of a Questionable Ethnical Type":
In 1885 the secretary of the interior, acting with the authority of Congress, charged a new and fledgling agency in his department, the Bureau of Education, with the responsibility to establish schools for white and native children in the recently acquired district of Alaska. This was an unusual action, for at that time the bureau had no other operational duties. Formed in 1867 primarily as a fact-gathering office, it annually prepared a statistical profile of educational activities in the several states and territories. In accepting its new charge, the bureau became the only federal agency with jurisdiction to administer federal Indian policy and native services in Alaska. This, too, was unusual, for in all other parts of the United States another Interior Department agency, the Office of Indian Affairs. provided services to aborigines, except for those declared hostile, who came under the jurisdiction of the army. How and why the decision to enlarge the education bureau's sphere of responsibility came to be made, and what the implications were for the history of Alaska natives, compose an intriguing chapter in the history of federal administration, and a critical one in federal management of Alaska affairs.1
Organization of Alaska was a problem easily forgotten or ignored in the hectic struggle over Reconstruction following the Civil War. Alaska was the first noncontiguous land that America had acquired, and if it was not as unpopular as the phrase "Seward's Folly" suggests, neither was it a topic of general concern. So little interest attended the matter of its status and future that the first organic legislation was 17 years in coming; meanwhile, first the army, and later the navy and the customs service, exercised the only federal jurisdiction there.2
About 60,000 natives (Indians, Aleuts, and Eskimos) lived in Alaska in 1867. Little was known about them, and little notice was taken of them in the provisions of the purchase treaty. "The uncivilized tribes," article 3 declared, "will be subject to such laws and regulations as the United States may, from time to time, adopt in regard to aboriginal tribes of that country." Considerable confusion characterized information about the numbers and nature of aborigines in the territory. Most particularly, their exact ethnic identity was unknown. As it happened, Alaska presented the nation with its first non-Indian aboriginal population, a fact not at first fully comprehended, and one that would, when finally grasped, present problems for the governments.3
The initial attempt by an American government official to summarize information on Alaska natives was made Charles Sumner, the abolitionist senator from Massachusetts, who in 1867 was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In a three-hour oration advocating ratification of the Alaska treaty, Sumner informed his colleagues that "if we look at [the natives] ethnographically we shall find two principal groups or races, the first scientifically known as Esquimaux, and the second as Indians." He immediately complicated matters, however, by adding: "By another nomenclature . . . they are divided into Esquimaux, Aleutians, Kenaians, and Koloschians. being four distinct groups." The first two "are said to be Mongolian in origin," but the latter, he reported, "are Indians, belonging to known American races," a claim that would be disputed vigorously by later reporters. He added, paradoxically, that the Eskimos "popularly give their name to the whole."4
Sumner went on to describe the groups with reasonable accuracy: the Eskimos (who are non-Indians), Aleuts (who are neither Indians nor Eskimos, but ethnically, linguistically, and culturally distinct), Athabaskans (who are Indians, but whom Sumner called "Kenaians," after one subgroup), and Pacific Northwest coastal people (also Indians, known as Koloshians or Koloschians after the name the Russians used). But the inconsistencies in his report, perhaps reflecting confusion in Sumner's own mind, did as much to obscure as to clarify the ethnic identity of Alaska natives.
