History of Alaska Natives Manuscript Draft

History of Alaska Natives: Native Nations Past and Present; An Indigenous History of Alaska

The working title of the project

I want to create a new narrative for Alaska history which centers the experiences of Alaska’s Indigenous People. I teach Alaska History as an on-line course available to all University of Alaska students through Kenai Peninsula College. I am developing and using this material for my class, and I would like this to become an ongoing project which others can make use of. If you would like to see more about why I am doing this, and how, please read the introduction.

I am making my draft manuscript available in order that a wide range of people can see what I am doing, and make comments.

Below you will see the Working Table of Contents as Chapter Narratives.

If I have a draft for that chapter, you will be able to see a link to a pdf which you can download or read on-line.

Alaska Native Histories: Native Nations Past and Present


1          Introduction

Part I   Native Nations

  • 2          Inupiat Nations
  • 3          Yup’ik Nations
  • 4          Unangan/Aleut/Sugpiak/Alutiiq and first Russian Invasions
  • 5          Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian
  • 6          Athabascan-Dené: Many Nations Many Peoples

Part 2 New Colonizers: Assimilation and Change

  • 7          Missionaries, Education and Assimilation
  • 8          Fighting Back: Native Rights before Statehood
  • 9          World War II, Aleut Evacuation, Cold War, Big Projects Backfire, and Statehood
  • 10        New Efforts for Land Rights
  • 11        AFN and the Push for Land Claims Settlement

Part 3 Modern Nations

  • 12        Alaska Native Land Claims and Alaska Native Corporations
  • 13        ANILCA Alaska Native Heritage and Alaska Native Values re-incorporated
  • 14        Cultural Revival and Tribal resurgence
  • 15        Alaska Native Corporations and Tribal governments
  •      Notes
  •      Bibliography

Chapter Narratives

Chapter 1       Introduction-

The impediments to writing a history of Alaska Natives have been many, from a historiographical point of view. In the beginning there was a bright, jagged line between anthropology and history. The line was contact, which occurred at different times for different tribal nations.  According to this formulation, on one side, before contact, was pre-history, and the subject matter of anthropologists and archeologists, with their specialized methodologies, and academic vocabulary. On the other side was history, with its nearly total reliance on the written record. Native peoples had no written record, so by definition, they had no history. Historians by and large relegated the story of Native people before ‘contact’ to the realm of pre-history and the purview of anthropologists. After contact, historians could comb the written records, the stories of travelers and explorers, missionaries, traders, and government officials. Therefore, there was no Native point of view at all. However, even early anthropologists seemed to be reluctant to listen to Native voices. As late as 1991, ethno-historian Ernest Burch said “most of [his] colleagues still did not believe what Natives have to say about their own histories.  According to Burch, “many representatives of the social science disciplines in Alaska” at the time used terms like  “ ‘narrative history,’ ‘oral history,’ and ‘memory culture’ as  pejorative phrases.”  He went on to say,

“The archaeologists do not believe anything that is not manifested in stone tools or middens; the historians do not believe anything that was not written down on paper by a contemporary observer; and the ethnographers do not believe anything they have not seen with their own eyes. Ironically, but perhaps appropriately, many Natives do not believe archeological, historical, or ethnographic accounts of traditional Native life — when made by euro-Americans — unless they are corroborated by the oral testimony of elders.”

Thankfully, since this time, the work of many anthropologists, oral historians and Native intellectuals in the state has continued to fill in the gaps in this history. But to date there is no one work that tells the whole story.

Introduction  click here for pdf.

PART I      Native Nations

Who were Alaska’s original inhabitants how did they organize themselves? The Alaska Native Languages map shows Alaska divided into areas occupied by peoples who speak the same or similar languages. Until quite recently, the generally understood concept of Alaska Native cultures was that they were primitive hunter gatherers with unchanging culture and lifeways stretching back into the mists of pre-history.  I base this book on the premise that Native Alaskans were organized into self-governing nations with a distinct self-identified citizenry, controlling territories with distinct borders. What territories did these nations occupy? How were they governed and organized, and how did they support themselves and conduct trade and other affairs with other nations?  The preface to Part I will review the research establishing the existence of these nation, and the background for the general focus on trade, warfare and international relations. It will also briefly introduce the Alaska Native Regional Corporations established by ANCSA their shareholders, and their many associated large and small non-profits,

Each of the following chapters in Part I will review the history of the nations in each large ethno-linguistic group through their early experiences with colonial invaders, and their efforts to retain their people and cultures in the middle ground that resulted, a new world neither indigenous, nor wholly western.

