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William Paul, Sr., and the Alaska Voters' Literacy Act of 1925

Stephen W. Haycox*

Alaska History, Vol. 2., No. 1, (Winter 1986/87): 17-38 by Stephen Haycox, "William Paul, Sr., and the Alaska Voters' Literacy Act of 1925." This article was originally published in Alaska History, journal of the Alaska Historical Society, and is reporoduced here by permission of the Society.

In April 1925 the seventh Alaska Territorial Legislature enacted into law a measure requiring that voters in territorial elections be able to read and write the English language. Amended to meet significant objections raised during legislative debate, the bill passed the House by a vote of 14–2 and cleared the Senate unanimously.1 Passed after World War I in a period when racism and segregation became increasingly regimented throughout the United States, Alaska's literacy law clearly was consistent with a growing willingness on the part of white Americans to enact into law restrictions on the movement and civil participation of non-whites, including Indians as well as blacks. Restrictive legislation in the continental states often was a direct response to the growing political power and social mobility of these minorities, and was based on assumptions of racial inferiority, as well as a desire to maintain a social stability which accepted a subordinate role for minorities. That the same assumptions which obtained nationally also had come to Alaska seems manifest in the debate among politicians and publicists in the territory over whether or not to adopt the Alaska literacy law.

Literacy laws were a common device used by states to limit the opportunity to vote, and in 1925 such statutes were in effect in twenty states. Most of these were in the South and functioned to discourage voting by blacks. The measures have been interpreted as racist in character since the single criteria which seems to have attended their use was skin color, not educational attainment. In addition to the South, several western states had literacy laws. Since some of these western states also had significant Indian populations, Arizona and Washington for example, it may reasonably be asked whether the presence of literacy qualifications in these states was aimed at disenfranchisement of the minority Native population. A search of relevant sources and secondary literature does not yield a conclusive answer to this question, and no scholar seems yet to have reviewed the enactment and implementation of such laws with this question in mind. Certainly there is much evidence to suggest that assumptions of the cultural or racial inferiority of Indians prevailed in western states in the early twentieth century, including the belief in the inability of Indians to understand the subtleties of electoral politics But with advancing educational standards in the United States after the turn of the century, literacy increasingly became a consideration in voting. And without direct evidence, it is difficult to establish that the intent of literacy acts was specifically to disenfranchise Indians. As a western and northern territory, Alaska also had a significant minority Native population, and it is reasonable to inquire into the circumstances of its adoption of a literacy act in 1925. Alaska had a tradition of liberality in regard to voting and other civic affairs, so it might be inferred that the primary purpose of the Alaska law was to ensure understanding of the electoral process. But this inference is only partially true, for while there was a great deal of rhetoric concerning understanding and education associated with the debate and passage of the Alaska measure, it is clear also that the measure was directed at one man, and at the disenfranchisement of voters he represented. Further, it is clear from the debate and commentary attendant upon the proposals for such an act that in some measure it was racially motivated. The man at whom the Alaska literacy act was aimed was the Tlingit Indian leader William Lewis Paul, who emerged in the early 1920s as a major force in Alaskan politics. The people he represented were the Tlingit and Haida Indians of southeast Alaska.2

Born of part-Indian parents in the southeast Alaska Indian village of Tongass in 1885, William Paul had gained an education at the Sheldon Jackson Presbyterian mission school at Sitka and later at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, as well as at Banks Business College in Philadelphia and Whitworth College in Spokane. By the time he returned to Alaska in 1920, he had also earned a law degree through the LaSalle University extension program. He was an able orator and an articulate spokesman for the causes which attracted his attention. These included Native rights, and territorial politics.3

From the beginning of his political career Paul allied himself with the colorful Progressive Republican James Wickersham, who had served as territorial delegate from 1908 to 1920, and who was the major force in Alaskan electoral politics. Wickersham, who was not allied with the national or territorial leadership and organization of either the Democrat or Republican party, was a political maverick who succeeded through the force of his personality, and his insistence that Alaskans maintain as much independence as possible from the traditional parties. His proteg(e] and successor was Valdez lawyer Dan Sutherland, who served in the same post from 1921 to 1930. Both Wickersham and Sutherland were sensitive to Indian rights. So influential was Wickersham in the territory that most politicians and newspaper editors aligned either for or against him, and throughout the 1920s Sutherland and Paul usually were identified in editorial comment as leaders of the "Wickite" faction.4

Paul first attracted territorial attention at the eighth annual convention of the Alaska Native Brotherhood, a fraternal Native self-help organization founded at Sitka under the auspices of the Presbyterian church in 1912. Its goal prior to 1920 had been civilization through assimilation. At the 1920 convention of the ANB, held at Wrangell, William Paul and his brother Louis began to politicize the organization, and from then on it became a major political force for Native rights in Alaska politics. The Pauls’ leadership, particularly that of William, lasted over a decade and a half.5

