This year marks the 100th anniversary of the landmark Tanana Chiefs Conference in Fairbanks. In July 1915, seven Alaska Native leaders from the Interior met with officials from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other federal agencies. James Wickersham, Alaska's territorial delegate to Congress, was also at the meeting and served as mediator of sorts across the cultural divide.
The federal officials came to the meeting prepared to either place Alaska Natives on reservations or grant individuals 160-acre homesteads, per the American culture of individualism. As every student of Alaska history knows, the Tanana chiefs wanted no part of a paternalist system that would both constrain their ability to move freely across the land and weaken their familial and tribal bonds.
Recently, while doing research in the National Archives, I came across two letters that offer some insight on the perspectives of the Tanana chiefs in the years before the 1915 conference.
On Aug. 18, 1906, Chief Ivan of Crossjacket and Chief William of Tanana wrote to Secretary of War William H. Taft in Washington, D.C., to formally complain about the intrusion of whites into their homelands.
"This is the first time that we are going to inform you about the troubles we are having with white people since 1898," the men wrote. "We used to get the game and fur all we wanted, before that. Half of [the] white people are doing nothing but trapping and fishing where we have our hunting grounds for years and now we cannot depend only on hunting, but have to cut wood, etc."
"We are self-supporting Indians," the chiefs continued, "and all we want to ask of you is to stop the whites to cut wood around our grounds."
Since neither of the chiefs knew more than a few words of English, they relied on Lt. Col. Edwin B. Bolton of Fort Gibbon and an interpreter to transcribe their letter.
Bolton wrote his own letter of introduction to the war secretary in which he offered some additional context for the chiefs' complaints: "[W]hite men are cutting wood around his [Chief Ivan's] house and on the grounds of his people [and] they had killed off all the fur bearing animals from which the Indians used to derive their income."
Bolton further explained that white interlopers had usurped fishing grounds Natives had used for generations and that thefts and vandalism had recently occurred at Natives' cabins while the inhabitants were off hunting or fishing. Chief Ivan reported a wood stove had been taken from his house the previous year.
"Chief Ivan told me that he now lived on the grounds of his father before him," Bolton explained, "and that his father lived on the same grounds in the days of the Russians' occupancy of this country. He and his people thought that ought to give them legitimate possession of the grounds they occupy."
Bolton suggested Chief Ivan and Chief William file a formal complaint with the U.S. commissioner in Tanana, but the men were having none of it. "We are getting tired of these judges and marshals," they retorted. "They are nothing but grafters. They are watching the Indians only about liquors, which is of a very small matter, but [about] other serious matters they do not care at all."
Perhaps not surprisingly, the War Department did nothing about the chiefs' complaints. An October 1906 opinion by the judge advocate general concluded that because the military had "no duties in respect to their [Alaska Natives] support, protection, or control, …the War Department is powerless to apply a remedy." Whether the chiefs sought relief from Indian Affairs or another federal agency is not known.
We should be wary of reading too much into just a couple of letters. Extrapolating a grand theory of history from such a narrow base of evidence is a risky proposition. But it doesn't seem at all a stretch to conclude that Chief Ivan and Chief William brought the unpleasant memories of 1906 with them to Fairbanks nine years later. The transgressions by whites on their homeland and the total failure of the U.S. government to do anything about it were almost certainly on Chief Ivan's mind when he stated, in what is perhaps the most often quoted remark from the 1915 conference, "We don't want to go on a reservation, but wish to stay perfectly free just as we are now."
The Tanana chiefs remained steadfast in their opposition to reservations, and in so doing articulated a vision for Native land claims, self-determination, and cultural preservation that would profoundly influence Alaska history over the next century.
Ross Coen is a historian who writes about the social, political, and environmental history of Alaska and the American West. He lives in Fairbanks.