Chapter 1 Peoples and Nations click here for pdf

Chapter 2       Inupiaq Nations

The Iñupiaq on the North Slope and the Northwest Coast inhabited and still inhabit stable villages. Point Hope, Tikiġaq, has been existence for 2,500 years. ‘Contact’ for the Iñupiaq came from Russian and British explorers who had very little impact on Inupiat life, but did not the presence of whales. When whalers from New England arrived off the coast of the Northwest Coast and North Slope beginning in the 1850s, they nearly decimated the whales on which the Inupiaq depended.  They soon established shore stations and appropriated the technology developed by the Inupiaq, Their access to capital enabled them to build their own small umiak and hire Inupiat to hunt for them, many of them already displaced by disease and famine, turning Inupiat culture upside down.

Chapter 2 Inupiat Nations


Chapter 3  Yup’ik people, the myth of the peaceful Eskimo and Micro-nation warfare

Yup’ik and Cu’pik people also had distinct nations, led by a Council of Elders, selected by the members, and with “reciprocal obligations of help, defense, and redress of injuries.” For a period of perhaps 500 years prior to the arrival of the first explorers, the Yup’ik and Cup’ik nations fell into a devastating period of warfare called the Bow and Arrow War Days. Scholars have noted that these stories were partly suppressed by anthropologists and observers who were convinced of the myth of the “peaceful Eskimo,” and simply did not believe, and thus suppressed, the many traditional stories, now corroborated with archeological findings.[4] The idea of micro-nation warfare also reinforces the new understanding that these traditional societies were indeed nations with distinct boundaries that they were able to organize to defend. According to the research, these wars were ending by the time of the arrival of the first Russians. The Yup’ik people then endured a period of assimilationist pressure from missionaries, and were further devastated by waves of disease, culminating in Tuberculosis epidemic from the 1930s to the 1950s. During the period, the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta had the highest reported rates of TB in the world.

Chapter 3 Yupiik Nations

Chapter 4   Unangan/Aleut/Sugpiak/Aleutiiq and first Russian Invasions

The history of the Unangan/Aleut of the Aleutians, and Sugpiaq/Alutiiq of Kodiak, the Alaska Peninsula and Prince William Sound  is perhaps the most difficult to recover, as their villages and societies were so completely devastated by the Russians, who used their own word, Aleut, to refer to two distinct cultures.  Archeologists have established that Unangan have occupied the Aleutians for perhaps 9,000 years, with stable villages at times as large as 1,000 people. Unangan/Sugpiak resistance was no match for superior Russian arms, and brutal Russian promyshlenniki. They subjugated and enslaved the Unangan/Aleut peoples of the Aleutian Islands and the Alaska Peninsula. The men were taken as far as Southeast Alaska and California to hunt sea otters for the Russian trade, while women and children were held hostage. When Russians discovered fur seal rookeries on the Pribilof Islands, they took people from the Aleutians to settle there and harvest the seals, people who became “Slaves of the Harvest even into the twentieth century. There were never more than 1,000 people from Russia, and the Russian America Company came to be run nearly entirely by Creole employees. What did this Creole society mean for the continuation of Unangan/Aleut, Sugpiak/Alutiiq cultures and societies?

Chapter 4 Unangan and Sugpiaq 4-1-17

Chapter 5: Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian, Indigenous social and political organization.

The location, organization, and structure of the Tlingit and Haida tribes remain intact despite colonial pressures. Tlingit people maintained trade first with the people of the Interior, and then with British, Russians, and Americans in the Inland Passage, playing them off against each other. The Tlingit drove out the Russians, in the first Battle of Sitka, but the Russians returned, retook the trading fort, and established a new trading center at New Arkhangelsk, now Sitka. The Tlingit employed a variety of strategies in resisting the Russian incursions., and later American government and missionary efforts to stamp out Tlingit belief systems and the all-important potlatches. The work of scholars Nora and Robert Dauenhauer, Sergai Kan, Rosita Worl, and others has been instrumental in preserving this heritage.

Chapter 5 Tlingit HaidaTsimshian 4-1-17

Chapter 6 Dené: Many Nations Many Peoples

There are actually eleven different ethno-linguistic groups of Athabascan speaking peoples in Alaska, each with their own distinct language, in an area the size of the Habsburg Empire. Within these larger language speaking groups are numerous distinct nations, usually referred to as regional bands. Their name for themselves is some variation of Dené, ‘the People.’ One might say they are culturally related, just as Austrians and Germans are culturally related, and even speak the same language, but they are not the same.  Dené peoples have different background and histories, and widely different experiences with explorers, traders, missionaries and other outsiders. Historians have relegated their stories to the shadowy realms of pre-history, even while this period for some of these nations extended as late as the 1850s to 1880s. The meaning of this will be explored, along with the complexity of cultures and peoples. The people of each nation have now generally settled in villages, which have been officially designated Tribes.  Since each has its own particular history, I include a survey of each, which might be included in the chapter, or as a box, pulled out section, or appendix.

