July 1, 1997

Don Mitchell

Don Mitchell, a lawyer and historian, contends Alaska Natives chose corporations instead of tribes when they settled land claims in 1971. He calls the tribal sovereignty movement "a horrible mistake." (Anchorage Daily News photo by Jim Lavrakas)

Don Mitchell says history against tribes

By Tom Kizzia
Daily News reporter

Fifteen years ago, no lawyer stood more squarely at the center of Alaska Native politics than Don Mitchell. He helped fashion the federal rural-subsistence priority in 1980 and served as vice president of the Alaska Federation of Natives.

Today Mitchell stands alone. An economic assimilationist, he mounts the same legal and historical arguments against tribal self-government that he used a decade ago during the first stirrings of the Native sovereignty movement. But most of Alaska's Native community, including many of the Native corporations that once employed him, have moved into the pro-sovereignty camp.

''I think this is a horrible historic mistake for the Native community, should they succeed in all this,'' said Mitchell, who first came to Alaska in 1974 for a three-year stint as a poverty lawyer in Bethel with Alaska Legal Services.

Mitchell, 50, has turned his effort from law to history. For years he has been writing a two-volume political and legal history of Native relations to the land, dating back to the U.S. purchase of Alaska. The first volume, ''Sold American,'' which ends with statehood in 1959, was published this spring by Dartmouth College's University Press of New England.

Mitchell represented the AFN in Washington, D.C., for four years during the fight over the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. He writes with relish about the backstabbing and intrigue surrounding such figures as Sheldon Jackson, William Paul and the ''Indian New Dealer'' John Collier.

The historical evidence in the book indicates Congress did not intend to treat Alaska Natives as it did Indians in the Lower 48, Mitchell said. The 1971 land claims settlement didn't have to extinguish tribal rights in Alaska, Mitchell contends, because Alaska's villages had never been granted recognition as tribes.

Mitchell recently got a chance to make that case explicit when he drafted an amicus brief for Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, in the state's Venetie appeal to the Supreme Court.

Mitchell's opponents say his historical memory is too selective, no matter how he piles on the anecdotes. Others, including Interior Department lawyers in the Bush administration, reviewed the history and reached a different conclusion about the existence of tribes in Alaska.

His second volume will be a history of the land claims settlement, which Mitchell contends was a good deal for Alaska Natives and one that was sought by Natives at the time.

''It's like the Ghost Dance,'' said Mitchell of Alaska's village-based tribal movement, recalling the last-gasp spiritual revival by which Western tribes sought in 1890 to rid the continent of whites. ''If there's no village economy, what difference does it make if you're sovereign or not?''

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