” of his achievements, which in his mind represent “incredible contributions in terms of advancing civil rights in this country.”

Meeting member Peter Metcalfe also remembers meeting Paul through his father, Vern. Metcalfe’s book, “A Dangerous Idea: The Alaska Native Brotherhood and the Struggle for Indigenous Rights,” published in November by the University of Alaska Press, was written after years of documentary research, with legal assistance from Ruddy. Metcalfe began the book project with Andy Hope III in 2008 through a grant provided by the Alaska Humanities Forum and funded by the Rasmuson Foundation as part of the Alaska Statehood Experience program. (Hope died before the project could be finished; his son Ishmael has also studied Paul’s life and is working on a play inspired by Metcalfe’s research.) In the book, Metcalfe explores how Paul, fellow ANB member Peter Simpson and Judge James Wickersham pushed the idea of Native land rights beginning in 1929, long before formation of the Alaska Federation of Natives in 1966. The men raised the “dangerous idea” of suing the US government at a 1929 meeting, a suggestion that made many uncomfortable given that citizenship for Natives had only been secured five years earlier.

Metcalfe argues in the book that had it not been for the ANB and Paul’s groundwork throughout this period, the landmark ANCSA legislation might never have occurred, with dramatic ramifications for Alaska history and Native rights.

“I think, undeniably, he is one of the great figures in Alaska history, so I’m really happy to see what’s happening,” Metcalfe said.

Several members of the meeting, including Juneau property broker Carlton Smith, said the events explored in Metcalfe’s book fill a gap in Alaska Native history. Smith, who is Tlingit, said helping his children and others become more informed about Alaska Native history is a major concern for him (he has developed his own 110-question test for his kids covering topics like clan history, songs, Native language and state history). He joined several members of Thursday’s meeting in saying he would like to see “A Dangerous Idea” become part of the curriculum for high school students across the state.

“I think about the kids today that are trying to grasp the concept of the original Tlingit-Haida settlement and then ANCSA, they have not had this piece, ‘The Dangerous Idea,’ until now,” Smith said.

Also at the meeting were Jackie Schoppert; Jim Simard, Head of Historical Collections at the Alaska State Library; archivist Zach Jones; University of Alaska Southeast professor Alice Taff; and Deborah O’Gara’s mother, Carol O’Gara. Carol O’Gara’s grandmother was William Paul’s mother, Matilda “Tillie” Paul Tamaree, herself a powerful figure in Alaska Native civil rights history. (Tamaree and her uncle, Charles Jones were arrested in 1922 for “falsely swearing to be a citizen” while attempting to vote in Wrangell before Natives had secured the right to do so. William Paul defended them and won, in a ruling that predated the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924.)

In closing comments, Debra O’Gara said the example of Paul’s life and achievements led her to decide to become a lawyer herself. Remembering and recognizing Paul is the first step, she said, continuing his legacy is the next.

“So, as we remember William Paul, I think we need to remember not just everything that he’s been able to accomplish and the role that he’s been able to play, but how are we going to carry on and do some of the things that he did in his lifetime in our lifetime.”


Sealaska Heritage Institute will formally dedicate the archives facility of the new Walter Soboleff Building to William Paul as part of Friday’s grand opening events. His grandson, Ben, will take part in the ceremony.


Biographies of Tillie Paul Tamaree and William Paul can be found in “Haa Kusteeyí, Our Culture: Tlingit Life Stories,” edited by Nora Marks Dauenhauer and Richard Dauenhauer, published by the University of Washington Press and SHI.

To read a previous Empire article on “A Dangerous Idea,” see

Bringing Native history to the fore
Playwright Hope's new work deeply rooted in Tlingit history
Grand opening of Walter Soboleff Building kicks off Friday


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