History of Alaska Natives Manuscript Draft

Alaska Native Nations Past and Present: Resistance, Resilience, and Revitalization


Chapter text, if written, will be linked under each chapter title

 “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 archaeological, historical, or ethnographic accounts of traditional Native life— when made by euro-Americans — unless they are corroborated by the oral testimony of elders.” Ernest Burch

Many scholars, Native and non-Native have worked to fill in the gaps in Alaska Native History. They have created thousands of hours of oral histories and interviews on many subjects from memories to culture, subsistence and beliefs as well as biographies and autobiographies, ethno-histories,  and scholarly monographs. But to date there is no one work that tells the whole story of many ethno-linguistic groups and nations, from their earliest habitation on the sub-continent to the present.

Meanwhile, the very colonialist central narrative of Alaska history continues to focus on the arrival of  non-Native people, the development of resources, and the seemingly inevitable march towards statehood.  Much as the colonial revolutionaries fought for the freedom from what they saw as ‘enslavement’ to the English government while continuing to sanction the enslavement of African Americans, Alaska’s non-native residents fought for freedom from the colonial strictures and misrule of the Federal Government while blinded to their own role as a colonial enterprise when it came to Alaska Natives their land. Many twentieth century  anthropologists and historians seemed to be reluctant to listen to Native voices.

This work seeks to rewrite this narrative as a New History of Alaska, focusing on the histories of Alaska Native Nations, and the continuity between past and present as well as the agency of Alaska Native peoples in resisting colonial incursions, and most recently, their resilience, and efforts to revitalization their cultures.

PART I      Native Nations

Chapter 1   Native Nations

Chapter 1 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. The Indigenous Alaska people were understood through the lens of Anthropology and Archaeology as cultures. Until recently, the generally understood concept of Alaska Native cultures was that they were primitive hunter gatherers living in small family groups wandering here and there across the tundra, with unchanging culture and lifeways stretching back into the mists of pre-history.

 In contrast, the central premise of this book is that Native Alaskans across the bub-continent were organized into self-governing nations with a distinct self-identified citizenry, controlling territories with distinct borders. However, having sustained uncountable losses to populations due to colonial intrusions and disease, most of these nations had disintegrated and were not apparent to outsiders by the late 19thcentury.

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? Chapter 1 will review the research establishing the existence of these nations, and the background for the general focus on trade ,warfare and international relations. Each of the following chapters in Part I will review the history of the nations in each large ethno-linguistic group up 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 2    Inupiaq Nations

Chapter 2 Inupiaq Nations

The Iñupiat controlled the entirety of the North Slope and the Northwest Coast, inhabiting many stable villages. Point Hope, Tikiġaq, a whaling village, has been existence for 2,500 years. They were organized into independent Nations until colonial incursions appropriated their resources, bringing famine, and disease which decimated the population in the late 19th century. Even prior to the arrival of colonial powers, the Iñupiat participated in international trade, both trading their own resources, and as middlemen trading to indigenous Chukchi who traded furs into Russian and Chinese markets in the 17th century. The first Russian and British explorers who arrived had very little impact on Iñupiat  life, but did note the presence of whales. When whalers from New England arrived off the Northwest Coast and North Slope beginning in the 1850s, they  decimated the whales on which the Iñupiat  depended. their access to capital  enabled them to establish shore stations and appropriate Iñupiat technology, hiring displaced 
Iñupiat to build umiak and hunt for them,  turning Iñupiat culture upside down.

The Russians who claimed Alaska beginning int he late 18th century did not attempt to insert themselves in the fur trade until the early 19th century, at which time they tried to claim the middleman positions for themselves.

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

Chapter 3 Yup’ik Nations

Yup’ik and Cu’pik people, formerly known as Eskimos, along with the
Iñupiat inhabit villages and camps spread across the vast adjoining deltas of the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers on the Southwest coast of Alaska. It is an area rich in many resources in including sea mammals, fish, birds, and game. The Yup’ik were also organized into distinct nations, each led by a councils 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 mostly suppressed by anthropologists and observers who were convinced of the myth of the “peaceful Eskimo,” and simply did not believe  the many traditional stories, now corroborated with archaeological findings. The idea of micro-nation warfare, not unique in the North, 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 in the early 19th century. Today, there are more speakers of Yup’ik than of any other Alaska Native language.