PART II New Worlds for All: Assimilation and Change

After the Russians sold Alaska to the Americans, the U.S. Navy and American missionaries arrived in Tlingit country, the American run Alaska Commercial Company took over from the Russian America Company, and American traders arrived on the Yukon River. Seattle based fishing interests continued their appropriation of Tlingit and Haida fishing sites, and the industry expanded their fish canneries and fish traps to the Gulf of Alaska and the Alaska Peninsula. Finally, the discovery of gold on the Yukon River led to the incursion of thousands of white miners into Athapascan country in the interior. All the while, diseases brought by Russians and Americans were decimating Native populations. American incursions brought Federal Indian Policy to Alaska.

Chapter 7       Native Nations under Assault: Missionaries, Christianization Education and Assimilation

Assimilation, education and Christianization went hand in hand as missionaries arrived in Native communities to spread their faith, and endeavored to educate children. Had those who felt called to educate Native children been more sensitive and respectful of Native culture, they might have helped Native children to gain the benefits of a western education without having to give up their own culture. But, as it was, those charged with education Native Alaskans arrived with preconceived notions, current in the US in the 1880s, which saw Indians as a vanishing race, for whom the only hope was on an individual level to give up their Native heritage language and traditions and become civilized Protestants. Not wanting to spend money in Indian education, the Federal Government granted superintendency of schools for Alaska Natives to Presbyterian missionary Sheldon Jackson. Protestant mission groups divided Alaska so as not to compete with each other. In other words, disregarding the separation of church and state, the United States turned responsibility for Alaska Native education over to Protestant missionaries and Catholic orders. Thus, education and Christianization were united, and education came with the expectation that Native people would adopt Protestant values, except for those places where Catholic orders remained.

The experience of Native Alaskans with Christianity depended on the theology brought by different missionaries and the attitudes of their church towards Native spiritual beliefs and practices. Further, it depended on how the specific Native nation perceived this theology, and how they accommodated or incorporated it into their own belief system.

When the era of missionary domination ended, the federal, territorial, and then state governments kicked the responsibility for educating native students around like a football. But they never made any provisions for education beyond grade eight in villages or local communities. Thus many Native Alaskans were forced to choose between their communities and education in a boarding school. Whether they attended a boarding school near their village, in another part of Alaska, or outside of the territory, Native students endured the same traumatic experiences as their counterparts from tribes in the Lower 48.

Chapter 8       Fighting Back and Native Rights before Statehood

Tlingit Aani, the Tlingit homeland, was the center of the new American administration in 1867, and American missionaries who pushed their assimilationist agenda. Graduates of the Sitka Training Institute, now literate in English, organized the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood, beginning in 1912, the first American Indian civil rights organizations in the United States, to contest the denial of their civil rights. The ANB adopted a difficult long term strategy, a politic of respectability, adopting all of the prescriptions of the missionaries and forswearing their Native languages and culture for as long as it took to gain political power. After the American government appropriated approximately 80% of the lands in Southeast, the homeland of the Tlingit and Haida, into the Tongass National Forest in 1908, the ANB and ANS worked for decades to gain compensation for the appropriation of these lands. Eventually the organizations became champions of cultural revitalization. Meanwhile, the Tanana Chiefs, chiefs of the Dené villages on the Upper Yukon and Tanana rivers met with Judge James Wickersham in 1915 to discuss their concerns about land, jobs, and education at the first Tanana Chiefs Conference.

Chapter 9       WWII, Cold War, and the Statehood Movement: Big Projects Backfire and inspire Native Political Organization and Resistance

