Friday, September 9, 2011

Alaska Native Sisterhood Civil Rights Leader Amy Hallingstad – A Glimpse to 1947



There are a number of individuals associated and credited with the Civil Rights movement in Alaskan history. These range from individuals such as Frank Johnson’s 1930 boycott of segregated theaters, Bessie Quinto’s tireless advocacy toward equal pay and benefits for Natives working in salmon canneries, William L. Paul’s fight for Native rights and land, to Roy and Elizabeth Peratrovich’s ANB and ANS leadership during the passing of the Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945. Another name that should be spoken of alongside with these individuals is Amy Hallingstad.

Amy Booth Hallingstad (1901-1973) was born in Haines, Alaska, the daughter of Frank Booth Sr. (1889-1964) and Sally Jackson (1885-1943). Amy was Tlingit of the Eagle moiety, Tsaagweidí Clan. She is often remembered as a civil rights activist and leader in the Alaska Native Sisterhood, and was referred to by some as the First Lady for the First People. She was widely known for using her quick wit and humor to make her point, and her jokes are often retold to this day during joking sessions in traditional gatherings.

In Amy's youth she moved to Sitka to attend the Sheldon Jackson College, and then moved to Petersburg, Alaska. During the 1920s in Petersburg, Amy married Norwegian-born Casper Hallingstad Sr. (1901-1980) and they later raised six children together.

During the early 1930s, as Amy's children began to attend school in Petersburg, Amy became angry that the Native children in Petersburg were forced to attend a segregated school. Since Alaska Natives had to pay taxes that went toward the public school system, Amy was able to force the closure of the Native school in Petersburg and soon Alaska Native children were able to attend the public school in Petersburg. Her oldest son, Casper Hallingstad, Jr. was the first Alaska Native student in the Petersburg public school. During this time Amy became very active in the Alaska Native Sisterhood (ANS), serving in various leadership roles within the Petersburg ANS Camp 16, and later serving as Grand President from 1947-49 and 1953-56. She was a supporter of the land claims movement as early as 1937. Amy was also instrumental in forming the Petersburg Indian Association in 1948.


During this time Amy also made it a practice to forcibly remove signs from businesses in Southeast Alaska that contained discriminatory language, such as "No Natives Allowed." Amy was also an organizer of boycotts against businesses that discriminated against Alaska Natives, or preferred to hire non-Natives. Newspaper articles speak of her efforts of enforcing a boycott of the Petersburg movie theater, which had segregated seating. The boycott continued until the segregated seating practice was eliminated.

As Grand President of ANS she also made strong efforts to pressure businesses, such as canneries that sought to employ non-Natives, to change their policies and hire locally. She influenced reforms that were enacted at canneries in Hood Bay, Excursion Inlet, Pillar Bay, and Chatham. She fought to improve medical care to Alaska Natives. She also regularly corresponded and met with state politicians about the important political issues of the day. With her contemporary, the celebrated Elizabeth Peratrovich, they both worked towards ensuring civil rights were guaranteed to Alaska Natives. Amy was an advocate for Native rights until her death at age 72 in 1973.

Recently the decedents of Amy donated some documents and family memoirs about Amy to SHI’s archival collection, which is available to the public for educational purposes and study. (click here for description of collection) Within SHI’s other collections, some additional documents connected to Amy can also be found. Recently, researcher Ishmael Hope was studying SHI’s Curry-Weissbrodt Papers and came across a letter composed by Amy in 1947 discussing Native rights and the issue of land claims. She composed this letter while serving as Grand President of the Alaska Native Sisterhood. A quote from this letter was recently featured in the Sealaska Corporation’s special annual report, which focused on the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). Below is the quote from this letter and used in this report.

“We have decided that the real reason why our possessions are being taken from us is that we are human beings, and not wolves or bears. The men from Washington have set aside many millions of acres on which wolves and bears may not be disturbed, and nobody objects to that. Perhaps if we were wolves or bears we could have just as much protection. But we are only human beings. There are no closed seasons when it comes to skinning Alaskan natives.”

This important quote, and the words of Amy’s entire letter, is something that provides great insight and context into the fight for civil rights and land claims. Below is the full text from Amy’s 1947 letter.

All in all, there are many individuals who fought for Native rights and land claims during Alaska’s history. SHI seeks to collect historical materials documenting this and connected topics, including recordings, photographs, and manuscript papers—such as diaries, letters, and meeting minutes.

Sealaska Heritage Institute is a regional nonprofit serving the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people of Southeast Alaska. Its mission is to perpetuate and enhance Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures.

Photo credit: Amy Hallingstad at ANB/ANS meeting, undated, from the William Paul Jr. Photograph Collection, Courtesy of Ben Paul.

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December 19, 1947

Mrs. Ruth Muskrat Bronson

Secretary, National Congress of American Indians

1426 35th Street. N. W.

Washington, D. C.

Dear Mrs. Bronson:

Here in the land of Santa Claus, Christmas will bring little cheer to our children this year. We natives, 35,000 Eskimos, Indians and Aleuts, are half of Alaska's permanent population, and we must watch our children die of diseases that come from cold and lack of food. Our homes and lands, our fisheries and trees, our trap· lines and reindeer, everything we possess is being seized or threatened by unscrupulous white men, who tell us that what they are doing to us has been approved in Washington.