It is useful to look at two subsequent descriptions of Alaska natives and their character in order to understand the Interior Department's decision to rely upon the education bureau rather than the Office of Indian Affairs (often referred to in correspondence as the Indian office, Indian service, or Indian bureau) in Alaska, and the important implications of that decision. The second official report on Alaska natives after the 1867 purchase was a military one. Because the major burden of administering Alaska had fallen to the army, a new Alaska department was added to the Military Division of the Pacific. Brevet Major General Jefferson C. Davis, commander of the department, was designated to act temporarily in the capacity of Indian agent (no permanent Indian agency was created) and to determine if the natives were hostile. In his 1868 report Davis estimated the population of the area to be "less than 2,000 whites, and about 60,000 halfbreeds and Indians." Later in the same document, under the heading "Indian population," he reported one of the schemes of classification used by Sumner. "Most writers," he indicated, "make four general divisions of the natives of Alaska: 1st, the Koloschians, 2d, the Kenaians; 3d, the Aleutians; 4th, the Esquimaux. These are again subdivided into numerous tribes and families, which have been names, sometimes from their places of residence or resort, and sometimes from other circumstances or incidents."5
He went on to identify 12 subgroups of Koloshians, numbering in aggregate between 12,000 and 15,000, most of which he described as "usually . . . hostile to the whites," "treacherous and mostly hostile," or "generally unfriendly." The Kenaians he characterized as "a proud and fearless race." The Aleutians were people belonging to the Aleutian Islands, he reported, but the term had also been applied to the people of the Shumagin and Kodiak islands "and to the southern Esquimaux, whom they greatly resemble," They were represented as "generally kind" and "not entirely wanting in industry." Schools and churches introduced by the Russians, he added, "had done much towards reducing them to a state of civilization." He estimated their numbers between 4,000 and 10,000. Of the Eskimos Davis wrote, "They are low in the scale of humanity, and generally harmless." They numbered between 10,000 and 20,000. Although Davis confirmed the division of Alaska natives into four broad classifications, his report implied that they were neither all Eskimos, as Sumner had at one point suggested, nor all Indians, a consideration that would become increasingly important.
Davis's general characterization of the Alaska natives was also significant. The assessment that many of them were hostile was intended not only to justify the army's presence in Alaska, but also to tip the scales in a political battle then raging over whether the Indian office would be transferred from the Department of the Interior, where it had been since that department's creation in 1849, back to the War Department where it had been before.
The Indian office was, in fact, weathering heavy criticism in 1868 for its administration of Indian affairs. Still, Davis reported that only the Koloshians presented serious difficulties, because "our traders are not likely for some time to come into direct contact with the Kenaians, and there is very little to apprehend in their intercourse with the Aleutians and Esquimaux." In confirmation of the assertion, within two years of Davis's report, the army withdrew from all its garrisons in Alaska to a single post in the heart of "Kolosh" country at Sitka, and the special Alaska department was eliminated. A disinterested observer could be forgiven for being somewhat confused about Alaska natives, their ethnicity, their level of hostility, and their degreeor lackof "civilization."6
In 1869 the artist-humanitarian Vincent Colyer surveyed Alaska natives in behalf of the newly created Board of Indian Commissioners, an advisory body made up of philanthropists and humanitarians who were to study Indian conditions and make recommendations to the commissioner of Indian affairs. The board was a major element in President U.S. Grant's "peace policy," a program intended to pacify the western Indians; after concentrating them on reservations, the government would supply their needs beyond subsistence, and it would educate them, using agents and teachers nominated by religious mission groups throughout the country. Indian reformers and government officials alike hoped that the efforts of high-minded and disinterested citizens like the board members would help restore the tarnished reputation of the Indian office. Colyer had already studied Indian conditions in the West when he was made the board's secretary, and he took it upon himself to include Alaska natives in the board's purview. His 1869 report is important because of its thoroughness, its presumptions, and, most particularly, its influence for more than a decade on officials concerned with the government's response to Alaska natives.7
Notably, Colyer's report perpetuated the familiar confusion regarding Alaska natives' ethnic identity. He referred to the Pacific Northwest coastal people (of which there are in reality two major subgroups in Alaska: Tlingit and Haida) as "Kolloshans" but also identified them by villagefor example, "Tongas" Indians, "Sitka tribe." Colyer consulted more than a dozen officials and citizens in Alaska and half that number of official reports on the region. He referred to Kodiak Island people as "Aleutes," Indians, or simply natives. One of his respondents identified the Aleuts as "a distinct race of people, purely Mongolian in origin," but in another passage asserted that the Russians considered all people west of Mount St. Elias as "Esquimaux." One reporter said the name "Malemute" identified a large tribe of "Indians" north of the "Kvichpak" (Yukon) River. Still another said that "in the Behring Sea to the Straits, the Indians lead a wandering life," and yet another referred to one group of Eskimos as "the coast Indians near the Auric River."8
The information in Colyer's report was in many instances incorrect and contradictory. There are, in fact, four major native groups in Alaska, the same as in Colyer's time, and in the same locations. Pacific Coast Indians inhabit the southeastern islands; Athabaskan Indians live in the interior and in the upper Cook Inlet region; Aleut people inhabit the Aleutian Islands; Eskimos inhabit the Bering and Arctic Sea coasts and adjacent inland areas. Whether the distinctions Colyer made in his report were major or minor ones, and whether they reflected merely a carelessness in language or a fundamental failure to understand true ethnic realities, they must have confused readers and contributed to a sense of uncertainty on the part of those whose duties regularly brought such matters before them.