The issue the Pauls chose to pursue was the admission of Indian children to white schools. Education in the territory had been segregated from its beginnings in the 1880s, and the refusal of white schools to admit even assimilated Indian children had been an Indian complaint since 1906. In language clearly reflecting William Paul's influence, the 1920 convention adopted a resolution instructing ANB officials to "carry the matter forward to the federal courts as a test case" if necessary to achieve satisfaction. Sometime afterward the Pauls met with Charles Hawkesworth, head of Indian schools in Alaska, to present their demands. Hawkesworth was favorably disposed toward the Indian position, and after the meeting he announced the closing of the Indian school at Wrangell, William Paul's home town, for the following school year, 1921-1922. The effect of the closing would be to force Indian children into the white school at Wrangell, if they were to be taught at all.6 White Leaders in southeast Alaska, where most of the territory's assimilated Indians resided, expressed adamant opposition to the plan, and Hawkesworth later announced that the Indian school would stay open. But William Paul had made his mark. His insistence on equal rights for the Indians of southeast Alaska would be a factor in the region's future affairs.7

It is likely that Paul next set about organizing the Indians of Southeast into an effective political force. Indians had voted in elections in Alaska from the beginning of electoral politics, although there was some question over the legality of their so doing. The question of Indian citizenship was somewhat unclear, but the federal district attorney at Juneau had ruled in 1918 that even those Indians who had not qualified under the terms of the territorial citizenship act were citizens nonetheless and could vote if "living in accordance with the customs of civilization." Analysis of election returns from 1918 to 1926 for the First Division, which encompassed southeast Alaska, show a significant increase in the number of votes from Indian villages starting in 1922, a greater percentage increase in votes than that recorded in the white towns. Additionally, there was an increase in the number of Indian villages where votes were recorded. Election judges in Indian villages were often themselves Indians, and it is likely that as a general practice, those Indians who wanted to vote, or were encouraged to do so, did so at will.8

Paul likely took advantage of this situation to weld together a dependable political machine for the Wickites. In later years he would admit that he provided guidance for Indian voters. His position as an officer of ANB would have taken him to the various Indian villages of southeast Alaska, and it would have been natural to use that opportunity to advise Natives on their rights, and on which candidates were most likely to be helpful in pursuing them. As an Indian, Paul enjoyed high credibility. His ability to meet with white leaders on their own terms because of his education and acumen doubtless enhanced his stature among many Indians. And with Wickersham's blessing, he commanded a significant following among white Progressive Republicans.9

Most of the Indians in southeast Alaska, however, still were illiterate. Perhaps Paul's most controversial act was to organize illiterate voters as well as literate ones, a fact which probably helps to explain the increase in Indian voting statistics. To ensure that Southeast Natives would know how to vote, as well as whom to vote for, Paul prepared sample ballots and cardboard cutouts which would cover all but the appropriate boxes when placed on the actual ballot. By placing an "X" in the squares showing through the cutouts, illiterate Indians could be sure of voting for Paul's choices. Most Indian votes in the 1922 election went for Sutherland, though just how many Indian votes there were would be a matter of continuing dispute. Opponents would argue that Paul controlled at least one thousand illiterate Indian votes; his supporters would argue that the number was only a few hundred.10

Directed voting by illiterate voters at the hands of an able and ambitious politician was offensive to a culture schooled in the notions of self-determination and free choice. It would have been problematical under any circumstances. At the hands of an Indian leader in a period when Americans still relied upon legal segregation in many places, and when many Indians still were not assimilated, it was intolerable to many whites. Political opponents of William Paul came to fear him greatly, for he represented the potential to control the outcome of any election in which his influence might be used. Beginning in 1922 the Paul "ticket" in southeast Alaska occupied the attention of newspaper editors and commentators like no other factor in election campaigns. It is understandable that many voters, whether or not opponents of Paul and the Wickites, would have found Paul's willingness to instruct illiterate voters morally reprehensible in the context of American ideals of freedom and individualism.

William Paul may not have been the first to use the device of ballot cutouts. In 1916 and 1918 Wickersham had contested the results of the delegate election between himself and Charles Sulzer, and Congressional committees had resolved the disputes after investigation, both times in favor of Wickersham. Charges were made in both disputes that large numbers of illiterate Indian votes had been organized for one or another of the opponents. But in both elections Congress had decided the result on other grounds, determining that the Indian vote had not been a significant factor in the outcome. The record is not clear on the point of who first utilized "cutouts" in these elections. Wickersham at one point charged that Sulzer had used them, and later, anti-Wickites would imply they had been used against Wickersham. But whether or not Paul was the first to use the device, his use of it clearly was more visible and effective than ever before.11

In the face of Paul's audacity, political leaders in Alaska looked for a way to counteract Paul's organizing efforts. Who first proposed the idea of a literacy law to stop bloc voting by illiterate Indians does not seem to be a matter of record. The measure was first debated, however, in the 1923 legislature, where it became one of the primary issues of the session. It would remain a major, divisive issue in Alaska politics for the next three years. Rep. Frank H, Foster, an anti-Wickersham Republican lawyer from Cordova, introduced the literacy bill in the legislature. The bill may have come as something of a surprise to many of the sixteen representatives and eight senators from Alaska's four election districts (the First in Southeast, the Second around Nome, the Third in southcentral Alaska, and the Fourth including Fairbanks and the Interior). At the start of the sixty-day biennial session the major newspaper in Juneau, the anti-Wickersham Alaska Daily Empire, predicted that roads, old-age pensions, and aid for the territorial college and for schools would be the biggest issues. There was a hint of what might lie ahead, however, in Governor Scott Bone's address to the legislators. Though a Republican, Bone was often the object of Wickite attacks on the principle of federal control of Alaska. Although Bone declared that the territorial school system "will be wisely safeguarded," probably a reference to Paul's attempt to force white schools to educate Indian children, Bone urged that there be no change in the territory's election laws.12

