My Turn: Time to end an injustice

Posted: Sunday, March 20, 2011

This responds to Florian Sever’s letter (“Something isn’t right”) in Wednesday’s Empire. After 50 years of the practice of law and having seen injustice, regrettably I conclude that the treatment afforded to the Tlingits over many years regarding their land claims has been very unfair. Mr. Sever’s letter seeks to perpetuate the injustice. Aside from taking a gratuitous swipe at Sen. Lisa Murkowski for her efforts to resolve the land claims matter and voicing picayune complaints about how Sealaska might select and use its property, the letter is only a continuation of the anti-land claims sentiment harbored by a vocal few in Southeast Alaska. The parade of horrors that the letter suggests is absurd, and does not deserve serious treatment.

Ask yourself how would you would feel if your tribe or clan group owned an area the size of New England, and one morning you awoke and learned that some other group had taken all of it. Native rights have been largely ignored from the beginning. Well before the white man appeared in Alaska, the Tlingits developed a sophisticated society in the Tongass with both a balanced system of justice that successfully permitted the peaceful resolution of disputes and a system of land ownership that was accepted throughout the Tlingit country. To this day, clan members know where their land is located even if they no longer own the land. Other than a few isolated outposts, Russia never owned the land. Moreover it sold only a possessory interest, however illusory, to the United States subject to native land claims in 1867.

The Alaska Native Brotherhood was formed in 1912 to pursue land claims through peaceful, legitimate means. In the past century Tlingit attempts to regain at least a portion of what rightfully belongs to them have been well reasoned, moderate and consistent. Historically they have suffered indignities with equanimity. Many of the attacks on their efforts by a small minority and the apathy of some others have been shameful. Despite opposition after decades of litigation the Alaska natives were able to establish their land claims and have them written into law in the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act with the help of Senator Ted Stevens. Now Sealaska seeks final legislative wrap up with the conveyance of a relatively small acreage of forest land. It really is not a big deal in the scheme of the land claim settlement. However for some opponents it is a rage moment. I do not sympathize with this rage. We went through the rage 40 years ago and the ragers lost. Some attitudes die hard.

This attitude is not new. Euro myopia and arrogance manifested itself immediately upon the arrival of the Pilgrims in 1620. See the Mayflower by Philbrick for the treatment of the New England tribes, or American Lion, Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meachem for the sorrowful removal of the Cherokees in the 1830s, or Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides for the forced starvation and relocation of the Navajo, or Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown for the slaughter of innocent Sioux women, children and elderly toward the latter part of the 19th century. Tlingits well remember the shelling and destruction of Angoon and Kake by American forces over petty grievances. Despite that, the Tlingits are one of the most loyal groups of Americans that I have met. Every Tlingit lad that helped build our boat, the Princeton Hall, served in the armed forces or worked in the war effort during World War II. That includes Roy Bailey, recently departed, whose entire unit was wiped out in the Battle of the Bulge.

Sealaska should receive good land, not some mountaintop. It has proven itself to be a good corporate citizen with many of our neighbors owning stock. I have no financial interest in the company, but I want to see it prosper, and I want to see my neighbors benefit from its endeavors. So often I hear the complaint about “outside interests” reaping the Alaska profit. I support local business. A productive Sealaska is healthy for all southeast Alaska.

• Ruddy has practiced law in Alaska for almost 50 years. He and his wife, Kathy, own the Princeton Hall which was built by young Tlingit boat builders in the shop classes at Sheldon Jackson College just in time to enter patrol service after Pearl Harbor.

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