The Politics of Dispossession – Alaska Context

For the past 10 years I have closely read federal Indian law, from the Supreme Court “Marshall Trilogy” cases to the latest amendments made to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971.  I have even compared Aboriginal law and policies between Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.  There are many similarities between all of the former British colonies, or the indigenous peoples’ lands occupied by Euro-Americans.  The League of Nations, of which the Covenant was signed and entered into force in 1920, and the modern-day version United Nations, organized in 1945, would not recognize the unique rights of indigenous peoples across the globe until 2007, when the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was agreed to by the UN General Assembly.  Even then, the declaration is not legally-binding, and only provides guidelines or a framework for nation-states to “begin on the right foot” recognizing indigenous peoples’ relations within fluid laws and policies.  I say “fluid,” because the aim of many indigenous peoples – around the globe, not just in Alaska, not just in Canada, New Zealand, Australia and many countries elsewhere – is to further improve upon the accommodation of indigenous peoples within Western legal regimes.  In this modern day and age, should the Marshall Trilogy really be the pillar of US federal Indian law?  Should Native Americans across the US really allow themselves to continue to be characterized by racial and discriminatory stereotypes, like savages, hunter-gatherers, and plain uncivilized?

Simultaneously, the bilateral Treaty of Cession of 1867 between the US and the Russian Crown made a distinction between “civilized” and “uncivilized” Alaska Natives.  According to ourselves, as Alaska Natives, we were never less than civilized.  The Treaty of Cession also included brief mention of “creoles,” as a social and cultural class.  In the fall of 2006 I attended a doctoral dissertation lecture in anthropology by a young Russian lady from St. Petersburg, and her work only included those of “full-blooded” Russians in what is sometimes labelled Russian America.  After she gave her practiced lecture, I raised my hand and asked about Russian creoles or mix-bloods.  She commented it was an interesting question, and replied “I haven’t considered that.”  How can one spend an academic career examining Russian America history and not consider the implications of blood, social, and cultural creoles?  My paternal ancestral line descends from such a lineage.  I had never met nor heard of the young lady prior to her lecture, but how could I not be personally offended by the occlusion of Alaska Natives from such an in-depth, broad historical academic treatment of government and Russian America Company records?  I am still to this day nine years later incredulous and dumbfounded.

All of my grandparents, whom none were non-Native, were born before 1936, the year the Indian Reorganization Act was implemented in Alaska, creating “tribal governments” which the federal government would recognize and treat with on a government-to-government basis.  I imagine all of my grandparents were enrolled into one tribal government or another, even though they all moved from seasonal camp to seasonal camp and did not stay in one place for long.  I also imagine Bureau of Indian Affairs “Indian agents” also pushed on their parents, whom six out of eight were Koyukon Athabascan, to apply for Indian allotments from the 1898 congressional Dawes Act, where individual Native Americans could apply for and receive up to 140 acres of land within their home regions.  From these applications, my four grandparents inherited acreage and so too my parents.  I believe my father inherited a parceled allotment in Galena, and my mother her own parceled allotment in Tanana.  In 2008 I went to Tanana for the first time in twelve years since my grandmother Maudrey’s memorial potlatch in 1996.  I walked around and reminisced and visited with family friends whom were long lost to me, but they knew who I was and never left Tanana for a single day as far as they were concerned.  One of the elders reminded me to look into allotments my grandmother’s family had held and inherited over the years.  Apparently the deeds to several parcels were not accounted for, down the Yukon River from town, as she explained to me.  My cousin and I went for a boat ride down that way to take a look around for animals and stopped at grandma’s old camp to check it out.  Maybe that is where parcels are held in name, I’m not really sure.  I haven’t had the time, nor the expertise, to look into the record, but I imagine from time to time, when I get inheritance papers and identity verification and other such records on my desk, as is temporally required for all of us humans, I will have to look into the record and work with many others to set it straight.  It would only serve our ascendants right.

Next comes the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which dates to my parents’ generation.  In 1971 only my grandmothers survived with their children.  My two younger brothers and I grew up with twenty-one aunts and uncles and countless first cousins.  I have decided I am nothing without my first cousins in the same town, Juneau, where I currently reside.  I tell people, besides law or graduate school, this is the first and only time I will ever live away from my first cousins.  I have decided we are that important to each other, in so many respects, for identity and support as all-too-brief examples.  Rewinding to ANCSA, my grandmothers and my parents and their siblings, in addition to tribal enrollment – my father in Louden Tribal Council and and mother in Tanana Tribal Council, all enrolled into Doyon, Inc, the regional corporation for Interior Athabascan peoples.  My dad and his siblings were enrolled into Gana-A ‘Yoo, Ltd, the village corporation for Galena, and my mother and her siblings enrolled into Tozitna, Ltd, the village corporation for Tanana.  Concurrently, my mother’s maternal uncle Morris Thompson was the Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C.  Governor of Alaska and soon-after Department of Interior Secretary Wally Hickel and US Senator Ted Stevens at the time had a hand in appointing him to the national position of working with federally recognized tribal governments.  BIA was the federal agency that organized and footed the bill for public hearings on ANCSA and community referenda held across the State of Alaska and even in some Northwest states like Washington, Oregon, and California for Alaska Natives living out of state.  “Uncle Big” would then go on to lead Doyon, Ltd and sit in various statewide leadership positions like the University of Alaska Board of Regents.  I remember him well from my childhood, and would very much appreciate the benefit of his views and insights to this day on state and Native politics, as do many others around the state I’m sure.  I do not hear the label “tribal shareholders” very often, but it does ring a bell: it denotes the dual-recognition Alaska Natives receive from the federal and state governments, and also a sense of unity between ANCSA corporations and tribal governments, which in reality is not always the case.  Either way, many Alaska Natives are both tribal members and ANCSA corporation shareholders, and we all have the right to vote in either forms of elected leadership of our peoples.