Perhaps more important was the character ascribed to Alaska natives by Colyer and his respondents. Alaska natives, they agreed, were more intelligent, more adaptable, and more industrious than other North American natives. William Sumner Dodge, who served as customs agent and was the first mayor of Sitka, wrote to Colyer: "None of the tribes in that section of the country, which I consider Indian, are at all to be compared with any of the tribes inhabiting the interior of our country, or even with those bordering the great lakes." Of the southeast coastal Indians particularly, he said: "For half a century educated into traders . . . they have become keen, sharp-witted, and drive as hard and close a bargain as their white brothers." He continued: "They are of a very superior intelligence, and have rapidly acquired many of the American ways of living and working."
Of the Aleut people Dodge wrote: "They have schools and churches of their own. Nearly all of them read and write. . . . Many among them are highly educated, even in the classics." L.A. Lagrange, a trader at Unalaska, wrote to Colyer that the Aleuts "are frequently employed as sailors, and are of great service to vessels loading or discharging cargo. They work faithfully and intelligently for a moderate compensation." Of the Sitka Indians, F.K. Louthan, a merchant, wrote: "They are industrious and ingenious, being able to imitate admirably almost anything placed before them." However patronizing such comments may have been, they suggested strongly that at least some of Alaska's natives were of a different sort than others Colyer had seen in the West or the Board of Indian Commissioners had surveyed. Colyer's own concluding statement rings with confidence and enthusiasm:
Along with his glowing summary, Colyer included in his report recommendations for how the Indian office should deal with Alaska natives. "All their rights, tribal and individual, to lands or moneys due them" should be secured, he wrote, and services to them should be organized as they were for other Indian populations in America. One general Indian superintendent for the whole district should be appointed, along with "four local agents, one at each of the points of Tongas [in the southeastern coastal islands], Sitka, Kenai [on Cook Inlet], Unalaska [in the Aleutians], and on the Youkon River [among the Eskimo]." He also advised that Congress appropriate $100,000 "for schools, medical attendance, and general industrial development of the natives." This final recommendation is of considerable importance, for it set in motion a series of official actions and responses that would result in the decision to give jurisdiction over Alaska natives to the Bureau of Education rather than the Indian office.10
In April 1870, the spring following Colyer's tour of Alaska, the Board of Indian Commissioners forwarded his report to the interior secretary, J.D. Cox, who in turn submitted it to the Senate Committee Indian Affairs. The proposal based on Colyer's recommendations passed the committee, but when it reached Congress, it ran into difficulties. Lawmakers balked at authorizing five new federal officials for the district. Incidents between natives and army troops in Alaska had generated considerable adverse publicity. These, and charges of scandal and corruption surrounding the Alaska purchase, made Congress reluctant to commit public moneys to its administration. Yet the legislators acknowledged the needs of Alaska aborigines outlined in Colyer's report. Their solution was to add to the 1870-71 Indian office appropriation $100,000 "for the support of industrial and other schools among the Indian tribes not otherwise provided for, to be expended under the direction of the Secretary of the Interior." Most responsible for Congress's approach was Senator Lot Morrill, a Maine Democrat and chairman of the Committee on Appropriations. He explained that rather than designate the entire appropriation for Alaska the committee "preferred" to allow the secretary "to apply such part to Alaska Indians as in his discretion he might think best."11
The failure of Congress to appropriate funds specifically for Alaska natives effectively erased any chance that the money might be expended on their behalf. Beleaguered by criticism, the Indian office could not afford to risk interpreting an ambiguous directive. When the secretary of the interior offered no guidance, the Indian office did nothing about Colyer's recommendations.
