June 29, 1997

Jimmy Erick

Jimmy Erick prepares to make a muskrat set on a pond near the Athabaskan village of Venetie. (Anchorage Daily News photo by Bob Hallinen)

Where it all began

A man with a vision set Venetie course

By Don Hunter
Daily News reporter

Eddie Sam led the way through a dark, wintry maze of roads and trails that runs from one end of Venetie to the other. The Gwich'in Athabaskans who live here built their homes wherever they wished. As a result, roads conform to the whims of cabin builders, not the other way around.

People are accustomed to doing things their own way in Venetie, an isolated village some 200 miles north of Fairbanks in the Brooks Range foothills. A half-century ago, they passed a constitution, created a tribal government, and persuaded the federal government to create a 1.8 million acre reservation.

Offered a share of the $962 million Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, they chose title to their land instead.

And as quiet as life can seem here, the hard-packed snow beneath Sam's feet became ground zero in Alaska's battle over Indian country last November when Venetie won the legal battle that has shaken the state.

When the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Venetie and neighboring Arctic Village possess the same kinds of strong self-governing powers wielded by reservations in the Lower 48, many of Alaska's political leaders responded with outrage and disbelief.

But for the Gwich'in, the land they refer to as ''our 1.8 million acres'' always has been and always will be Indian country.

Sam paused before a log house. ''Hey, lets stop in here,'' he said. ''Something for you to see.''

He rapped softly at the door and pushed it open. Like most homes in the village, this one consisted of a large main room with a roaring central woodstove. Entering in January was like stepping from a freezer into a sauna.

Children chattered and bounced on a sofa. Against one wall, a man kneeled, knife in hand, delicately slicing the hide of a fox to expose the fine, white bones of its foreleg. He tugged gently at the fur.

''Jimmy got a fox,'' Sam said. Jimmy looked up and nodded.

At another house, a few doors down, Sam stepped inside and jumped back in mock fear. Against a wall, almost hidden in shadow, a black wolf, fresh from the trap line and still frozen, leaned with its front paws crossed and its head cocked.

In Venetie and Arctic Village, trapping and selling furs is one of the few ways to keep tea on the table and gas in the snowmachine. The two villages, with about 350 residents, sit 100 miles apart in a vast expanse of tundra, forest and mountains. The only year-round access is by air.

''We still live our Indian way of life here, we've got subsistence,'' Earl Henry, first chief of the joint tribal government for Arctic Village and Venetie, said last winter. ''But we've also got basic needs, like paying your electricity bill. Buying gas for your snowmachine or your four-wheeler or your outboard motor, to go hunting. Yes, we do need income.''

It began with a tax

The need for income to run the villages led the tribal council to impose a 5 percent business tax on two companies engaged in a joint venture to build a new state-financed Venetie school -- Neeser Construction Co., of Anchorage, and the Unalakleet Native Corp.

The state refused to pay the tax.

When the tribal tax court tried to collect the money, the state sued, claiming the tribal government lacked authority to collect about $160,000.

From the state's point of view, taxation by tribal governments would open Alaska to a bewildering array of taxing regimes.

Rural communities could of course form cities and impose municipal taxes, but tribal governments have more latitude. For instance, the tax on business receipts imposed by Venetie -- essentially shaving 5 percent from the state's school construction contract -- is not allowed under state law.

The state found such a tax politically objectionable. It amounted to an illegal local surcharge on state-funded construction projects in rural Alaska.

More fundamentally, state officials argue, such a tax would deliver funds to a council chosen only by tribal members, not by all residents. And they fear facing similar taxes -- and a wide range of other Indian country powers in other communities across Alaska -- if the state didn't resist the Venetie tax.

When the state challenged Venetie's right to tax, Indian rights attorneys found an ideal legal case -- from their perspective -- to prove that Indian country exists in Alaska, said Bob Anderson, then an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund.

''Venetie, having had a large reservation set aside for it, (presented) the strongest factual case for Indian country,'' said Anderson, who now works for the U.S. Interior Department and said he has divorced himself from the case to avoid conflicts of interest.

''Plus the fact it's so isolated, a very traditional community, very few non-Indians live there, and there's no non-Indian land within the boundaries,'' Anderson said.

Unless the Supreme Court reverses the ruling, the Gwich'in of Venetie and Arctic Village will levy taxes, pass and enforce tribal laws and decide what happens on their land.

In practical terms, that's what they've been doing for a long time.

They banned alcohol more than 20 years ago. If necessary, tribal leaders search bags from incoming airplanes and pour confiscated liquor into the snow. They own and operate their airstrips. When the state wanted to buy land for the new school, Venetie insisted on a lease instead.

''Give the state an inch,'' said a smiling Joseph Tritt, a young tribal council member from Arctic Village, ''and they'll take a mile.''

Our George Washington

Sixty years ago, Arctic Village and Venetie set out on a visionary course, using federal law to create a reservation and tribal government based on traditional law.

It wouldn't have happened without John Fredson.

''He's like our George Washington, that's the way I look at him,'' said Walter John Jr., secretary of the tribal council. ''He was the godfather of the whole reservation.''

Born in the 1890s on the Sheenjek River, Fredson was a Gwich'in Renaissance man. Left at a boarding home for Native children after his mother died, he met the Episcopal missionary and adventurer Hudson Stuck and worked as Stuck's dog handler on the first ascent of Mount McKinley. Later, he accompanied Stuck to the Lower 48, finishing high school and graduating, in 1930, from the University of the South at Sewanee, Tenn.

Degree in hand, Fredson returned to Alaska. He lived in Fort Yukon for several years before taking a teaching job in 1937 at a new Bureau of Indian Affairs school in Venetie.