All of the promises that have come to us from Washington are now broken.

Presidents and Secretaries of the Interior have promised us the last time was in June, 1946—that the boundaries of all our lands would be marked out clearly so that no trespasser would take the fish and game and furs that we need to keep our children warm and well fed throughout the long Alaskan winters. Now Secretary Krug, who is supposed to be our guardian, refuses to let this promise be kept. Petitions on his desk from many native villages are still unanswered.

Secretary Krug himself promised us, on the 9th day of last December, that he would have such boundary line drawn immediately, beginning with the lands of Klukwan. That promise, too, stands broken. Our friends in the Indian Bureau have made many efforts to hold such hearings. Always Secretary Krug has stopped them.

We were promised by Secretary Krug on the same day, that our farthest north Eskimo town, Barrow, on the Arctic Ocean, would be allowed a town reserve to include its whaling grounds and the places where its men dig the coal to keep warm with through the long Arctic night. That promise, too, stands broken. We were promised by President Roosevelt, President Hoover, President Coolidge, President Wilson, and even by presidents before their days, that our possessions would always be protected. Now the men in Washington who are supposed to be our protectors say that big corporations can take our trees, our minerals and all our lands without asking our permission or paying us. One of our Eskimo boys was arrested and thrown into jail when he tried to mine jade on the lands that belong to his own people. One of our Indian men was arrested when he tried to fish in the fishing grounds that always belonged to the people of his house. Now the Agriculture Department men threaten to arrest us if we cut down our own trees. We are wondering if they expect us to live on snow and to keep warm in the winter by burning ice.

Now a bill has just been introduced in Congress by the heads of the Indian Affairs Committees, who are supposed to protect us, that would take away our reservations, which are our homes and our Promised Land. Where can we go then? We are not like white men who are always moving. Most of our homes and villages have been right where they are now for many hundreds of generations. We know this is true because animals that have not roamed on earth for thousands of years are sometimes found in the dump heaps of our villages. Taking our land from us means driving us off the face of the earth. When we were under the Russian Czars they said that nobody should take our possessions without our consent. When they sold Alaska they did not consult us, but they asked the United States to promise that our land rights would be respected. That promise is set out in the Treaty, but it is no longer observed.

Congress in 1884 promised that the lands we claimed then should never be disturbed. In 1900 and in 1936 that promise was renewed. When a Secretary of the Interior takes his oath of office he promises to execute all the laws of the United States but now our Secretary says that he will not execute the law that Congress has passed to safeguard our possessions.

Instead he sends doctors to investigate our chests and they report that our people are dying of tuberculosis ten times as rapidly as other people in the United States. We could have told him that a year ago when he toured Alaska, if he had stopped at our Indian villages instead of spending all his time at luncheons and parties given by Chambers of Commerce in white towns. And we could tell him now, if he asked us, that we will be able to afford decent food and clothing and better housing and bring up our children as we would like to bring them up if he would only carry out the promises that he and other Secretaries of the Interior before him have made, to protect our lands and possessions. We have gone to schools and learned how to operate sawmills and canneries in the most modern way. Now that we are attempting to do this with our own resources, everything is taken from us, and we are thrown into jail.

Why? Why are we suddenly to be made what you call "displaced persons?"

Is it because our skins are not as light as yours? But the Declaration of Independence you brought us says that all men are created equal. Your constitution promises that the property rights of all men-not just white men-shall be safeguarded. And the Bible that you brought us and translated into our native tongues says that we are all brothers and children of God. It does not say that it is all right for white men to rob from men of copper skin.

Is this done to us on the ground that we are not citizens? But your Congress passed a law in 1924 making us all citizens, and that law is still alive.

Is this done to us because Secretary Ickes tried to protect our lands and because;, we are told, many people in Washington do not like him? Is that why the reservations that were established by other Secretaries of the Interior are allowed to stand, when the reservations that he marked off for us are being wiped out? But we do not pick Secretaries of the Interior, though we wish we could.

We have thought about this matter and talked about it in the long evenings of the past autumn. We have decided that the real reason why our possessions are being taken from us is that we are human beings, and not wolves or bears. The men from Washington have set aside many millions of acres on which wolves and bears may not be disturbed, and nobody objects to that. Perhaps if we were wolves or bears we could have just as much protection. But we are only human beings. There are no closed seasons when it comes to skinning Alaskan natives.

You have asked us not to lose faith in the American people, but to tell our story to those who will listen. And so we are asking Santa Claus, when he rides through Alaska this year, on his way south to gather the cries of our children and to take them with his sleigh bells to the hearts of men and women in the States who will dare to raise their voices in our behalf and to insist that their public servants in Washington shall not enrich their friends by giving away our trees, our fisheries, our traplines, our lands, and our homes. With God's help we still hope that what our parents passed on to us we may in turn pass on to our children and our children's children forever.

Respectfully yours,

AMY HALLINGSTAD,

President.


Credit: Scan of original letter from Curry-Weissbrodt Papers, Box C2A.

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