But before the 1923 session was a week old, Foster had introduced his bill in the House. It provided simply that "no person who is unable to read the Constitution of the U.S. and to write the English language shall be eligible to vote." The bill received quick consideration in the committee on elections, perhaps in an attempt to forestall extended debate. The committee reported the bill adversely. However, Rep. H. Royal Shepard of Juneau filed a minority statement, urging upon his colleagues the seriousness of the bill and the situation which called it into being.13

I.ike Foster, Shepard was an anti-Wickersham Republican. Unlike Foster, he had stood for election in William Paul's own district and thus was directly threatened by Paul's political power. In his statement Shepard articulated most of the arguments which would be used to support a literacy law over the next three years in Alaska and in the federal Congress. It was clear from Shepard's remarks that he was more concerned with politics than with the failure of most Natives to be able to read the Constitution. Shepard said that as a class, the Indians of Alaska constituted "practically all the illiterate voting population of the Territory." They numbered about one thousand out of seven or eight thousand votes, and thus, he said, held "the balance of power" in territorial elections. Without mentioning Paul by name, Shepard said it was reprehensible that manipulators held such a balance of power in the electorate and could use the votes of trusting Indians not for the Indians' good, but to support the manipulators' own ambitions. "The Indians, having no vague knowledge of our institutions and government, lend themselves to the machinations of political charlatans." He also claimed erroneously that the "illegality of large numbers of Indian votes" had been the principal question in Wickersham's elections in 1916 and 1918.14

Editorial support for Shepard's minority report came quickly from the large circulation, anti-Wickersham, anti-Paul Daily Empire. In territorial elections, the editor wrote, some had voted who not only could not read English, but also could not speak it. Voters had "admitted on the witness stand that they knew nothing" of the matters for which they had voted. The best interests of the Indians would be served by their attaining full citizenship, the Empire argued, not by being "led to the polls by another person and voted in droves" Other papers followed suit, and it quickly became apparent that the literacy bill would be a major issue of the session.15

Full hearings were held on the measure in the House on March 15 and 16, in the second full week of the session, and were well attended. From the start of debate supporters of the literacy measure focused on the issue of race, and charged that William Paul and the Alaska Native Brotherhood used the Indian vote as their pawn. Rep. Joseph Murray, a mining lawyer from Valdez, argued that the question of whether illiterates should vote "resolves itself into whether or not the Senate and House and the Territory shall remain white." Foster asserted that those who opposed the measure did so for political reasons. William Paul himself appeared in opposition to the bill. He charged that politics motivated the bill's supporters, not its opponents. He admitted that there had been mass voting by Indians. It had taken place, he said, under careful guidance, with "some intelligence." Indians had voted with full knowledge of what they were doing. Rev. David Waggoner, a minister from Juneau, supported that notion in asserting that many of the best Indian thinkers could not read or write, but had provided good leadership. The right to vote, he implied, was the right to vote, unqualified. He might have added that in the history of the republic to that time probably more illiterate people had voted than literate. But Herbert Faulkner, former marshal of Juneau, argued that the right to vote was only the right to vote intelligently, and he praised Rep. Ernest Polley from Juneau who favored the law even though the Indian vote had gone for him in the 1922 election.16

Other important considerations were raised during debate on the measure. Rep. Cash Cole questioned the right of the territorial legislature to pass such a bill, implying that only the federal Congress could establish voter qualifications in the territory. One member argued that such illiteracy as existed in the territory was the fault of the federal government anyway, because adequate provision had not been made for the Indians' education. Some members were concerned that regular election judges would determine who qualified under the act and who did not. Election judges were often village residents, but in towns with a mixed population they were usually white people. Rep. Richard Decker, a Methodist minister from Nome who subsequently voted against the bill, offered an amendment calling for school board members and one missionary to make the certification, apparently assuming their judgements would be less susceptible to political or personal prejudice. The amendment was defeated. Tensions likely were high when Foster suggested that those who did not favor the bill were politically motivated. Decker said he greatly resented the implication that opponents of the bill were for "rotten politics."17

When the full House voted on the measure on March 17, it passed by a margin of 10 to 6. Eight Republicans, and an Independent and a Democrat voted for it, while two Republicans, three Independents and one Democrat opposed it. Of Alaska's four election districts, representatives from three split their four votes, two and two, including Southeast, where the bill would likely have the greatest impact, and the only region where Paul had organized the Indian vote. On the other hand, the Third Division, Southcentral, which often voted against the Southeast, voted solidly for the measure. It is most likely that in all cases the votes reflected personal views rather than partisan considerations. Personality counted more heavily than party loyalty in Alaskan politics, as Wickersham's career had demonstrated.18

