Alaska History and Race Relations

For the European of the late nineteenth century, an interesting range of options are offered, all premised upon the subordination and victimization of the native. One is a self-forgetting delight in the use of power–the power to observe, rule, hold, and profit from distant territories and people. From these come voyages of discovery, lucrative trade, administration, annexation, learned expeditions and exhibitions, local spectacles, a new class of colonial rulers and experts. Another is an ideological rationale for reducing, then reconstituting the native as someone to be ruled and managed. There are styles of rule…and one finds them inscribed within the humanistic enterprise itself: the various colonial schools, colleges, universities, the native elites created and manipulated…[Third] is the idea of Western salvation and redemption through its ‘civilizing mission.’ Supported jointly by experts in ideas (missionaries, teachers, advisers, scholars) and in modern industry and communication, the imperial idea of westernizing the backward achieved permanent status world-wide, but…it was always accompanied by domination.
[Then] is the processs by which, after the natives have been displaced from their historical location on their land, their history is rewritten as a funtion of the imperial one. This process uses narrative to dispel contradictory memories and occlude violence–the exotic replaces the impress of power with the blandishments of curiosity–with the imperial presence so dominating as to make impossible any effort to separate it from historical necessity. All these together create an amalgam of the arts of narrative and observation about the accumulated, dominated, and ruled territories whose inhabitants seem destined never to escape, to remain creatures of European will.

– Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism

“Summary of Findings
Segregation was an inherently racist regime that established racial order that whites dominated. Widespread segregation spanning from the American South to Alaska indicates the prevalent presence of an institutionalized racism that divided our country into racial hierarchies. This divide was instituted by whites whose goal was to oppress ethnic communities as unequal and degenerate. Separate spaces were established to maintain the marginalized status of people of color.
The opposing policies of assimilation, which attempts to absorb a culture, and segregation, which attempts to exclude a culture, created a strong climate of intolerance toward Alaska Native people. These contrasting forms of discrimination were exhibited in various venues including segregated theatres, restaurants, transportation, jobs, neighborhoods, churches and schools that collectively facilitated a society bent on social inequality…
Segregated spaces in Alaska were vital in the creation of racial boundaries between whites and Natives. At segregated locations the Native community continuously confronted discrimination and the stigma of being ‘inferior’ to the Caucasian population. Discriminatory signs created a visual boundary and acted as a reminder that Natives were inferior to whites in social status, and were sometimes compared to animals. In addition to racist signs, sometimes segregated transportation restricted Natives from jobs, which then restricted upward class mobility. BIA schools also restricted class mobility by teaching Native students to become second class citizens through vocational work. Segregation prevented both social and economic upward mobility for people of color; and in turn whites were able to maintain privileged positions.
In Alaska, racial boundaries proved to be complicated and were most often strict, although at times boundaries were malleable. While discrimination and racial boundaries varied from Alaskan city to city, locations with large Caucasian populations exhibited abundant discrimination based on race. By subjecting communities of color white Americans were able to reaffirm their supremacy…
Segregation has left lasting impacts on the Native community and the Alaskan community. The feelings of inferiority last for generations. Segregation and assimilation policies created a cultural trauma causing individuals to feel ashamed of their race and culture…Reflecting on the history of racial segregation in Alaska it is important to remember that many Elders confronted blatant discrimination, yet all of those Elders survived and continued to progress Native people forward.”
– Holly Miowak Stebing, “Rewriting the History of Racial Segregation in Alaska”, undergraduate thesis, Stanford University.

