Alaska Subsistence
A National Park Service Management History
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Chapter 1:

B. Alaska Natives and the U.S. Government

In 1867, the United States government purchased Alaska from the Russians. (The purchase of the agreement stipulated that all Alaskans were either from "uncivilized tribes" or were "inhabitants of the ceded territory." But as David Case has noted, nearly all Alaska Natives, as a judicial practice, were categorized as "uncivilized," either because of their status during the Russian period or, as elaborated upon below, because of their treatment under existing U.S. law. [3]) At the time of the purchase, fewer than a thousand Russians or mixed-race Creoles lived in Alaska, and many of those that had been involved with the Russian-American Company or in other official capacities soon returned to Russia. In their stead came a small flood of Americans, most of whom descended on Sitka. But the lack of economic opportunities in the new possession caused many of the newcomers to return home. As late as 1880, only about 400 "whites" (as the census described them) lived in Alaska. During the following decade, major gold strikes in the Juneau-Douglas areas and fisheries developments throughout the so-called "panhandle" brought a tenfold increase in the number of non-Native residents in southeastern Alaska. Even so, the 1890 census recorded fewer than 5,000 non-Natives anywhere in the District of Alaska. Most non-Natives lived in Sitka, Juneau, Douglas, Wrangell, Kodiak, and other coastal towns and villages. [4]

Government was slow to come to Alaska; the first Organic Act providing for a civil administration was not passed until 1884, and full territorial government, via second Organic Act, had to wait until 1912. Alaska Natives, however, were ruled not from Sitka (Alaska's first capital under the U.S. flag) or Juneau (where the capital moved in 1906); instead, Native affairs were administered directly from Washington, D.C., where policies toward Indians had been a primary tenet of government policy since the days of George Washington and John Adams. An Indian policy followed during the first several decades, which promoted domestic trade and prevented foreign alliances, was eventually replaced a more hard-edged policy that sought the complete removal of Indians from the path of westering settlers. This latter policy led, in the 1840s, to the first Indian reservations. In 1849 the Department of the Interior was created, which included the Office of Indian Affairs; ever since then, working with America's Native groups has been an Interior Department function. For much of the rest of the nineteenth century, the official policy of both Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court was to protect Indians and promote their welfare. But other elements in the government—the Army and many in the Office of Indian Affairs among them—were hostile to Native hopes, and a strong majority of Americans had little sympathy for the Indians' plight. During the 1880s the publication of several stirring works, including Helen Hunt Jackson's A Century of Dishonor and her better-known Ramona, brought forth the first seeds of nationwide sympathy for the Natives' cause. By that time, most Native Americans living in the coterminous states were confined to reservations and had, to a large extent, become wards of the government. [5]

Alaska's Natives, as noted above, were largely ignored by governmental Indian policy during the first three decades of American rule, primarily because their land and resources were either "undiscovered" or were not coveted by non-Natives. But when Native and non-Native resources did come into conflict, Natives suffered. Perhaps the worst area of conflict was in the salmon canning industry, which had flourished in Oregon and Washington before migrating to Alaska in 1878. Alaska's first two canneries were founded at Klawock and Sitka, and in the years that followed their establishment, civilian and military authorities made no effort to prevent the takeover of the most productive salmon habitat by packing companies based in Washington, Oregon, and California. This was first accomplished by the direct appropriation of clan-owned fishing streams, and later by the widespread installation of company-owned fish traps. Aspects of Federal policy also tended to be anti-Native. Within a few years of the Alaska Purchase, for example, Congress exempted Natives from a prohibition on the fur seal harvest. This exemption, while positive for the long-term health of the fur seal population, was not principally intended for the Natives' welfare; instead, it ensured that Pribilof Islands residents would legally be able to conduct the annual harvest. And because the Bureau of Fisheries and successor agencies provided the workers less than adequate compensation, a form of indentured servitude took hold there over the next several decades. [6]

Map 1-2. Alaska's Native Languages and Cultures. Source: Federal Field Committee for Development Planning in Alaska, Alaska Natives and the Land (1968), p. 5.
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

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Last Updated: 14-Mar-2003