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

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

The history of the Unangan/Aleut of the Aleutians chain,  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 Russian colonial invasion. The Russians used their own term, 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 forced the Unangan to disclose the existence of fur seal rookeries on the Pribilof Islands, they forcefully relocated families 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. The Russian influenced Creole society contributed to the continuation of Unangan/Aleut,Sugpiak/Alutiiq cultures and societies but it is being reevalutated today.http://sites.kpc.alaska.edu/jhaighalaskahistory/wp-admin/post.php?post=170&action=edit

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

Chapter 5 Text

Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian in Alaska once owned and controlled all of the land and resources of the Southeast mainland and Island archipelagos. They have been able to maintain the complex and all important structures of tribes and matrilineal clans.  All of the Tlingit are in Alaska, while Haida Gwaii, the Haida homeland was divided Alaska and Canada. The Tsimshian in Alaska  are the descendants of a faction of the greater Tsimshian nations now in British Columbia, who obtained a  singular reservation on Annette Island in the 1880s. 

Tlingit people maintained trade first with the people of the Interior, and then with British, Russians, and Americans in the Inland Passage through the Southeast Alaska Archipelago, 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.

Tlingit Aani, the Tlingit homeland, was the center of the new American administration in 867, 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.

Chapter 6     Athabaskan/Dené: Many Nations Many Peoples

Chapter 6: Athabascans- Dené

There are eleven different ethno-linguistic groups of Athabascan speaking peoples in Alaska, each with their own distinct language, occupying all of Interior Alaska from the Canadian border on the East,  to Yup’ik Territory in the West, and from the Brooks Range to Cook Inlet and the Copper River, an area roughly the size of Western Europe. 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, but they are not the same.  Dené peoples have different background and histories, and widely different experiences with explorers, traders,missionaries and other outsiders.  

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. 

PART II New Worlds for All: The Assimilation Era

A new decolonizing history of Alaska centering the experience of Indigenous Alaskans requires a rethinking of the periodization of the traditional narrative. I am proposing we consider 1880-WWII  as the Assimilation Era when Indigenous people in Alaska were under great pressure to assimilate.  This was part and parcel of the zeitgeist of the era in the U.S. which included Social Darwinism, and the idea that cultures could be classified and placed on a ladder of increasing civilization, and similar pressures on American Indians in the Lower 48.  Protestant theology was the underlying philosophy, so not surprisingly, the government delegated the work to Protestant missionaries. Indigenous peoples were deceived into thinking that if they adopted the culture and lifestyle of outsiders then they could be considered equal. In reality of course, this was a big lie, a coverup for the stealing and appropriating of resources.

After the Russians sold their claim to 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.  This despite the fact that no Alaska tribe or nation ever signed a treaty with the Federal Government.  In reality, the US knew little about Alaska, and occupied no more territory than their headquarters in Sitka.

Nevertheless, with support from the government, Seattle based fishing interests brazenly appropriated  Tlingit and Haida fishing sites and resources, 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 Athabascan 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. 

Disruption: Disease, Death and Dislocation

            A narrative and a chart

Chapter 8    Adopting Christian Beliefs

A paradoxical axiom was that while Native peoples resisted and retained their cultures, many people readily adopted Christianity. While missionaries saw the adoption of Christianity as a step on the road to complete assimilation, in reality, I postulate that for Alaska Native people the adoption of Christianity was an extension of their own deep spirituality, and the spiritual lives they lived and not directly tied to, or a marker of, assimilation.

Chapter 9    Education for 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 educating Native Alaskans arrived with preconceived notions, current in the U.S. in the 1880s and beyone, which saw Indians as a vanishing race, for whom the only hope wa son 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. It was not until long past statehood, when Alaska was flush with oil money, that the state finally settled a discrimination lawsuit and agreed to build high schools in all Native villages. 

PART III  Modern Alaska


Chapter 10             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.

Chapter 11             New Efforts for Land Rights

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.

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 12   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 13 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 after 1971. 

Chapter 14 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 15   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 16 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.


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