Native leaders look back on statehood

Posted: Friday, January 30, 2009

KETCHIKAN - How have Alaska Natives fared under statehood? Has it been a good thing, a bad thing or just one more thing in the long story of contact with Caucasian society?

Several local Alaska Native leaders were interviewed regarding the coming of statehood 50 years ago.


Mary Jones, now an Alaska Native Sisterhood Grand President Emeritus known for her active career in Native organizations, had not yet found her calling when Alaska became a state in January 1959.

She and her late husband, fisherman Willard Jones, were living in Sitka, raising two children and struggling to get by in the face of the then declining salmon resource, she said in a recent interview.

She was half Tsimshian, half Tlingit, and was raised in Metlakatla. Willard, a Haida, was from Kasaan. The potential differences between the federal style of territorial government and statehood were not top subjects of discussion in their lives.

"We had nothing to compare it to," she said.

But she remembered that many Sitkans were excited about the event.

"There was just a big splash," she said. "They had a big celebration. It might have been a big parade, but there was something going on downtown. I was 28 at that time."

Now, looking back, Jones said the state government has been a disappointment with regard to Native issues. It has not offered good protection for Native subsistence food-gathering areas, she said.

The state has not appointed enough Native people, or others who live off the land, to appropriate boards or commissions where they might have advised the state on those issues, said Jones.


Norman Arriola is the recently re-elected president of Ketchikan Indian Community.

"Speaking for myself, not KIC, it's made a lot of difference, as far as subsistence goes," he said.

"When I was a kid, we used to go hunting all the time," he said. "We pretty much took only what we needed to survive through the winter."

The freedom and ability to hunt made a big difference to the family of 16, said Arriola. It put more variety on the family's dinner menu, which he described as "rice, fish and meat, and sometimes potatoes."

The signing of ANCSA made it harder for Natives to easily gather food, he said.

"It's pretty restricted now," Arriola said. "It's got so you need to have a license for everything."


Merle Hawkins, a Ketchikan Indian Community Tribal Council member, recommends her favorite book, "Take My Land, Take My Life: The Story of Congress's Historic Settlement of Alaska Native Land Claims, 1950-1971" by Donald Craig Mitchell, for insight into statehood's effects on Alaska Natives.

Unlike many tribes in the Lower 48, she said, Alaska Natives were politically active and organized well before statehood. They had developed many legal claims regarding civil rights, land use, natural resources and other issues, said Hawkins. Those claims had languished, unsolved, for decades, she said.

Statehood accelerated resolution of those issues because the statehood act prevented Alaska from selecting its lands until after Congress settled with the Natives, she said.

"It caused a land freeze that Congress had to settle in order for the (trans-Alaska oil) pipeline to proceed," Hawkins said.

A thaw came quickly after Atlantic Richfield struck oil at Prudhoe Bay in 1968. It was the largest oil field ever found in North America. President Richard Nixon signed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971 and pipeline construction began in 1974.

Another positive result of statehood, Hawkins said, came in 1976 when the Alaska Supreme Court accepted a settlement of the so-called Molly Hooch case, which ordered the state to provide high schools in more than 100 Native villages. That action resulted in a much higher level of educational success for Native youth, with many more students continuing on to higher education, said Hawkins. It also ended the segregated system of education, in which most Native children, if they continued beyond eighth grade at all, did so at all-Native boarding schools far from home.


"I don't remember anything about statehood," said former Alaska Rep. Bill Williams of Saxman. "I was 14 years old at the time and didn't pay attention."

Williams, who also served as mayor of Saxman and chairman of the board of the Cape Fox Corp., agreed with Hawkins that statehood helped resolve lingering Native claims.

"I think it's been good for the people of Alaska," Williams said.

He recalled that his father, a commercial fisherman, had predicted that the new state would outlaw fish traps, which were a serious threat to the viability of salmon species, said Williams.

"That was a good thing," he said, "because only fishing - and very few other industries - really supported the state."

Later, in the 1980s, a lengthy and bitter controversy erupted over subsistence rights. A conflict developed between federal law, which established a priority for subsistence management of resources; the Alaska Constitution, which guaranteed equal access to resources; the Legislature, which enacted a law that attempted to bring the state into compliance with the federal law; and the Alaska Supreme Court, which struck down as unconstitutional the state law.

The dispute raged through most of Williams' 12-year term in the Legislature (1993-2005).

"Alaska Natives worked on subsistence for many years," he said. "The only reason Natives quit working hard on it was that the federal government already guarantees it."

The Legislature chose not to change the state Constitution, he said.

"So, right now, I believe the Natives' rights are more protected by the federal government," he said.


Tongass Tribe member Martha Johnson was born and raised in Ketchikan. She has been heavily involved, politically and professionally, in Native political bodies and corporations.

Johnson said the state has done a poor job of managing fish and game, especially those resources of interest to Natives.

