Professor says most Natives supported statehood in 50s

History lecture highlights contrast in state vs. federal subsistence debate

Posted: Thursday, November 05, 2009

From the days before statehood, Native elders passed down stories of "being able to walk across rivers on the backs of salmon," which seafood suppliers for large out-of-state companies devastated by using fish traps. At the time, most Natives believed that statehood would protect their fishing rights and their way of life from outsiders who they watched discard less desirable species and overharvest top dollar species, University of Alaska Anchorage associate professor Jeane Breinig said Wednesday.

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Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire
Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire

The Haida educator was lecturing about Southeast Native perspectives on statehood as part of a lecture series sponsored by Sealaska Heritage Institute to celebrate Native American Awareness Month. Through a grant from the institute, she researched the topic through retrospective interviews and meeting documents from Alaska Native Brotherhood dating back to its 1912 founding. The archival and historical research done last summer will be part of a publication by Sealaska Corp.

Today, a renewed push for management of subsistence rights by the federal government instead of the state is brewing in the Native community, largely driven by Sen. Albert Kookesh, D-Angoon, who going to trial over a state citation from July for overfishing. Federal law grants a rural subsistence preference in Alaska for hunting and fishing, though the state Supreme Court struck that law down. Other federal laws regarding subsistence still apply on federal lands.

That contrast in sentiment was a change over time Breinig documented with her interview subjects, who were asked what they thought statehood meant then and now to fishing rights, education, and if it was good for Alaska and Alaskan Natives.

Her parents were supportive at the time, though her mother's views gradually changed, like many people she interviewed of that generation.

"I was 4 at statehood. I remember growing up after statehood and my father speaking of the big celebrations and parties since we were doing away with fish traps. They were happy," Breinig said.

"Looking back, retrospectively, they came to realize that maybe there was some things that weren't so good about statehood that they didn't anticipate happening," she said. "That aboriginal rights should have gotten more recognition in statehood. That's why I really don't think a lot of people understand the historical trajectory of how the land claims settlement acts got put into place. Once you see that, I think it is kind of hard not to understand a little bit more of why people feel adamant about those hunting and fishing rights. I just think research and education is the key."

Nancy Barnes of Kookesh's legislative staff attended the lecture and said her parents initially wanted statehood.

"My father was in the armed services so he was very patriotic," Barnes said. "They believed they could work better with the state than a territory, but they had reservations later with the way things went. As for me, I hope that when that word comes up, subsistence, I think that because the state Legislature didn't deal with it years ago, that when we couldn't get them to come into compliance, I think things are going to come to a head now. Things will have to be reclarified."

Native elder Nora Dauenhauer said her parents were among the Natives against statehood at the time.

"It meant 'reservation' for most people," she said.

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