In 1872, with a new Congress, the board tried again. Despite an order prohibiting importation of spiritous liquors into Alaska, smuggling and manufacture of a local concoction known as hooch led to widespread alcohol consumption that apparently contributed to the troubles between the natives and army troops. Public officials and private citizens who traveled in Alaska urged that the federal government act quickly in order to save the natives from dissipation and debauchery. As the new year began, the board adopted a resolution and forwarded it to the secretary of the interior and the commissioner of Indian affairs:
But circumstances within the Interior Department did not favor an early, positive response to the board's resolution. President Grant had appointed both a new interior secretary, the former director of the Internal Revenue Service Columbus Delano, and an aggressive new commissioner of Indian affairs, Francis A. Walker. Walker enjoyed a high reputation in Washington, D.C., as an able administrator who had worked in the revenue office and in 1870 had headed the ninth census. His appointment in November 1871 was intended to bring order and credibility to the Indian office and to insure the authority of the secretary of the interior. Walker quickly assessed the situation. Because Congress was reluctant to expend large sums for the administration of Alaska and because the ethnicity of Alaska natives remained undetermined, extension of Indian office jurisdiction to the district would jeopardize that office. The new commissioner therefore sought a way to avoid assuming responsibility for Alaska natives.13
In Colyer's report he found what he needed. "I have never believed that the natives of Alaska were Indians . . .," he wrote in response to the board's resolution, "any more than are Esquimaux or Kanakas, and I am disposed to avoid entirely the use of the word Indians as applied to them." Drawing on Colyer's assertions of their superior intelligence, he argued that "their singular mimetic gifts and the high degree of mechanical dexterity which they are capable of attaining" showed that Alaska natives were different from American Indians. The evidence "seems to me to incline toward an Asiatic origin, at least so far as the inhabitants of the coast and of the islands are concerned." Therefore, he reasoned, the Indian office should be prudent about assuming a jurisdiction that Congress had not clearly assigned to it. Moreover, laws regarding Indians should not be "extended unnecessarily to races of a questionable ethnical type, and occupying a position practically distinct and apart from the range of the undoubted Indian tribes of the continent."14
Walker also expressed concern for the future rights of Alaska natives. Premature action by the Indian office could lead to their "constitutional disqualification for citizenship." And he professed misgivings about the economic ramifications of the Alaska jurisdiction. As commissioner, he said, he "should not regard it as judicious to commit the Department to a work involving the necessity of continued appropriations . . . without some distinct expression of intention and purpose" by Congress. But he returned to his strongest argumentethnicitywhen he summed up:
For his part, Secretary Delano accepted and endorsed his commissioner's conclusions. In a letter to the Speaker of the House, James G. Blaine, Delano urged that Congress more clearly define Alaska's governmental status before the Interior Department became involved with its native inhabitants (a recommendation eventually followed). Although it plainly was the obligation of the U.S. government to provide for the welfare and civilization of Alaska natives, he said, he could not, as an executive officer, undertake in the course of administration to expend the funds of the nation in its discharge without clear warrant of law." The Indian service, he continued, had "a well-defined and distinctly organized system . . . embracing all the Indians of the United States, and applicable to such persons only." Since "it is exceedingly doubtful whether the inhabitants of Alaska . . . belong to the same race or family of men as the Indians of North America," Delano doubted whether "appropriations made for the general service of the Indian Office . . . can with propriety . . . be expended in providing for the wants . . . of the people of Alaska." Without specific designation of funds, he believed, the Indian office should not involve itself in Alaskan affairs.15
