Friday, November 6, 2009

Southeast Alaska Native Perspectives on Statehood – Presentation by Jeane Breinig

For Native American History Month, on Wednesday November 4, 2009 Sealaska Heritage Institute Trustee and University of Alaska Anchorage Professor Jeane Breinig gave a presentation in the Sealaska Building on Southeast Alaska Native perspectives of Alaskan statehood. She spent countless hours doing meticulous research for her lecture, some of which was conducted at SHI Special Collections. Funded in part by the Alaska Humanities Forum and the Sealaska Heritage Institute, her research is part of a project entitled “A Retrospective Analysis of Alaska Statehood from a Native Perspective,” which seeks to shed light on how Natives across the state of Alaska reacted to statehood.

The Sealaska Heritage Institute recorded her hour-long lecture, which can now be viewed by the public via Sealaska’s website by clicking here.

Overall, Breinig’s lecture did a good job in addressing the complexities of how Southeast Alaska Natives grappled with statehood up to 1959, as well as balancing the direction that historical memory has moved since that time. Her arguments came down to a handful of complex points, some briefly summarized below. But for a full understanding of her arguments, interested parties are strongly encouraged to watch the lecture via the link provided above.

First, regarding some of Breinig’s findings, she discovered that historical records showed most Southeast Alaska Natives generally supported statehood, but only tepidly and if conditions for statehood favored—and didn’t hurt—Native land claims, subsistence rights, and other important aspects. Southeast Alaska Natives, through Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood’s efforts, the work of their lawyers William L. Paul Sr. and Jr., and the ANB attorney James E. Curry, had previously fought against some statehood bills that attempted to deprive Alaska Natives of land, most notably in 1950, but they did cautiously go along with the 1959 statehood bill—though most clearly had hoped statehood would have brought more to Alaska Natives (additional details on this are mentioned in Breinig’s lecture). In many ways however, although statehood did not resolve a number of important issues for Alaska Natives, it set in motion events that helped with the solidification of the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act of 1971.

One important point made by Breinig that cannot be underestimated is the issue of fishing rights and subsistence. In many ways statehood for Alaska Natives revolved around land claims and subsistence. Breinig accurately noted how large corporate fish traps, which were run by lower-48 corporations that were protected by Federal laws while Alaska was a territory (and not a state), were vehemently opposed by most Southeast Alaska Native villages. Most villages were opposed to fish traps for many reasons, but one major reason revolved around the fact that fish traps affected subsistence fishing. These fish traps were taking fish from Southeast Alaska Native subsistence fishermen, causing food shortages in Native villages during the winter months. Not only were these fish traps enormous, they were very ecologically devastating to salmon populations and migration patterns. With fewer salmon in Southeast Alaskan waters, salmon migrations changing, and with laws that protected these fishing trap operations at the expense of Alaska Native subsistence needs, Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian saw statehood as a way to break corporate fishing powers. As Breinig noted, statehood broke the hold of corporate fishing operations in Alaska as state legislators were able to soon enact laws that banned fishing traps (since the state had jurisdiction over previously federally controlled fishing laws). So in some ways, through statehood Southeast Alaska Natives gained some ground in resolving subsistence problems of the period. Clearly however, the battle for Native subsistence in Alaska was not resolved with statehood, nor has it been resolved today, as Alaska Natives work tirelessly toward enacting political reform that will satisfactorily address the issue of subsistence. Overall, Breinig’s research shows the complex issues that moving toward statehood produced and how Alaska Natives dealt with these heavy issues.

To conclude, Breinig has done great work and conducted ample research for this project. Importantly, for this project Breinig spent many hours at SHI Special Collections, primarily looking at our Walter A. Soboleff Papers and our Curry-Weissbrodt Papers collections. SHI Special Collections is committed to serving researchers and furthering education about the history of the Alaska Natives. We are also working to obtain additional records that document the history of Southeast Alaska Natives. As Breinig mentioned in her lecture, the efforts of the Alaska Native Sisterhood remain to be told or documented because archival records of the Alaska Native Sisterhood remain in private hands, and thus off limits to researchers. SHI Special Collections is looking to obtain additional Alaska Native Sisterhood records so the Sisterhood’s work can be documented and their story told. If you would like to donate or help SHI secure a donation of Alaska Native Sisterhood records, please contact Special Collections staff today.

No comments: