Monday, March 21, 2011

Alaska Native Role in Shaping History

The Sealaska Heritage Institute houses a number of archival collections, but two I’d like to highlight in this post are the Walter A. Soboleff Papers and the Curry-Weissbrodt Papers.

The Curry-Weissbrodt Papers are a seventy-one box collection of papers associated with attorneys James E. Curry and I.E. Weissbrodt. Both Curry and Weissbrodt served as the lawyers and legal representatives for the Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB) and Sisterhood (ANS) from the 1930s to the post-land claims period. The collection contains a few thousand legal documents and papers, as well as thousands of letters between ANB and ANS officials to government entities regarding their efforts towards equal rights, land claims, and a host of other subjects. For anyone interested in the history of the land claims by the Tlingit and Haida, this collection is the definitive source.

The Walter A. Soboleff Papers is a collection of more than thirty boxes of materials concerning ANB. The magazine First Alaskans recently published a biography on the currently 102 years old Dr. Walter A. Soboleff, which speaks about Dr. Soboleff’s accomplished life. This collection consists of ANB records from the 1920s to the present and is rich with correspondence, meeting minutes, and ANB files of various type. The collection documents the extraordinary life of Dr. Soboleff and important undertakings of ANB.

I recently did a little research within these collections for an exhibit and stumbled upon some pretty impressive pieces. It really is quite hard to explain the gravity and importance of the documents within these collections—and the copious amount of documents within these collections—but perhaps a few samples help give credence to their contents. Some of those I recently encountered are highlighted below.

W.A. Soboleff Papers; Box 1.

This scan of a handwritten statement from the ANB Camp 2 Meeting Minutes Ledger dates to March 19, 1945 and documents the Alaska Native Brotherhood & Sisterhood’s efforts towards the passage of Alaska’s Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945, Alaska’s most recognized civil rights legislation. The Anti-Discrimination Act was signed on February 16, a day now recognized annually as Elizabeth Peratrovich Day in honor of Elizabeth Peratrovich and her efforts towards the bill’s passage. Shown above are the handwritten meeting minutes from the first meeting held by ANB and ANS Camp 2 in Juneau after the Anti-Discrimination Act became law. The bottom paragraph captures Roy Peratrovich’s (Elizabeth’s husband) words about how the Anti-Discrimination Act helped in “eliminating discrimination.”

Curry-Weissbrodt Papers: C2A; 21.1

This 1947 letter is correspondence from ANB lawyer James E. Curry to Territorial Governor of Alaska Ernest Gruening, in which Curry writes the Governor about documented discrimination against Alaska Natives, and counsels the Governor to address the situation. This letter, among the many in the collection, documents the role Alaska Natives played in shaping Civil Rights in Alaska.

Curry-Weissbrodt Papers: C1A; 14.1

This 1951 letter is correspondence between ANB lawyer James E. Curry and Territorial Representative E.L. Bartlett about opposition ANB mounted against an Alaskan Statehood Bill, which failed to pass in part because it neglected to address Alaska Native land claims. This document shows the Alaska Native role in shaping Statehood.

Curry-Weissbrodt Papers: C1A; 14.1

This 1951 letter is a reply written by newly elected Senator Richard Nixon (later the 37th U.S. President) to ANB lawyer James E. Curry to acknowledge his support of Alaska Natives regarding land claims. Herein Nixon stated he did not support the proposed Alaska Statehood Bill because it neglected to address Native land claims. Twenty years later, then as President of the United States, Nixon would sign the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act into law.

All in all, these are just a miniscule sample of the important and telling archival materials housed in the collections of at Sealaska Heritage Institute. These collections are open to the public for research and educational purposes.

Sealaska Heritage Institute is a Native nonprofit established in 1980 to administer educational and cultural programs for Sealaska, a regional Native corporation formed under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. The institute’s mission is to perpetuate and enhance Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian cultures.