The Board of Indian Commissioners was predictably dismayed. Continuing tension between natives and army troops in Alaska demonstrated the need for a different, more sensitive administration there. Yet the Indian office's refusal to accept jurisdiction and Congress's unwillingness to earmark money for Alaska left the natives unprotected. Determined not to be thwarted by the governmental standoff, the board reasoned that perhaps another agency in the Interior Department could take on the responsibility that the Indian office declined. Accordingly, in April 1872, the board chairman Felix Brunot informed the House Committee on Indian Affairs that the board had found a way to meet the Indian office objection that Alaska natives were not Indians, yet still answer "the duty and obligations of the government to the inhabitants of Alaska." The board was forwarding the draft of a bill, he wrote, "embodying what seems to be the best plan for adoption under the circumstances." The bill proposed that the Indian office be taken out of the picture altogether and that Congress instead direct the secretary "to place the natives of Alaska in [the] charge of the Bureau of Education."16
It seemed a perfect remedy. Since the Indian office felt constrained from exercising jurisdiction over people who might not in fact be Indians, the education bureau was particularly appropriate. Witnesses had testified to the general capability and self-sufficiency of the Alaska natives. "They live on fish . . . and game," one of Colyer's respondents had written, and they provide themselves with clothing from the furs they gather, either by trade or trapping." Without the need for the annuities and supplies provided by the Indian office to reservation Indians, Alaska natives, at least in the view of the board, required but one thing: education. Colyer himself had recommended "agents and teachers to guide them" and "schools, mechanical tools, agricultural implements &c., everywhere." The model bill advanced in clear, straightforward language the idea of Indian education held by Grant's advisers and the Indian reformers of the day:
But Congress had not yet decided how to administer Alaska, and any proposed expenditure of funds for Alaska natives encountered stiff resistance. Debate on the Indian appropriations bill was extensive. One Senate version would have authorized the secretary of the interior to have the same jurisdiction over "the people of Alaska called Indians" that he exercised over other American Indians, and would have permitted expenditure "for the benefit of the Indians of Alaska" an amount required "to establish schools, and [for] other necessary purposes." Such language was as close as Congress came to dealing directly with the Alaska situation. But even if adopted, the bill would not have answered Commissioner Walker's question whether any natives in Alaska actually were Indians. The measure did not pass: the Indian Appropriations Act of 1872 repeated the ambiguous language of 1870, Indians "not otherwise provided for," and omitted any specific mention of Alaska. The Board of Indian Commissioners had failed again.18
Because uncertainty about Alaska natives remained, the Indian office was probably prudent in refusing to interpret the law, for such action might have been dangerous for the bureaucracy. Liberally construed, "Indians" might include all natives in Alaska. Cautiously defined, it would eliminate the Aleut and Eskimo people, at least, and perhaps some others. Clearly, Secretary Delano and Commissioner Walker were vulnerable under such legislation. If the Indian office used the funds ambiguously approved by Congress, it might be accused of careless administration. If it did not, it might be charged with failure to carry out the law. Hence, the standoff continued.
The commissioner of education, on the other hand, was apparently willing to accept the responsibility the Indian office did not want and which the Board of Indian Commissioners was anxious for him to take on. In his annual report for 1872, Commissioner Richard J. Hinton wrote that "one of the most pitiable facts" concerning the education of Indians in the territories was "the neglect of the aborigines of Alaska." "The Indian Bureau," he continued, "does not take cognizance of their condition or wants, as it is not disposed to regard them as Indians, in the general acceptance of that term." Something ought to be done, he wrote. Little further mention of Alaska appears in the education commissioners' reports until the end of the decade. In 1877, however, a new commissioner of Indian affairs, E.A. Hayt, made an even stronger plea in his annual report, setting forth the great need of "the Indians of Alaska."