Now it was the Senate's turn. Charles W. Brown, Jr., an Independent who lived in Nome in the summers but whose permanent home was actually in Seattle, was chairman of the committee on elections, and opposed the measure. But the Senate held hearings on the bill, and its debate often was conducted on a higher plane than the debate in the House, though emotions occasionally intruded in the upper body as well. In the debate some opponents argued that a literacy bill would be unfair to those many Indians who understood politics, but could not read or write. Fred Ayer, a Nome mining engineer, articulated the prevailing sentiment for assimilation of Natives when he said he was sympathetic to the Indians, but it would be good for them to learn English, and the literacy measure might force them to do so. Besides, even if William Paul voted them intelligently, as he claimed, he would die some day, and someone unscrupulous could replace him.19

Frank Aldrich, a Progressive Republican from Juneau, argued that the "fish trust" of wealthy absentee investors sought to eliminate the Indian vote because most Indians were fishermen, and voted with white fishermen for higher taxes on the industry, removal of fish traps, and other measures aimed at the industry. This was a common theme in Alaska politics in the 1920s; Delegate Dan Sutherland often charged in Congress that the "fish trust" lay behind the anti-Wickersham forces in the territory. The literacy bill, Aldrich said, was just an attempt to deliver territorial politics "into the hands of men who do not represent the people of the territory."20

Aldrich said that he had received a telegram from the Skagway Women's Club in support of the measure, but that he would oppose it anyway, on principle. Ketchikan Republican Forest Hunt said he had received a petition in support of the bill signed by eighty women of his city. E.E. Chamberlin, a Seward Independent, asserted that only one newspaper in the territory opposed the bill, and that on that basis he would support it. Ayer certainly expressed the thrust of editorial opinion when he said in support of the bill, "We do not want to be ruled by an inferior race, nor dominated by an illiterate one." Former territorial senator W.E. Britt argued that the federal government never intended that illiterate Indians should take part in the government of the territory. Anthony Dimond, the Valdez lawyer who later became a territorial delegate, disputed the claim that those unable to read and write still could vote intelligently. He noted there were no words in the Indian languages for the terms "delegate," "representative," "attorney-general," or senator." The Daily Empire had already weighed in with its opinion that should the "citizenship of the Republic fall down on account of ignorance, illiteracy, or failure to comprehend the meaning of the Constitution, the Republic itself would fall." The secret ballot, "self arrived at," the editor argued, is what constitutes self government.21

Chamberlin attempted to salvage the bill by providing an amendment that it be held back to see if the United States Congress would enact similar legislation. This would also answer the objection of some witnesses that the territory did not have the authority to set voter qualifications. The amendment failed, perhaps owing to Alaskan resentment at being too much governed by the Congress already. As the vote approached, Rep. Shepard came over from the House to testify, sounding a threatening note when he vowed that Alaska was "white man's country," and warning that the whites would see "that the man who curries favor with the Indian vote by opposing this bill is not again elected," a barb aimed particularly at his first division colleague Aldrich. But John Dunn, an Independent from Ruby, struck a high tone in arguing that the measure was contrary to law, morality, and principle.22

When the vote finally was taken, the tally was a tie, 4–4. As such, it failed, for to pass in the Senate, a measure needed a majority. As in the House vote, the Third Division members were unanimously in favor of the bill. The First and Second divisions split their votes, and the Fourth was unanimous against the bill. As in the House, party affiliation did not play a major role. It is likely that most legislators who routinely supported the Wickites and their call for more independence for Alaska supported Paul in voting against a literacy bill. But Alaskan politics were intensely personal in the absence of strong party organizations in this period, and many solons prided themselves on the individuality and independence of their political activity. Four members of the 1923 House had been elected as Independents, as had three of the eight senators. Several others had run as "Non-partisan" candidates.23

Failure in the sixth territorial legislature did not quiet supporters of a literacy law. The legislature had made a mistake which will be rectified, predicted the Daily Empire. The Empire was right. The debate had aroused passions, and the vote had been close enough, just one vote short of passage, that the bill was bound to be an issue in the 1924 election campaign. Two developments combined to ensure that it would. First, in the spring William Paul filed as a candidate for election to the legislature from the First Division. Then, in May, Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act, making citizens of all aborigines not already so classified. This meant that unless there were state or territorial laws to prevent it, all Indians henceforth would be voters. But in Alaska, a territorial literacy act would prevent a majority of Alaska Natives from voting since most were not literate, an implication not lost on advocates of such a law.24

As campaign rhetoric and editorial commentary during the primary in April and the general election in November made clear, Paul's candidacy was itself a test of the issues which underlay the literacy test measure. Paul himself seems to have broadened his platform to include issues which Indians shared in common with whites, most particularly opposition to the creation of federal fish reserves and support for higher taxes on the fishing industry. These were issues which Sutherland also emphasized in his campaign. But the Empire and other papers made illiterate voting by Indians the principal debate, as did a number of anti-Wickite candidates.

