In November of 1912, thirteen men and one woman gathered together in Juneau to organize the Alaska Native Brotherhood, which is now celebrating its momentous Centennial in Sitka where its first camp was organized. The Founders included Peter Simpson, Ralph Young, Frank Price, Paul Liberty, Seward Kunz, James Watson, Frank Mercer, Chester Worthington, James C. Johnson, George Fields, Eli Katanook, William Hobson, Andrew Wanamaker and Marie Orsen.
The Founding Fathers and Mother of the Alaska Native Brotherhood likely couldn’t have imagined in their wildest dreams the great achievements of the Brotherhood and the Sisterhood. They gathered together to protect their people, and they proved to be enormously successful.
Largely through the leadership of brothers William and Louis Paul, the Brotherhood expanded and became a deft and forceful political unit that won the right to vote, overcame discrimination in schools and businesses and won aboriginal title. They did this while, in many cases, assuming cultural leadership hand in hand with political leadership. Many leaders of the Brotherhood and Sisterhood were Aanyátx’I — Noble People, Naa Sháade Nakhx’í Yán — Clan Leaders, and Naa Tláa — Clan Mothers. Frank Johnson — Taakw K’wát’i, Cyrus Peck, Sr., Mark Jacobs, Sr., Jennie Marks — Khustuyaxh Sée and Helen Sanderson were among the many leaders who were exemplars of multiculturalism, who understood that true sovereignty means much more than the political tools we use to fight for our people. Our relationships to our ancestors and to the land can only give us strength as we remember and renew what it means to be indigenous.
We call on our grandparents’ spirits — Haa Kináa Yéigi, we honor our opposites — Haa Ghunatkanaayí, and as Ruth Demmert — Khaanákh, says, “Ch’a tlákw khusixhán een x’wán.” Always be with love.
This gives us our grounding, and, in actuality, it is the essence of sovereignty and self-determination. Many Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood leaders knew this, because many were raised speaking their indigenous heritage languages, and many of them received training from their tradition bearers. They recognized the urgency of understanding the English language and modern ways of doing things — often mastering the political process to the point of outmaneuvering their political opponents — but they also knew the spiritual nourishment of their ancestors. During this Centennial Celebration, it is a good time to remember who they were and what they stood for.
Now, our sovereignty is being challenged. Alaskan tribes are not included in the Violence Against Women Act. The ability for tribes to handle child custody cases is being challenged in the US Supreme Court. Many people today are misinformed about tribal governments — about their history, about the foundational government-to-government relationships between the United States and tribes, and about the meaning of sovereignty and self-determination. Everyone is empowered if we have an understanding of our history, if local communities can deal with their problems, and if Native people exercise their right to be indigenous. It is a wholesome and healthy way to engage with our history and with the land. Our Founders also knew that this empowerment begins by voting, by making your voice heard. We strengthen ourselves by voting. Get out the vote. Remember your ancestors and protect your future. Gunalchéesh.
• Hope is a storyteller from Juneau, Alaska who shares stories from his Iñupiaq and Tlingit heritages. He is deeply involved in the cultural events of his people, and frequently shares his art and culture in workshops, classrooms, and conferences. Keep up with Hope at http://alaskanativestoryteller.com/