Though he ignored the confusion over ethnicity of Alaska natives, Hayt called attention to their educational and other needs, recommending the appointment of a special agent "whose duty it shall be to ascertain their condition and wants and make report thereon, to be the basis of future action."19
But Congress turned a deaf ear to entreaties that it provide for Alaska natives by specific and direct legislation. It made no provision for them at all. Questions about Alaska's civil status remained, as did suspicions of corruption in the Interior Department. The issue of jurisdiction lay dormant throughout the remainder of the 1870s. while lawmakers debated matters of greater scope. In 1877 even the U.S. Army abandoned Alaska, transferring its troops to the Nez Perce battlefields in eastern Washington. From then until 1879 when the navy intervened, the only federal officials in Alaska were customs agents of the Treasury Department.20
But the notion that the education bureau, rather than the Indian office. might have jurisdiction over Alaska natives was not forgotten completely. In the early 1880s, it was revived by the Reverend Sheldon Jackson, the dynamic Presbyterian missionary and organizer who became interested in the condition of Alaska natives after his first visit to the district in 1877. Between then and 1884, Jackson lobbied Congress persistently and tenaciously for legislation to organize the district and to benefit its native peoples. He addressed virtually every type of civic-minded organization in the nation, including education associations, Indian reform groups, and religious societies.
Working with his friend and fellow Presbyterian Senator Benjamin Harrison of Indiana, Jackson sought the establishment of a skeletal civil government in Alaska and firm provisions for the education of both native and normative children there. Because Alaska natives were economically self-sufficient, he repeatedly pointed out, they did not need reservations or annuities, and consequently did not need Indian agents. Their major requirement was schools. Jackson reminded Congress that as early as 1872 the Board of Indian Commissioners had advised that the Bureau of Education, rather than the Indian office, be given jurisdiction over Alaska natives; he brought home his point with apt quotations from the board's recommendations and from Vincent Colyer's 1869 report. Jackson's friend John Eaton, who was a commissioner of education during the early 1880s, actively supported Jackson's efforts.21
Many historians have credited Jackson with the organic legislation for Alaska that Congress finally adopted in 1884. Under its terms, the secretary of the interior was to make "needful and proper provision for the education of the children of school age" in the district of Alaska "without reference to race." The secretary delegated this duty to the commissioner of education, who appointed Jackson the first "General Agent of Education" in 1885. Over the next two decades, Jackson would use his position to establish schools in more than a score of native villages, as well as in predominantly white towns. Although it was Jackson who persuaded Congress, the origins of the idea for the agentindeed, for the Bureau of Education's active involvement in Alaskadate back to the refusal of the Indian office to accept jurisdiction over Alaska natives and to the recommendation of the Board of Indian Commissioners that the jurisdiction be assigned to the Bureau of Education. Credit belongs to the board and its chairman, Felix Brunot, who first voiced the idea in 1872.22
There is an important postscript to this story of bureaucratic decision making in the 1870s and 1880s. Had Congress directed the Indian office to create several Indian agencies in Alaska, as Colyer recommended in 1869, the history of Alaska natives might have been very different. The policies and methods of the Indian office for dealing with American Indians in the late 19th century differed markedly from those adopted by the Bureau of Education for its work in Alaska. Having broader authority, the Indian office established a paternalistic relationship with Indians; the Bureau of Education encouraged independence and self-reliance. Whereas the Indian office pressed for assimilation through severalty, the education bureau took the opposite position, respecting the ethnicity of its charges and even participating in the creation of new, centrally located native villages.23
In 1931, Congress created the new Bureau of Indian Affairs, uniting in one agency the work of the education bureau in Alaska and that of the Indian office. Alaska had neither Indian agencies nor traditional Indian reservations; that its native people had been administered differently from other Native Americans was an important fact, as officials recognized:
What is needed now is a full history of the Bureau of Education in Alaska, one that will demonstrate the significance of its 47-year jurisdiction over the native people. This essay, in relating how the bureau acquired its Alaska responsibility, offers a starting point for that major work.