"A plan is on foot," read a large political ad in the Empire in March, "to extend to the Indians of Alaska all the privileges of whites, including the right to sit on juries, to vote irrespective of mental qualifications, and to send their children to the white schools to mingle, regardless of physical condition, with white children." "We do not believe," the ad continued, "that the Indians are yet ready to assume all the duties imposed on whites." Referring to the Wickite faction, the ad stated that an organization existed which was dedicated to enacting into law Indian interests, and that unless those who were opposed "to having Indians in the Legislatures" were also to organize, "the Indians are certain to have the balance of power." Supporting the signatories, who declared themselves in favor of a "law to prevent the mass voting of illiterate Indians," provided voters "an opportunity to keep the Indian in his place." The ad was signed by four anti-Sutherland Republicans from the First Division, including H. R. Shepard, who had supported the 1923 literacy bill.25

The same candidates signed another ad in the Empire three weeks later which stated that regulation of Alaska fisheries and "the prevention of corrupt mass voting of illiterate Indians" were the major issues of the campaign. The candidates did not seek office for personal reasons, they asserted, but only "to avert what we believe to be a real danger; for if illiterate Indians control nominations and election of candidates for the legislature, serious trouble is bound to result to all, both whites and Indians." Such an overtly racist appeal may have been too stark for many voters, for none of the four survived the primary to run in the November general election.26

William Paul, on the other hand, easily survived to run in the November general election, outpolling all but one candidate in a Republican field of thirteen House candidates. Whether this was due primarily to "mass" voting, or his support of Wickersham and Sutherland, or to other factors, is not possible to determine. Certainly the victory was a blow to the Empire and a triumph for those who opposed its tendentious condemnation of Indian voting, a campaign whose racist overtones were all but inescapable. Indians, clearly, had not been intimidated.27

Paul's victory in the primary exacerbated the already high level of tension in the territory resulting from the literacy issue, a tension clearly manifested in commentary and editorials when the general election campaign began. "If racial feeling should develop between whites and Indians in Alaska," the Empire asserted in early October, "the responsibility for it will lie with those who are giving the Indians either vicious or foolish advice. . . . If those who are trying to rush the Indians to the polls in masses, literate and illiterate, to vote in a bloc, as Indians, have their way they will create a chasm between the races in Alaska that will . . . make this either a white man's country or an Indian's country for many years to come." Apparently the editor of the paper could not imagine a climate in which whites and Indians functioned as equal partners, "literate or illiterate."28

In the election campaign Sutherland supported William Paul and opposed the literacy law. Speaking in Cordova, Sutherland suggested that an educational qualification for voting might be unconstitutional. The most he could accept, he said, was a provision that voters be able to read the names on the ballot. At Ketchikan he said it would be "outrageous" to require that anyone be able to read the Constitution, and he sounded a note that would become increasingly important in the debate. "No one who has ever exercised the right of suffrage" he said, "should be denied that right today." On the other hand, Sutherland's opponent for delegate, Frank A. Boyle, a Juneau Democrat, charged that Sutherland was responsible for the "menace" of mass voting of illiterate Indians because he had failed either to introduce federal legislation that would have prevented it or to oppose the Indian Citizenship Act, which encouraged it.29

"Menace" was a word which fired the imagination. Under the title "The Menace of Mr. Paul," the Empire charged that with his massed illiterate voters Paul would be able to force the legislature to impose ruinous taxes on the fishing industry, thereby bringing unemployment and depopulation in the territory. On the eve of the November election the paper told its readers: "Literacy Test Is Main Issue Before Voters." And in his final campaign ad, Boyle urged voters to "Keep Alaska and Its Schools Free From Indian Control." "The establishment of a Literacy Test for voters," he said, was the big issue in the election. Without such a law, "the Government of the Territory of Alaska, its institutions, its schools, the government of some of its towns, their institutions and the public schools, will inevitably pass into the hands of those controlling the votes of thousands of illiterates."30

But again voters rejected the appeal of those who castigated William Paul and Dan Sutherland. In the delegate election, Sutherland handily carried the First Division, 2,798 votes to 1,905 for Frank Boyle of Anchorage, his opponent. For the territorial House, Paul received the third highest total, 2,098, behind tallies of 2,384 and 2,173 for the biggest winners. Sutherland's total in the First Division was seven hundred votes more than Paul's, perhaps reflecting voters who, while loyal to the Wickites, could not accept voting for Indians. The certified tally showed that the combined votes of the scattered Indian villages of Southeast, most of which went to Paul, were enough to overcome the leads most white candidates received over Paul in the white towns. The number of ballots cast in most Indian villages in the 1924 election was higher than in 1922. That may have been due to the fact that William Paul was the first Native ever to run for the territorial legislature. It may also have been a result of the Indians' having anticipated Congressional passage of the Indian Citizenship Act, and thus feeling freer to vote. But it is very likely that William Paul, on the ballot for the first time, and on record as favorably disposed toward "mass" voting, continued his assistance to illiterate Indian voters with sample ballots and cardboard cutouts.31