Rewriting the History of Racial Segregation in Alaska – The Separate Spaces in Alaska

But the things I do remember is that the only restuarant we ever went to was City Cafe in Juneau. It never occured to me to question my parents as to why we always ate at City Cafe, but I liked it. It was really a fun place to go because there was lots of other Natives that went there. It wasn’t until I traveled by myself as a teenager that I discovered that there were signs on the restuarant’s doors that said, ‘No Natives Allowed.’ So the signs that I saw, that were downtown in Juneau, were mostly on cardboard, handwritten, or hand colored letters and they stuck it on their door. I was kinda suprised because I think up to then I wasn’t really aware of that fact that we weren’t really allowed to go in the stores [and] into the restaurants. – Shirley Kendall, Hoonah

In Akhiok we used to go down [to the] cannery, we had to take our own, everything back, we had to take our bedding, our dishes, everything. [Even] cooking. So we could use it, ’cause we weren’t allowed to eat in the mess hall. We didn’t really know the difference I guess. We never really questioned why because, I guess, because we were just happy to have a job…
They used to take leftovers and put them on the porch, and treat us like nothing. You know? If we wanna take it we take it, those leftovers. Now I start to think why they treat us like animals? Giving us leftovers. But they wouldn’t let us eat in the mess hall…
– Nick Alokli, Kodiak Island

When my husband and I came to Juneau and sought a home in a nice neighborhood where our children could play happily with our neighbor’s children, we found such a house and had arranged to lease it. When the owners learned that we were Indians, they said ‘no.’ Would we be compelled to live in the slums? – Elizabeth Peratrovich, Juneau

When I grew up in a village there was hardly any segregation, just nothing but storekeepers, Christianity, no liquor stores, no card playing or dancing. And that was another thing that they were telling me about that I must never dance. On account of…those villages were dominated by [a] French church that was started by Quaker faith. And we studied Bible long time. Right after school we’d go right across to the church and study Bible depending on what day. Each of us supposed to be there. And we used to like to get together in the evening and sing songs, Christianity songs and everything, and there was hardly any segregation then. – Lela Oman, Kobuk River

When I went to school, the teacher there was very strict about languages, and every time I talked to the other students about what was going on the teacher would come over and hit us on the head with a yard stick…It has been on my mind ever since then because I thought you go to school to learn and not be hit…they hit you for talking your language…And that hurt, not only physically but emotionally. And everywhere. It just took everything away from me. And like I said, ever since then I’ve been struggling with school. So at the age of 17 I quit school. – Vince, Nome

The public school system was very difficult. The Western culture race weren’t so tolerant…It wasn’t a happy experience for many of our Natives here. Not [a] very happy experience. Even the teachers came to be biased and that was the teachers; but also the administration tended to be biased. That certainly was not anything for Western culture to be proud of to say the least…We tended to the business of going to school and learning, and learning, and learning. Many of our students did as well as any student could do among many races, they did very well. – Dr. Walter Soboleff, Southeast

One little girl said to me onetime: ‘I can’t play with you anymore.’
I says: ‘How come?’
She says: ‘Because you’re Native.’
I says: ‘What’s that?’ (laughing while reflecting on this memory)
I was only about eleven, and I just started to learn that we were different.
– Alice Jo Callahan, Anchorage

I’m glad that segregation and discrimination is decreasing. It is so much better. I sound like an old record, [but] it’s always the problem of the people who feel they must be racially biased against whatever race: the Japanese, Chinese, the person from Turkey or Egypt, or wherever. People just have to learn that the society of the world should be one big brotherhood and one big sisterhood. And that’s so much better than trying to have a racial bias. What good does it do people? It’s very harmful, harmful to the person who opposes that way of life, too. And the people who have biases against people are unhappy. We are all one big family and that’s how the world was created. The less racial biases the better for civilization. – Dr. Walter Soboleff

Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. Vintage: New York, 1993.
Stebing, Holly Miowak. “Rewriting the History of Racial Segregation in Alaska”. Thesis. Standford University, 2009.

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1 Comment

Filed under Author: alaskaindigenous

One response to “Alaska History and Race Relations

  1. I am proud that these stories are beginning to appear now. It has been a challenge to live as a proud Alaskan Native because when you use native attire, you notice that your service at stores, restaurants are slow and somewhat hostile.
    Also at work, I have encountered comments like you are friends with white people from Unalakleet? I was shocked when my co-worker made this statement. Most conceptions of natives are drunk. Even the newspapers and news agencies seem to promote this idea.
    I am proud that my neice wrote such a wonderful article!!!

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