Tribal group seeks payback for land

BIA to review burning of Douglas Indian homes in '62

Posted: Monday, September 30, 2002

John Morris remembers watching the city of Douglas burn down his home in the Douglas Indian Village in 1962. The fire trucks were there to keep the fire in, not put it out.

Douglas, at the time an independent city with its own government, razed the village to build the Douglas Boat Harbor. The beach homes of Morris and other Natives were cleared to make room for material dredged from Gastineau Channel.

Juneau residents now play ball, barbecue and soon will ice skate on what some Douglas Natives consider to be stolen property.

"This was a piece of property they had to have and took it by hook or crook rather than the letter of the law," said Morris, 61.

The Douglas Indian Association, buttressed by a recent review of public records and federal law, has renewed its long-standing call for compensation from the federal government and the city. The tribal government says the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs had jurisdiction over the village and shouldn't have let the city burn it.

"There's never been a satisfactory answer to the questions we raise," said Harold Frank, acting tribal administrator of the 414-member Douglas Indian Association, a federally recognized tribal government. "There's been a lot of folks willing to say it's been 40 years ago."

The report by the Indian Law Resource Center, based in Helena, Mont., and publicly released by the tribe last week, said one member of the Douglas Planning and Zoning Commission was an employee of the BIA's realty office when the city was trying to acquire the tidelands and village site from the state and seeking to get a harbor built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Another zoning commission member worked for the Department of Interior, the BIA's parent agency, the report says.

Those employees eventually cited a conflict of interest and resigned from the zoning commission while the city was trying to acquire the village land, city records show. But the new report, by attorney Andrew Huff, said the BIA's "willingness to abandon the Natives may be linked" to the two men's dual positions.

Niles Cesar, Alaska director for the BIA, today said the report raises questions and the agency will investigate them fully.

"Did we do due diligence for Douglas back in the '60s?" Cesar said. "Is there a conflict of interest and did that have an effect on the process?"

The village, which tribal members said was lived in continuously since the 1880s, consisted of about 20 buildings, including 10 to 12 houses, on the beach that is now the site of Savikko Park. But like Natives throughout Alaska, the villagers spent part of the year at fishing and hunting camps.

"Our lifestyle was from the last day of school in the spring we would go to the Taku River and stay there continuously through the summer and the fall until two weeks into the school season," said Morris, who said he grew up on the Taku and in the Douglas Indian Village in the 1940s and '50s.

"We gillnetted and fished. Went hunting. Go get the moose and the berries and put up all the food for the wintertime," he said "We smoked and canned salmon. Everything that you could live off the land was there on the Taku."

Douglas Natives in the mid-1940s asked the federal government to build a harbor in front of their homes. The Natives couldn't get loans for new boats because they couldn't insure them without having a harbor to dock them in.

The Alaska Native Service, a federal agency, said the city of Douglas would provide new homes for Indian village residents on the area to be filled by dredged material, Huff's report says.

But that project came to nothing. When the city in the early 1960s renewed efforts to build a harbor, it said the village was on city land. The state transferred the site to the city and the BIA didn't object.

In compensation, the Douglas Indian Association now wants the federal government to give it Mayflower Island, the islet at the harbor connected by a road-topped causeway to Savikko Park, tribal administrator Frank said. The islet contains offices for the federal Bureau of Land Management.

The tribe also wants to receive the former Douglas Indian School on St. Ann's Avenue. It is now owned by the city and used by a private Montessori school.

The association wants the BIA to investigate, with the city's cooperation, the destruction of the village and explain its reasons for not protecting it.

Cesar of the BIA said the agency is reviewing the land-status question.

Juneau Interim City Manager John MacKinnon today said it was too early for city officials to comment on the report, which they received late last week.

Juneau, Douglas, Auke Bay and the rest of town voted to unify filly as a combined city and borough in 1970.

Huff's report says the Native village should have been considered a federally protected enclave, based on the 1884 Alaska Organic Act, which established civil government in the territory of Alaska. Later federal laws reaffirmed the state didn't have rights to property held by Natives or by the federal government in trust for Natives, Huff said.

Cesar said he wasn't aware of any documents that show the village officially was a Native townsite or allotment protected by specific federal laws, but the agency will review whether the site nonetheless should have been under federal oversight.

A U.S. Survey map from 1915 shows the Indian village wasn't part of the Douglas Townsite.

In 1961, though, the city said the village was no longer on tidelands, but on uplands created over time as waves left sand behind. Following a land-ownership principle called accretion, the city said the village was part of adjacent uplands, which the city had seized from the Treadwell mining corporation for nonpayment of taxes in the 1920s. Most of Douglas' mines closed in 1917 following a collapse and flood.

Soon after hearing the city's reasoning, the BIA told the city the BIA and the Interior Department didn't have jurisdiction over the "Indian-owned improvements" in "the Douglas Indian Village."

The last sentence of the two-sentence letter to the city, the only known explanation of the BIA's position at the time, reads: "It is hoped that any action taken by the City of Douglas to force the removal of these Indian people from their homes in the village will be done without causing them undue hardship."

It's not clear from existing public records how many village residents were compensated for their homes, attorney Huff said. A letter from the city of Douglas' attorney to some villagers said they were entitled to very little.

"They were always bitter over it, saying they were never compensated for the land or the housing," said Morris, the former village resident.

Huff said the question of whether the village was on tidelands or uplands is irrelevant: Any continuously used Native sites should have been considered federally protected land. The state also is at fault, he said.

The tribe's report comes as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers considers building wave barriers at the harbor, which the city is expanding. The Douglas Indian Association has asked the Corps of Engineers to include the recent legal report in the agency's analysis of the new project.

"There is a need for justice, and the Tribe seeks answers to our question," tribal President Dorothy Owen wrote to the Corps of Engineers.

Corps of Engineers spokesman John Killoran said it was too soon to say whether the association's request would affect the proposed harbor project. The site of the Indian village is not within the project's boundaries.

Eric Fry can be reached at

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