Rep. Shepard's prediction that white men would see that those who voted against the literacy measure in 1923 would not be re-elected proved not to be true. Of the six House members who voted against the bill in 1923, only two stood for election in 1925, one for the House, W. Grant of Wrangell, and Cash Cole of Juneau, who ran on a provisional ticket for governor. It was Grant who received the highest vote in the election. Cole also won. In the Senate, only two who voted against the measure were at the end of their four-year terms. Charles Brown of Nome was re-elected, while M.D. Snodgrass moved from Fairbanks to the Matanuska Valley and did not seek re-election.32

With Paul's victory the die was cast; now the question of a literacy act would be fought out again in the legislature, and this time the forces favoring it had plenty of time and plenty of ammunition. As the Empire essayed as the final results came in, "The Fight Has Just Begun."33

As the seventh territorial legislature opened at the beginning of March in 1925 there was considerable speculation over how representatives would line up on the literacy issue. The Empire reminded legislators that nearly all newspapers in the territory favored the law, including the Anchorage Daily Times, the Anchorage Alaskan, and the Cordova Times. Governor Bone, who in 1923 had advised no change in territorial election laws, now bowed to public opinion, or to the federally protected "fish trust" if the "Wickites" could be believed, and in his legislative address urged passage of the literacy measure.34

The fight was joined on the first day of business. Wickite Republican W.D. Grant of Wrangell attempted to effect a compromise by introducing a bill which would have required voters to be able to read and write, but would have imposed no penalty for violation of the law, and further, would have exempted anyone who had previously voted, a major change from the 1923 bill. Grant's bill was withdrawn, and replaced by a bill introduced by Anchorage Republican Benjamin Grier, which would have prohibited any illiterate from voting. Grier's bill represented the hardliners' position. In a surprise move, however, the House elections committee accepted the idea of exempting from the literacy regulation any persons who had previously voted. Debate would focus on which kind of law to adopt, Grier's proposal exempting no one, or the more liberal, amended version.35

Endorsements for the more restrictive bill rolled into Juneau from civic groups throughout southeastern Alaska. The Skagway School Board favored the bill, as did the Ketchikan Commercial Club and the Douglas Women's Club. Virtually every Southeast parent-teachers' association was heard from, favoring the original bill, and every chamber of commerce, likewise.36

Although hearings were scheduled in the House, the compromise apparently appealed to the members, for the hearings were preemptorily cancelled, and the measure was speedily brought to a vote. Perhaps the legislators sought to avoid the acrimony and dissension which had characterized debate on the issue in 1923. Certainly the matter of previous voters represented at one and the same time both a problem and a solution to the issue. Richard Sundquist, a Republican miner from the Seward Peninsula probably helped push his colleagues toward the compromise measure when he pointed out that any bill prohibiting previous voters from voting again most likely would be declared invalid. In any case, quick action on the bill precluded a repeat of much of the emotional commentary which had been heard during the 1923 debate and the 1924 campaign. Supporters of the bill had little choice but to go along with the substitute measure. It still established a literacy qualification, but it protected the franchise for all who might have voted previously, including whites as well as Indians. For opponents, the compromise was likely the miracle they had been hoping for. Only in southeastern Alaska was the issue a significant one, for only there had large numbers of Natives ever voted. Those whom William Paul had organized had voted both in 1922 and 1924. With them "grandfathered" into the bill, it represented no threat to Paul's power. Yet, at the same time, it satisfied those whose support of the bill was on ideological and moral grounds. The supporters of the bill were trapped.37

The amended bill quickly passed the House, 14-2, with only H. H. Ross, a Fairbanks Independent and former Democrat, and Andy Nylen of Nome, also an Independent, dissenting. A practical compromise having been found, the solons easily dispatched the matter. It is likely that Paul was committed to voting for the compromise measure which he would have participated in developing, and a version of which was introduced by his Wickite colleague, Grant. The House having acted, the final clash would again be fought out in the Senate.38

The Empire fairly fumed. The Senate had yet to act, and if the bill should become law in its amended form, the paper editorialized "it would leave Southeast Alaska little, if any, better off than it is at the present time." It would not bar a single one of the one thousand or more "illiterate Indians who have been led to the ballot boxes and voted as a bloc at the dictation of a master." American Legion posts and their women's auxiliaries immediately protested the amendment, and Lester Henderson, head of territorial schools, wrote that the issue was not a matter of politics, but of "territorial welfare" that the Grier bill be passed in its original, unamended form.39

Action in the Senate came quickly. The bill came to the full body within six days of its passage in the House. Apparently the senators were as happy with the resolution of the volatile issue as their House colleagues. On April 18 Senator Dimond introduced an amendment to the House bill which would have eliminated the "grandfather" rights. This was the climactic test, for if the amendment failed, the compromise measure was certain to pass easily. There was apparently little to be said, for the arguments were brief. When the vote was taken four senators went against Dimond's amendment, killing it: Brown, who had been re-elected even though he voted against the 1923 bill, Dunn and Aldrich, who were serving in the second legislature of their four-year terms and also had voted against the 1923 bill, and Forrest Hunt of Ketchikan, who had been re-elected and who had voted for the 1923 bill. Ketchikan was a Paul stronghold and Hunt a Paul ally. Voting as Paul did, he too likely felt that the "grandfathered" measure was the best bill obtainable. On April 20 the Senate voted on the House bill. As predicted, it passed unanimously.40

Alaska had adopted a literacy law for voters. But for William Paul the result was a significant victory, because the amendment to exempt any previous voter from the law meant that his political base in the villages of southeast Alaska was protected. However many illiterate votes Paul actually had influenced in those villages, a few hundred or over a thousand, the potential to draw upon them again was protected by the amended law.

