Alaska Subsistence
A National Park Service Management History
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Chapter 1:

D. Federal Policies Toward Alaska's Natives, 1890-1950

Central to the government's Indian policy on a nationwide basis was the reservation system. The country's first Indian reservation had been established during the 1840s, and by the late nineteenth century the reservation was the primary vehicle by which the government classified Natives and their land base. In their ideal state, reservations existed to protect tribal members from non-Native incursions, guarantee tribal identities, and provide welfare and assistance programs. All too often, however, the federal government used reservations as a vehicle to subjugate and segregate Natives from the larger society. Once formed, reservations were often whittled down to a small fraction of their former area, and on many reservations, commonly-owned lands were given over to individual families and then sold to non-Natives. The government also used its trust responsibility toward Native tribes to convert them from a nomadic to an agricultural existence; to educate them in the white man's ways; and to ensure their conversion to Christian beliefs and a reliance on the English tongue. [11]

Native fishing with dipnet
Natives groups have been fishing Alaska's waters for thousands of years. This early twentieth century dipnetting scene was taken along the Copper River. NPS (WRST)

Most Alaska Natives were spared the reservation experience, primarily because Alaska's first General Agent for Education, Sheldon Jackson, did not believe in them. Governor John Brady, a friend of Jackson's and of a similar mind, wrote that "the reservation policy [in the western United States] has not worked well and has wrought mischief. It would not be good policy to introduce it to Alaska, where the [Native] people are self-supporting and of keen commercial instincts." But William Duncan, another person prominent in southeastern Alaska affairs, disagreed. Duncan, an Anglican priest at a Tsimshean village in northern British Columbia, decided in 1886 to take his flock elsewhere. Casting about for a location in Alaska, he contacted Congressional representatives. Worried that his flock might fall prey to "saloons and other demoralizing institutions," he urged Congress to set aside a tract of land at least five miles from the nearest white town. That body, in response, agreed to allow him and his parishioners to move to Annette Island, south of present-day Ketchikan. In accordance with Duncan's wishes, Congress in 1891 established the Metlakatla Indian Reserve, which included all of Annette Island. This reservation, now known as Annette Island Indian Reservation, turned out to be an anomaly; it was, in practical terms, Alaska's only Congressionally-designated Native withdrawal. [12]

Since the 1890s, various federal departments have moved to establish variants on the reservation system. As part of his concern about the "betterment" of the Native population, for example, Sheldon Jackson played a major role in the establishment of a series of reindeer reserves in northwestern Alaska. Then, from 1905 to 1919, he successfully lobbied the Interior Department's Office of Education to establish an additional fourteen Alaska Native reserves. These reservations, which ranged in size from 17 acres (Chilkat Fisheries Reserve) to 316,000 acres (Elim Reserve), were called executive order reserves and were created with the express purpose of developing Native economic self-sufficiency. Congress, in 1919, passed a law prohibiting the creation of additional "Indian" reserves except by Act of Congress. The Secretary of the Interior, however, circumvented the law by establishing several "public purpose reserves" in Alaska that were de facto Native reserves. Between 1925 and 1933 the Secretary created five such reserves, which ranged in area from 110 acres (Amaknak Island, near Unalaska) to 768,000 acres (Tetlin). Beginning in 1934, a new lands concept came into vogue when Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act. Harold Ickes, Franklin Roosevelt's Secretary of the Interior, seized upon Section 2 of the act and, in response to appeals from various Alaska Natives for protection from non-Native interests, created the first two "IRA reserves" in 1943. (These were the Venetie Reserve and the Karluk Fishing Reserve.) During the next six years four additional reserves were established. No new reserves for Alaska's Natives were established between 1949 and the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971. [13]

The IRA reserves, and the two forms of executive reserves that preceded them, were limited in their application and less than fully welcomed by those whom they were ostensibly created to protect. The various reserves that were created in the early- to mid-twentieth century were established under the best of intentions, and many succeeded in their purported purpose. But many Natives, not wanting to be classified as "reservation Indians," actively fought the inclusion of their lands into reserves, and in several cases they were successful in having the withdrawals repealed. [14] The creation of the various reserves, moreover, appears to have had little if any effect on educational funding or other measures of governmental assistance, and it appears that the residents of most Native villages were never included in a reservation and had few regrets about that state of affairs.

