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How 14 Athabascan tribal leaders set the course of Native rights in Alaska

  • Author: David James
    | Alaska books
  • Updated: August 17, 2019
  • Published August 17, 2019

The Tanana Chiefs: Native Rights and Western Law

William Schneider, editor, with contributions by Kevin Illingworth, Will Mayo, Natasha Singh, and Thomas Alton. University of Alaska Pres. 2018. 216 pages. $35

“For two days in July, 1915, the George C. Thomas Memorial Library in Fairbanks was the scene of a remarkable meeting of fourteen Tanana River Athabascan tribal leaders with federal government officials, including Alaska’s delegate to Congress, James Wickersham,” historian Thomas Alton writes in a recent book about the event. “It was the first discussion of its kind ever held in Interior Alaska, and it produced results that none but the chiefs themselves would have predicted.”

’The Tanana Chiefs: Native Rights and Western Law, ’ By William Schneider, editor, with contributions by Kevin Illingworth, Will Mayo, Natasha Singh, and Thomas Alton

The results would be subtle at the time, but in the following decades the issues raised at the meeting would continue to reverberate in relations between Alaska Natives and the United States government, questions surrounding land use, sovereignty and what role the federal government would play in protecting the inhabitants whose land was purchased from Russia by the U.S. without them being either consulted or informed.

“The Tanana Chiefs: Native Rights and Western Law” is one of those priceless history books that asks readers to not simply learn about an event, but to reconsider their understanding of both the past and present as a result. Edited by William Schneider, emeritus professor of library science and former director of the Oral History Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the book uses the meeting as a hinge point to study the impacts on Athabascans brought by the arrival of Americans on their lands, the responses by a people who suddenly found themselves effectively occupied by foreigners, and the maneuvers both Natives and the government took in trying to resolve the inevitable conflicts. On one level, it’s a look at colonization from the viewpoint of those colonized, but it is also, as Schneider himself writes, “as much about white society, its norms and laws, as it is about Native culture.”

The book begins by placing the meeting in its historical context. While all of Alaska had been claimed by Russia since the 18th century, few Russians ever ventured into the Interior. Thus for over a century the Athabascan peoples maintained their traditional lifestyles and governed themselves without interference.

This changed with the Treaty of Cession in 1867, when the territory was sold to America. At first only a few whites came trickling in, but the Klondike Gold Rush that commenced in 1896 soon brought prospectors streaming over the border from Canada. After gold was discovered nearby in 1902, Fairbanks was established, and miners and others were soon pouring into the Tanana Valley. People who had dwelt in the region for millennia suddenly had to compete for fish and game while being introduced to the entirely foreign concept of private property.

This was cultural upheaval on a monumental scale, but as Will Mayo, past president of the Tanana Chiefs conference, notes in his contribution to the book, the Athabascan chiefs learned to navigate their new reality with remarkable speed and skill. Though few spoke English, and fewer still could read, they quickly learned the rules of the newcomers and figured out ways to adapt and assert the interests of those who had entrusted them with leadership.

This is what makes the meeting, the complete transcript of which is included in this book, so fascinating. By 1915, Wickersham had been involved in Alaska politics for a decade and a half, first as a federal judge, and since 1908 as the territory’s elected nonvoting delegate to Congress. In 1914, the federal government began building what we now know as the Alaska Railroad, and Wickersham knew this would only bring more new residents.

While he failed to fully understand the Athabascan point of view, there’s no doubt Wickersham wanted to find a way to protect them before they were overwhelmed by the influx. The transcript of the meeting shows the gulf in the world-views that existed between, on one side, Wickersham and other officials, and on the other, the chiefs. Steeped in 19th century methods of resolving conflicts with Native Americans, Wickersham believed a reservation was the best solution. The chiefs were having none of it. They approached the meeting not as wards of the U.S. government (the Treaty of Cession had put them under the care of the government but denied them citizenship), but rather as the leaders of sovereign nations — meeting as equals, not supplicants.

In the transcript of the first day of the meeting, the two sides are often talking past each other, with Wickersham insisting on either reservations or, short of that, homesteads, while the chiefs, knowing how much land it takes to draw subsistence from Interior Alaska, maintain their right to freely hunt, fish and trap. On the second day, however, they show their full hand. Rejecting Wickersham’s proposal of reservations outright, they then reveal a wish for schools, clinics and jobs. What they are seeking is full membership in the new political order, but on their own terms. Here Wickersham begins to find common ground with them.

Needless to say, that wish would be a long time coming, and even today remains only partially fulfilled. Citizenship and voting rights for Native Americans were nine years away in 1915, civil rights protections for Alaska Natives three decades in the future, and the court judgments leading up to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act further still. Questions of tribal sovereignty, subsistence, land use and more continue to work their way through the courts even now.

What we learn from the analysis of the 1915 meeting provided here, and from the transcript itself, is that these questions came fully formed in the first face-to-face meeting, and that the chiefs who participated came fully informed. Despite language and literacy gaps and very little time since contact, they understood Western law better than Americans understood their ways, and they sought to turn that understanding to their advantage. The history of Alaska Native political struggles rests solidly on the foundation they set down during two summer days in 1915, a fact that is both demonstrated and celebrated in this invaluable contribution to our understanding of Alaska’s history.

A personal note: “The Tanana Chiefs” is the sort of book that would struggle to find a publisher outside of academic presses. Yet its importance to our historical understanding cannot be overstated. It shows the value of University of Alaska Press to the state, and reminds us in this time of budget struggles that keeping the Press alive and vibrant is important for everyone who cares about Alaska.