She cited eulachon, also known as hooligan, as an example of botched state management. The little fish, once plentiful in the Unuk River, are very hard to find now, said Johnson.

People pay $50 a quart for eulachon grease from Canadian sources, she said.

In the old days, if a person needed a deer, they'd go get one anytime of year, she said. It was the same with fishing. Natives took what was needed to survive, she said. It's only in modern times, and in spite of the management and many restrictions, that we hear about so many endangered species, she said.

"I'm worried about the cycle of the food chain," Johnson said.

Despite misgivings, Johnson said Alaska has managed salmon more effectively than has the State of Washington.


Irene Dundas, 34, is a member of the KIC Tribal Council. She is a historian and genealogical researcher for the Cape Fox Heritage Foundation, and has written grants to repatriate Native artifacts and human remains from American museums.

Being too young to have observed statehood firsthand, she said it's not easy to determine whether it was statehood or other social and cultural trends that made things the way they are now. Statehood brought the elimination of fish traps, which was good for the salmon resource; and creation of the Alaska Marine Highway System, which greatly improved communication among Native groups, said Dundas.

Some of the social and civil rights abuses of the 1930s and earlier times were undergoing reform in the years before statehood, she said.

Dundas said she was raised in Kake until age 17. Now she lives in Ketchikan.

Her mother, born in 1950, was raised in the Native subsistence lifestyle, living in Kake, but moving to fish camp in summer, said Dundas.

"She talks about having a seal as a pet at her fish camp, and she would live there all summer long," Dundas said.

Her father, born in 1942, quit school in the 1950s to help his older brother through school, she said.

"I can't imagine having to do that today," she said.

Public education is now seen as a basic fact of life, available to all, regardless of race, she said. Financial aid for higher education also is available, from Native corporations as well as many other agencies, said Dundas.

The ANCSA corporations, which followed statehood, brought good things for Natives, she said. There are good jobs and dividend payments, scholarships and social programs, she said. The corporations even sponsor cultural and language preservation programs, said Dundas.

But the corporations also brought changes in Native leadership patterns, she said.

Unelected clan leaders, who came first in the traditional protocol, have made way for leaders with titles like: "corporate board member," "chairman of the board" or "corporation president," Dundas said.

"It kind of puts cultural leaders on one side and the Native corporation leaders on another," she said.


Gertrude Mather Johnson's family moved to Ketchikan from Metlakatla around 1902. Her father, Paul Mather, was pastor of the Native congregation of St. Elizabeth's Episcopal Church in Ketchikan. Her uncle, Casper Mather, was a well known Tsimshian carver.

Now 92, she is a retired teacher who taught at the Bureau of Indian Affairs school on Deermount Street, as well as at Main School and Valley Park Elementary in Ketchikan. She also trained workers for Ketchikan Indian Community's Early Childhood Development Program.

Johnson retired from KIC in 1972.

"I have never heard anyone say statehood was good for them," she said. "But they didn't say one way or another. It didn't affect us. We were already living the American life (in 1959)."


Richard Jackson, 60, is a former KIC Tribal Council president and leader of the Tongass Tribe.

"I was pretty young then," Jackson said of 1959, when Alaska became a state. "For me it was good. It brought lots of opportunities for Alaskans and participation with other states. I felt like I was equal to everyone else who was a United States citizen.

"That was during the Cold War and Alaska is so close to Russia," he said. "I felt like we were protected then."

Jackson joined the U.S. Navy and served three tours of duty off the coast of Vietnam. There weren't many jobs available when he returned home, until the trans-Alaska oil pipeline construction project began in 1975.

"That was a godsend to me," Jackson said.

ANCSA and the Native corporations it created were good for Natives and good for Alaska, he said, because corporate money and the dividends they provide to shareholders circulate through the economy many times.

"I have no objection to being a United States citizen," Jackson said.


Barbara Bean was 27 and living in Kake when Alaska became a state.

She said she couldn't say whether statehood was mostly a good or a bad thing for Alaska Natives, or just another episode in the story of her people being pulled into another society's world and culture.

Bean said influences other than statehood affected fish and game management issues.

"Natives complained forever that Washington had charge of setting the seasons," Bean said.

Statehood moved that authority to Juneau, but by then, more and more fishermen were coming to Alaska from Outside and they came with more technology, which helped them catch more fish, she said.

"We have the ferry system, which is good," she said.

Before the publicly owned ferry system, people traveled on privately owned and more expensive steamships, she said.

Bean said she traveled by steamship from Ketchikan to Wrangell as a 12-year-old girl to attend eighth grade at the all-Native Wrangell Institute boarding school.

She is glad the era of Indian boarding schools came to an end, she said.

"Imagine a 12-year-old going to boarding school," she said. "When it came time for my own son - no way would I ever send him away to school.

"By that time, we were all leading our own lives - not much according to tradition - except maybe some in the villages," Bean said.

"I've read something somebody said, and I've said it myself, and I've heard other people say it: 'I take the best from both worlds."'

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