Many Alaskans, including the anti-Wickersham, anti-Paul press, were unwilling to give up the fight. In an editorial titled "A White Man's Party Is Necessary," published the day after the Senate vote, the Empire wrote that the race problem was the "paramount political issue" in southeastern Alaska. The editor linked the issues which had fueled the literacy law debate, arguing that "the large illiterate Indian vote" accounted for a fifth of the First Division electorate, and was "likely to be expanded much beyond that in spite of the literacy test measure." The Empire continued that this vote "in the hands of a single ambitious politician as dictator [was] a menace to the Territory," and that it "threatens local municipal and school government in sections of Southeastern Alaska." The Anchorage Daily Times wrote the next day that those who voted against the original bill "will find difficulty in convincing their white constituencies that they acted in the best interests of Alaska." Having failed in Alaska, supporters of the measure prepared to take their case to the United States Congress. The Congress could pass legislation for the territories whenever it chose, of course, and literacy supporters hoped to get at the national level the absolute prohibition of illiterate voting that had eluded them at the territorial level.41

As he always had, Delegate Sutherland opposed any literacy measure, and could not be prevailed upon to introduce one in Congress. So Alaskan supporters went to Republican Rep. Wallace White of Maine, whose own state had a mild literacy law. Sutherland had been outspoken in his criticism of the administration, particularly of Commerce secretary Herbert Hoover, and Alaskan supporters of a literacy bill doubtless sought to capitalize on growing anti-Progressive sentiment in the Congress. The bill was referred to the House Committee on Territories, chaired by Charles F. Curry of California, well acquainted with Alaskan conditions. Sutherland had worked with Curry on legislation for the territory, and hoped he could persuade Curry to block the bill, But when the committee received endorsements from a large number of Alaskans, including the mayors of Juneau and Anchorage, various chambers of commerce and commercial clubs, American Legion posts, and even the Wrangell City Council, pressure to release the bill was irresistible, particularly considering that a literacy law had passed in the Alaska legislature. After debate, the committee reported out a bill just like the one which had failed in Alaska, an unqualified prohibition of illiterate voting. Sutherland now had the test in the Congress he had sought to avoid.42

Rather than contesting the Alaskan supporters of the bill who had written the committee, when the bill came to the House floor, Sutherland mounted a strong attack against its failure to exempt previous voters, as the Alaska law did. On the floor he developed a careful and prolonged review of the laws of the twenty states which had literacy laws, pointing out that seven of them had provisions similar to the Alaska law to protect previous voters. The sponsor's state, Maine, was among these, he reminded the solons, thus making support for the more restrictive measure seem inconsistent. Curry emphasized the same point, saying categorically that he did not wish to see any present voter lose the privilege to vote. Most likely he had considered the constitutionality as well as the sentimental appeal of that argument. Interestingly, James G. Strong of Kansas argued that enforcement of an act protecting previous voters was problematical since voting records were destroyed in Alaska each year. Under such circumstances, it would be impossible to verify who had voted and who had not. In any case, the presentation by Sutherland and Curry was successful, for after direct questions on the point, the full House amended the bill to include the exemption, and in that form it passed easily.43

Alaskan supporters of a stronger literacy law did not give up. Once again they sought to ensure passage of an acceptable bill in the Alaska territorial legislature, focusing on the November territorial election. Both Sutherland and Paul stood for re-election in 1926, and again editorial comment concerning the literacy act was unrelenting. The Fairbanks News-Miner accused Sutherland of opposing a strong literacy act to further his political ambitions. The Anchorage Daily Times hoped to persuade readers that illiterate voting constituted "more of a problem than is generally realized." Appearing at a Juneau rally for Sutherland, Wickersham charged that the Democrats had voted Indians against him. Their protest now, therefore, sounded a little hollow. In Juneau the Empire made much of Paul's program for the next legislature, which included amending the widow's and orphan's pension funds to include Indians for the first time, and to permit Indians' admission to the territorial pioneers' home in Sitka. Paul was a self-appointed dictator, the Ketchikan Chronicle charged, and in his political campaign stood convicted by his own acts as being "a hypocrite, a purveyor of falsehood and misrepresentation and a positive menace to Alaskan progress or the means of recognizing the higher aims of American citizenship." He had taken the Alaska Native Brotherhood into politics, the Empire reminded its readers, much to the detriment of the Territory. In the meantime, Sutherland's opponent, former mayor of Fairbanks Thomas Marquam, traveled throughout southeast Alaska attempting to rally votes by promising to purge the legislature of the influence of Indians, a frankly racist appeal.44