World War II and the Cold War brought an increasing number of Americans to the territory of Alaska at a time when the population of Alaska Natives was at a low ebb. Much of the population had been decimated by disease. The survivors were dislocated, intimidated by segregationist policies, and suffering from internalized oppression. To the newcomers, the land appeared empty, a blank canvas for the new pioneers, and developers. The movement for statehood grew directly out of the arrival of these newcomers, and their sense of entitlement to the land which they persisted in calling a new frontier. The Federal government, ostensible owner of all of the land in Alaska, also appropriated land for WWII airfields, and Cold War radar sites, often right in or next to Native villages. Then they sanctioned the planning for Project Chariot, a harbor to be blasted into the Northwest coast as a test of the use of nuclear weapons for ‘peaceful’ purposes, and Rampart Dam, planned in 1958 as a giant dam across the Yukon River that would have flooded 10,700 square miles of the Yukon Flats, submerging at least five major Athabascan villages and innumerable fishing and hunting sites. However, the planning for these major projects in essence backfired, as in reaction Native people began to organize in opposition to them. Iñupiaq people on the North Slope organized Iñupiat Paitot, while Athabascans on the Yukon and Tanana Rivers organized as Dena’ Nena’ Henash  “Our Land Speaks.” Unangan people also organized to demand reparations for their forced removal to detention camps during World War II.

Chapter 10     New Efforts for Land Rights

The Statehood Bill granted the state rights to select 104 million acres of Federal land. The state constitution declared that lands used by Native villages would be off limits for state land selections, but the state almost immediately reneged on this promise, and began selecting Native hunting and fishing sites, and even village cemeteries. In response, Native people organized within their own regions and filed claims with the Interior Department, prompting the Secretary of the Interior to impose a land freeze until Native claims could be determined. Alaska’s political and business leaders were up in arms. This is essentially where things stood when oil was discovered on the North Slope.

Chapter 11     Organizing AFN and Push for Land Claims Settlement

Organizing regional tribal groups, Iñupiaq in the North, Athabascans in the interior, the Tlingit and Haida on the Southeast coast was a small step; organizing a statewide pan-Native organization was a huge step. The organization, which became the Alaska Federation of Natives, was founded in 1966. The negotiations for a land claims settlement were long and complex. The terms under which Congress was willing to negotiate were in large part determined by Congress’ attitude towards Native Americans at the time, an attitude reflected in the major policies of the time: termination and relocation. Just as complex was the creation of a statewide body that could elect delegates to represent the interests of all Alaska Natives. The need and desire of the oil companies and the state to build a pipeline to access the oil, a pipeline which would have to cross prospective Native lands, prompted the final Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement, ANCSA.

Chapter 12     Alaska Native Land Claims and Alaska Native Corporations

The result of the ANCSA settlement was the creation of thirteen regional corporations, and over 200 village corporations. Native people who came from a tribal communal orientation were now tasked with managing profit making corporations. Many problems resulted in troubled beginnings, in a period in which many of the corporations actually racked up significant losses. Congress later passed amendments to the Act limiting the potential sale of stock, and allowing the corporations to decide to grant stock to those born after1971.

Chapter 13     ANILCA and Subsistence

The compromise for the passage of ANCSA led to the inclusion of Section 17 d (2) as a concession to defenders of conservation lands. The provision required the Secretary of the Interior to withdraw up to 80 million acres of land for conservation purposes. Additionally, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act,  ANILCA, included a provision relating to subsistence hunting and fishing. The Federal provision conflicted with the provision in the state constitution which led to a long running and very contentious battle for Native subsistence rights.

Chapter 14     Cultural Revival and Tribal Resurgence

The modern tribes and organizations are rebuilding their cultures and their languages, and they are now using modern tools, like the internet, to narrate their own history, and self-representations of who they are. I have come to believe that the best way to understand the Native Nations is to understand their modern counterparts. Furthermore, nearly all of the regional tribal organizations have worked to restate their traditional tribal values, as a guide to their missions. As one of my students said of one site, “The site shows a living, adapting … people, which is a powerful antidote to the prevalent representations of North American Native cultures as extinct.” Many corporations and non-profits have contributed to a revival of Native cultures and languages through language education, cultural festivals like Celebration in Southeast Alaska, and the Messenger Feast in Barrow. (Voters in Barrow recently voted to rename the city Upiagvik.)  You-tube has enabled school children to create animated versions of traditional stories, and older people to show how to prepare and preserve traditional foods. There has been a resurgence of music, and new films by Indigenous film-makers, along with a video game based on an Inuit tale.

Chapter 15 Alaska Native Corporations and Tribal governments

The passage of ANCSA began a new era in Alaska. Nearly all of the regional Native Corporations are now accompanied by Native non-profits or regional tribal organizations. The growth of Native corporations toward powerful positions in the state economy has also increased the visibility of Native people, and led to increased respect for Native people around the state. There is also a renewed focus on Alaska’s tribes, and a continuing debate about why the tribes were not given a more prominent role in the ANCSA settlement. Along with this has come a complex effort to recreate Indian Country as the basis of tribal courts and tribal justice. Recently, the tribes won the right to bring land into status as Indian country.