Continuing on to my personal experiences and engagement in federal Indian laws and policies, I have worked for Doyon Drilling, Inc, a subsidiary of Doyon, Ltd, and also for the Tanana Chiefs Conference wildland firefighting crew.  Because I am a shareholder of Doyon, I receive a preference for hire in business enterprise like Doyon Drilling, Inc.  The Tanana Tribal Council is a consortia member of the Tanana Chiefs Conference, and since I am an enrolled member of the Tanana Tribal Council, I receive a “Native preference” for hire under the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975, where tribal members are preferential ahead of non-Natives for hire in tribal governments and federal government agencies like BIA.  Uncle Big coordinated efforts on behalf of tribal governments around the country during the Congressional push for the ISDEAA, when he was BIA Commissioner.  I have worked for many other businesses around the state, and with many good people Native and non-Native, but the qualities of working for and with my fellow Native peoples is invaluable.  How easy it would have been for me as an impressionable young-twenty-something kid in the City and Municipality of Anchorage to make it in the non-Native world, not at all cognizant of “Native pride” or a sense of family history going back further – millennia – than “Western expansion.”  It sounds beyond cheesy, but if the preferential-hire programs did not exist, I would not be where I am today in my career, and prideful as I am of my family history.  At 21 years old going to work for Doyon Drilling put me next to people who have known my family for generations, and I now know and enjoy friendship with many of those people, even though I had grown up in Anchorage.  My first fire season in 2010 I was a member of an all Native squad of five members.  I never enjoyed working 16 hour days for two weeks straight than that experience with those four guys from a different region than I.  I can go to their villages at any given time and their friends and family would treat me as one of their own.

Recently, I was employed by a village corporation to process share transfers from the deceased to their named or by probate inheritors of stock. In the last decade the board of the village corporation decided on transferring whole shares to inheritors, to keep shares from becoming highly fractionated. Some shareholders hold stock up to three decimals, or essentially irrational amounts of shares, not to be equally divided until the shares return to the corporation itself. I was able to tabulate which classes of shares belonged to different age groups, and the board appreciated the work. We’re hoping the board can draft up new policies like creating a new class of shares for the “afterborns,” or descendants of original shareholders born after December 18th, 1971. Even with new enrollment of afterborns, much like fractionated Indian allotments from the 1898 Dawes Act, ANCSA shares are due to become just as complicated as the generations of shareholders age and new enrollees come into the fold. What is especially difficult is for an aged shareholder naming inheritors of their ANCSA stock, where some descendants might be favored and others left out. These are paradoxes concerning individual property vs. collective property.

This is how deep and important and vital Native identities are.  I carry around with me at all times my tribal enrollment card.  Because of the ID card, I can freely use Southeast Alaska Region Health Consortium healthcare services, an Indian Health Service “638” Self-Determination compacting and contracting consortia of Southeast Alaska tribes.  Despite all of this success, what is still at stake – and this is in closing – is subsistence.  ANCSA “extinguished” the exclusive subsistence, hunting and gathering rights of Alaska Natives.  It is our way of life, is in no way an understatement.  Federal lands, fish, and game management agencies recognize rural residency for subsistence harvesting, unless exclusive rights are explicit like the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Alaska Native rights to hunt seals and waterfowl.  State lands, fish, and game management, however, recognize no exclusive Alaska Native right to hunt and gather.  Some say state agency managers even work to stall and obstruct federal agency management of subsistence harvesting by Alaska Natives.  When Alaska Natives participate in state agency decision-making fora, we are forced to explain our subsistence practices to sport and commercial fisherman, who often view these practices as “poor,” or “wanting.”  Our way of life has never been poor or wanting, nor do we wish to take animals simply for sport.  The best intersection is commercial fishing between Native and non-Native.  The State of Alaska has one of the longest coast-lines in the world, and all of the regions practice commercial fishing in one form or another.  Even so, local fisherman need protections like the state “limited entry” program, where locals receive and enjoy exclusive commercial fishing rights to a region, and the federal Community Development Quota program, much like the state’s limited entry, but for three miles offshore and beyond to 225 miles in the US Exclusive Economic Zone.  The State of Alaska Board of Game, which manages big game hunting like moose, in the past three decades only allowed for exclusive Alaska Native subsistence harvesting for memorial potlatches in the Interior.  The State of Alaska Board of Fish only has one designated “subsistence” expert seat out of seven total.  The same interests carry their weight in the Federal Subsistence Board to integrate as much as possible state management laws and policies for federal lands like National Parks and Wildlife Refuges around the state.  The political, social, and cultural voices and participation of Alaska Natives have almost been reduced to nothing in the modern lands, fish, and wildlife management in the State of Alaska.  I think about this, a lot, just about on a daily basis.  I can go before the boards and state similarities between the US, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia for subsistence harvesting, but I would only be patted on the head and be sent on my way.  There has to be a core, fundamental shift in how these boards operate and accommodate Alaska Native subsistence harvesting practices.  Maybe, just maybe, the unreachable ideological heights of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples can find some form of applicability in the State of Alaska when it comes to Alaska Native subsistence practices.  The guidelines have to come from somewhere.

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