Three years earlier, Congress had passed the Indian Reorganization Act, allowing Indians to create reservations and tribal governments. Venetie, perhaps for the first time, had an advantage in dealing with the Western culture: Fredson understood the language and the system, and recognized the reorganization act's potential for claiming and protecting the land of the Gwich'in.

''He's the one that did everything for us and established the reserve,'' said Paul Tritt Sr., an 85-year-old Venetie elder.

Another elder, Ellen Henry, 84, remembers Fredson making long trips to isolated fish camps and communities, traveling by dog team in winter, walking or paddling the river in summer.

''He was having a meeting almost every day,'' she said. ''He said when people get that reservation, they would own it.''

Fredson surveyed the land and drew the boundaries the people selected, an area roughly outlined by the Chandalar, Christian and Venetie rivers and Otter Creek. He filed the necessary paperwork with the U.S. Department of the Interior.

''The people all signed a document to have a reserve,'' Tritt said. ''Some of them couldn't even sign their names, so they just signed by 'X'.

''Everybody was illiterate except for John Fredson.''

Fredson died of pneumonia at a fish camp near Venetie in 1945. He was about 50 years old; his exact date of birth is unknown. Fredson descendants still live in Interior Alaska. One of his daughters is married to Republican U.S. Rep. Don Young.

Sixty years after Fredson returned to teach in Venetie, the school at the center of the landmark Indian country case is named for him.

Cash, job poor

Venetie's tribal council didn't have revolution in mind when it taxed Neeser Construction, said Gideon James, who was first chief of the tribe at the time. They were just looking for a way to raise money for the village. They still are.

Jobs are few in Venetie. Sam works for the telephone company. The tribal and village councils operate a power plant and washeteria. They plow the airstrip and village streets, and provide a few clerical and administrative jobs.

Some men work as firefighters in the summer. Several live and work 200 miles away in Fairbanks, returning to Venetie when they can. Tribal council member Pete Peter is one. A National Guardsman, he works in Fairbanks and commutes for council business.

"Once I've got my 20 years, in a split second I'll be back on the reservation," he said.

Many who have left and returned describe their homeland as a haven, a place where it's still possible to follow old customs even as a few satellite dishes sprout beside log cabins.

"I enjoy living here, it's a quiet life," said Eddie Frank, who gave up a job working for a nonprofit agency in Kotzebue 17 years ago to return to Venetie. ''Coming back here was like coming back to my roots after being gone.''

Frank now spends his winters cutting firewood, which he sells in the village for $90 a sledload. A few years ago, he built a cabin in the mountains.

''I trap there some, hunt, get a caribou, a moose, and bring back the meat. It's about six hours away by snowmachine, on a good trail.''

Court eases the way

The strong tribal powers -- to tax, to police, to control land use and access -- are ones that people in Venetie and Arctic Village say they never doubted they had. But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal's decision will make the powers more useful.

John Titus, former chief of Venetie's village council, said he hopes Indian country authority will give the village a bigger role in making spending decisions for social programs now administered by the state bureaucrats in Juneau.

''The state of Alaska has been baby-sitting Native people for all these years and wants to continue doing it,'' he said. ''The money comes from Washington. Then it goes to Juneau so they can distribute it. Control is what they're after.''

Federal grants to pay tribal police should be easier to obtain in Indian country. A police officer would relieve some of the responsibilities of tribal council members who now take turns meeting airplanes to keep out alcohol and drugs, Henry said.

''If you consume alcohol on the reservation, either you get fined or you get community service. If you become a repeat offender, we give you a blue ticket for a period of time.''

The blue ticket means you have to leave the village. After 30 days or a few months, an offender can write to the tribal council, promising not to break the law again and asking to return.

The tribe has codified its laws in an inch-thick document. They include limitations on nontribal members, who are restricted to the village itself but may go into the tribal land if accompanied by a member. Nonmembers from other villages may come to hunt on the land, but they also must be accompanied by a tribal member, to ensure nothing is wasted.

Visitors passing through the villages' two airstrips may be asked to pay a fee; Arctic Village last summer collected $5 each from hikers who landed there on their way to the adjacent Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

To Venetie's way of thinking, requiring nonmembers, non-Natives, to accept their tribal law isn't a threat to anyone's constitutional rights. It's simply a matter of courtesy.

"If I go to Juneau," said Gideon James, "I have to respect the community and their ordinances and their way of life. It's common sense that when they go to the villages, that they have respect for these things.''

Another former chief, Ernest Erick, said local control is the only way Venetie and Arctic Village can be sure their land and resources will be preserved for their descendants. That was Fredson's message 60 years ago, and elders have repeated it to every generation since.

''They lived on it for hundreds and hundreds of years, and we don't want to lose it,'' Erick said. ''We're living in this modern world but we don't want to lose it, and we want to see that it's protected. Till the year 3000.''

The tribal council wrestles with the question of how to secure improvements -- running water would be nice, especially for elders -- without bartering away Venetie's independence.

"As tribal leaders, we have that responsibility of being a job creator ... and to help the younger generation get caught up in the world, with today's technology," Henry said.

The trick, he said, is to achieve these goals without losing tribal control. The people here like their remoteness, their ability to let the outside world trickle in at their pace and invitation. They don't want to be assimilated by a larger, Western society, and tribal control over tribe-owned land has proven an effective shield.

''We don't want drastic change.'' Henry said. ''We don't want to have an easy life. It's good to get up in the morning and build a fire, instead of having a heater all the time. It's good to go out and hunt. Our ancestors, our grandfathers, our grandmas, they've been doing that. I don't see why we shouldn't continue that. This land was set aside for that reason only. We want to just live our subsistence way of life as an Indian tribe. Gwich'in people.''

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