But the negative campaign was to no avail. Most voters probably considered the literacy issue moot since the legislature had acted. And Wickersham likely helped deflate the anti-Sutherland, anti-Paul press by suggesting many who opposed the literacy law in the legislature had done so because they considered the act to be a ploy of the "fish trust" which, the Wickites charged, opposed Indian voting as a way of diminishing support for higher taxes on the fishing industry. As he had throughout his political career, Wickersham relied on Alaskan chauvinism to win Sutherland votes. The Empire countered that William Paul had likely extracted a commitment of support from Wickersham and Sutherland for Paul's own future candidacy for delegate as his price for delivering the Indian vote in this and previous elections. Little had changed in the political rhetoric inspired by the issue.45

The results were the same as in 1924. Both Paul and Sutherland swept to comfortable victories.46 That meant that the literacy measure really was a dead issue, for without a clear repudiation of Paul, supporters could not count on constituent support for tackling the measure another time. Moreover, the result confirmed the failure of the Empire and its supporters to rally Southeast voters around opposition to Paul and Indian voting. Apparently, most were less threatened by the "menace" of William Paul than the Empire's editor.

There was one final possibility for supporters of a stronger law, however. The United States Senate was due to take up Curry's House bill in the coming second session of the sixty-ninth Congress, and once again, supporters besieged the appropriate committee with endorsements. But when the Senate Committee on Territories reported its bill, it did so with the exemption for previous voters intact. Floor debate on the bill was desultory, C.C. Dill of Washington merely commenting that the measure was identical to the literacy law in his own state. With that, the law passed without further interest.47

Although it duplicated the 1925 Alaska act, the federal law finally signed by the President in 1927 was significant. Like any other territory, the Alaska legislature was prohibited from passing laws contrary to a federal law. And while it was theoretically possible, as a practical matter getting the Congress to reverse itself on a matter of such limited national interest was unlikely. Conceivably, continuing interest in Alaska might have caused the bill to be brought up again in the territorial legislature. But with the federal law in place, there would have been little point in making the attempt, for even if the supporters of a literacy measure had been successful in Alaska, they would have had to change the mind of Congress, or wait out a fight in the courts over their right to pass a literacy act different from the federal one. The effect of the federal law, then, was to inhibit any further action on the matter in Alaska, and effectively to conclude the business.

The Alaska literacy act of 1925, with its companion United States statute of 1927, represents an important chapter in Alaskan political and legislative history. William Paul's organization of illiterate voters, his support of Wickersham and Sutherland, and his own successful candidacy for the territorial legislature elicited shrill consternation from some voters, politicians, and newspaper editors who found their traditional assumptions about politics and cultural superiority directly challenged. Many responded in a fashion lamentably common in American politics of the age, impugning the motives and the capability of their opposition and injecting the issue of race into territorial politics. In so doing, they manifested the transfer to America's newest frontier of some of the culture's oldest and most destructive prejudices. Some opposed the bill for quite noble reasons, arguing that Indians had as much right to participation in the political process as other people, and in that argument, implied the substantive equality of Indians with whites. Some opposed the act for the very practical reason of electoral support. Supporters also had noble and practical motives for their positions. But the racism implicit in much of the political rhetoric unleashed by the battle must be seen as a negative development, for it surely helped to confirm many in their conviction that Indians were not ready for, and might never be capable of, equal rights and dignity with whites.

Perhaps the most significant consequence of the struggle over the bill was to confirm William Paul's position as a Native leader, and with it, the necessity and the potential for utilizing traditional American political structures to win and eventually to guarantee equal political rights for Natives. The struggle over the literacy act likely helped Paul to become the first Native elected to political office in the history of the territory. Certainly it was inextricably bound up with his two electoral campaigns. Paul would continue his work on behalf of Native rights for the rest of his life, though he would be eclipsed in later years by other Native leaders. After his two terms in the House he pursued his objectives primarily in the courts and administrative agencies, and as an ANB officer. No other Native would be elected to the Alaska legislature until 1946, perhaps because of the controversy raised by the literacy act episode. The ANB continued to serve as Paul's primary political vehicle until both it and he were superseded by the Tlingit-Haida Central Council, created in the 1940s. But the ANB supported no one for political office.

The literacy laws remained theoretically in force until eclipsed by the Alaska state constitution and the Statehood Act. Enforcement, however, was likely problematical, since accurate records were not kept of voters in all villages, and the determination of who had once voted was not easy to make. Moreover, the will to enforce the act probably did not exist in most places. There were apparently no court cases which tested the measure.48 Whether or not the Alaska literacy act and its companion federal legislation in fact prevented Natives from voting, therefore, or impeded the development of political participation among Alaska Natives, is difficult to determine conclusively. The enforcement of voting regulations was lax in Alaska in the period. At the same time, education of Alaska Natives for literacy was well supported by both the territorial and federal governments, and had led to considerable success by the post-World War II years. By then the 1925 Alaska literacy law episode had been largely forgotten.


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