Early in the period in which the Federal government toyed with the idea of limited reservations (either Native reserves or IRA reserves), Congress also provided a basis for Natives to own land on an individual basis. In 1906, it passed the Alaska Native Allotment Act, which was a modification of the General Allotment Act of 1887. The 1906 act authorized the Interior Secretary "to allot not to exceed one hundred and sixty acres of nonmineral land ... to any Indian or Eskimo of full or mixed blood who resides in and is a Native of said district ... and the land so allotted shall be deemed the homestead of the allottee and his heirs in perpetuity." Potential allottees needed to show only minimal evidence of use and occupancy. This act, which was the product of enlighted policymaking, was a clear attempt to give Natives a legal device that prevented their expropriation by non-Native trespassers, and it further underscored the government's conviction (in the words of legal scholar David Case) "that traditional reservation policies did not suit the semi-nomadic lifestyles practiced by the majority of Alaska's Natives." [15]

Natives fishing
Subsistence fishers in northwestern Alaska during the summer of 1974. NPS (ATF Box 10), photo 4464-28, by Robert Belous

Although the federal government's half-hearted attempts to educate Natives and place them on reservations often had deleterious impacts, the government did make an honest effort to aid Alaska's Natives when it came to fish and game regulation. Generally speaking, few strictures were placed on Native fish and game harvesting; and Natives were specifically exempted from such fish and game laws as the Alaska Game Law of 1902, the White Act of 1924, and the Alaska Game Law of 1925. [16] (The White Act was the basic act governing the salmon fisheries until statehood.) The U.S. Supreme Court, in the landmark Hynes v. Grimes Packing Company decision, made it clear that White Act provisions did not explicitly grant a preference to residents of Alaska's ad hoc Indian reserves. But when resources did conflict, federal agencies sometimes intervened on behalf of rural users, both Native and non-Native. About 1920, for example, the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries barred the Carlisle Packing Company from establishing a floating cannery along the lower Yukon River because it feared that the cannery would capture fish normally harvested by upriver subsistence users. [17]

During the territorial period, the Federal government played a dominant role; the Territorial legislature, by contrast, had limited powers to regulate Alaskan affairs, though the extent of those powers slowly broadened over the years. Both Natives and non-Natives during this period were able to pursue fishing for personal-use purposes with few restrictions. Fishing licenses were first instituted in 1942, and from then until statehood, non-Natives paid just $1 per year for a license while "native-born Indian or Eskimo" fishers were not required to purchase one. [18] While the Fish and Wildlife Service created specific seasons and bag limits for "game fish" in the most heavily populated areas of the territory, the harvest of salmon for personal uses remained unregulated until the 1950s, when modest restrictions were imposed for Resurrection Bay and a few streams in the Anchorage area. [19]

In 1949, Alaskans got their first real voice in territorial fish management when the legislature established the Alaska Department of Fisheries; for the next ten years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asked the Alaska Fisheries Board—all of whom were Alaska residents—to provide input on a wide range of management actions. One of the first issues the board addressed was the establishment of an equitably applied personal use fishery. A major problem, at the time, was that some residents were harvesting large quantities of fish just before or after the legal season; they used commercial equipment but claimed that they were harvesting for their personal use. To overcome these perceived abuses, board members toyed with the idea of prohibiting the use of commercial gear during the 48-hour period surrounding each legal season. [20] But the board was unable to convince Fish and Wildlife Service authorities to establish such a provision; limits on personal-use salmon harvesting, moreover, were never implemented during the territorial period.

Throughout this period, Natives in most of Alaska had only a tenuous relationship to the prevailing non-Native commercial sector. Moreover, they were isolated from each other and physical interaction was difficult. For all of these reasons and more, Natives in most of Alaska were poorly organized outside of local trading and kinship networks.

Exceptions to this generalization arose in Interior and southeastern Alaska. By the early twentieth century, many Interior Athapaskans—particularly those living along the Yukon or Tanana rivers—had been interacting with non-Natives for years, particularly during the Klondike gold rush and its aftermath. In 1912, various village leaders met and established the Tanana Chiefs Conference. The organization is now more than 85 years old; since the 1971 passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, TCC has served as the non-profit arm of Doyon, Ltd., the regional corporation for much of Interior Alaska. [21]

Southeastern Alaska Natives organized during the same period and for similar reasons. These Natives, most of whom were Tlingit, Haida, or Tsimshian Indians, had by the early twentieth century been exposed to more than a century of Russian or Anglo acculturation, and many were tied, at least in part, to the predominant commercial economy—as fishermen, cannery workers, or in a wide variety of other occupations. In 1912, twelve Tlingits and one Tsimshian met in Juneau and formed the Alaska Native Brotherhood, a primary purpose of which was the recognition of Native citizenship rights. The ANB, in 1915, was joined by the Alaska Native Sisterhood, and chapters (called camps) of both organizations soon spread throughout southeastern Alaska. The ANB lobbied the territorial legislature for the realization of its goals, and in 1915 the legislature passed two laws favoring Natives: one enabled them to become citizens, while the other provided self-government to southeastern Native villages under certain conditions. In response to ANB pressure, Congress in 1924 granted citizenship to all Alaska Natives. By that time, the ANB and the ANS had assumed a broad mantle of new goals. Both organizations have remained active ever since. [22]

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Last Updated: 14-Mar-2003