"Alaska Indians Win Claims Against U.S.:
Court says Rights of Tlingits, Haidas Were Not Protected During Early Days"
by A. Robert Smith, Times Washington Correspondent
Anchorage Daily Times, October 19 1958, p.9
Washington The U.S. Court of Claims has favored some 7,000 Alaskan Indians with a decision which could conceivably lead to the largest financial judgment ever won by the Redmen against Uncle Sam.
The court decided that the U.S. government failed to protect the property rights of the Tlingit and Haida Indians in southeastern Alaska when various federal agencies created Glacier Bay National Monument, Tongass National Forest, and a small Indian reservation for another tribe.
The Court ordered that the two Indian groups be compensated for the loss of what amounts to about 18,375,000 acres, most of it forestland. Further proceedings will have to be held to determine the amount of the judgment. In cases involving lands in other states, the value placed on land has varied from 40 cents to $2.50. If this is a criteria of expectations, the Alaskan Indians can look forward to winning up to $45 million.
The largest judgment won by an Indian tribe in the past was several years ago when the Utes of Utah collected some $31 million in a somewhat similar case. The federal government had set aside land they claimed for a national forest.
The lands occupied by the Tlingit Indians began roughly around Yakutat Bay and covered virtually the entire portion of Southeast Alaska, except for a relatively small portion occupied by the Haida Indians west of Ketchikan. This was at the time the U.S. bought Alaska from Russia in 1867, when the area was all but devoid of any whites. The Army administered Alaska for the first decade, with posts at Wrangell, Tongass and Sitka. In 1879, after the Indian wars in Idaho had pulled out most of the troops, the Navy took over Alaska with headquarters at Sitka.
White mans industrial civilization got its first toehold in 1877 with the first salmon cannery at Klawak. The court noted that the Indians, upon learning that Alaska had been sold to the Americans, pointed out to the authorities that Russians had lived in the territory only by permission of the natives. But passage of the Alaska Organic Act of 1884, extension of the homestead act to Alaska in 1898, extension of the mining laws to Alaska in 1900, etc., provided U.S. laws under which permission of the Indians was not a requirement for those entering the area. The court noted as follows:
"By 1889, 11 sawmills and 36 salmon canneries were in operation in southeastern Alaska. Fishing stations were located by whites at every point affording a good supply of fish. As a result of this activity, the Indians were having a difficult time securing enough fish for their own use, game was largely frightened away, and there was little work for Indians in the canneries which imported Chinese workmen. In 1890 the Indians of southeastern Alaska secured the services of an attorney who wrote the President concerning their problems. From then on, the Indians made claims and protests over their treatment and the rapidly diminishing state of their land and water holdings . . . "
This was the beginning of a long battle for justice which reached its climax with the courts decision only last week, nearly 70 years later.
The court does not blame the white settlers of southeast Alaska. It noted that the new laws applying to Alaska "made it possible for white settlers, miners, traders and businessmen to legally deprive the Tlingit and Haida Indians of their use of the fishing areas, their hunting and gathering grounds, and their timber lands and that is precisely what was done. These Indians protested to the government and their protests went unheeded. They had no weapons with which to combat Navy gunboats which had burned their villages when they attempted to take the law into their own hands. The amount of salmon and other fish taken from the streams and waters by the new white fishing industries and canneries left hardly enough fish to afford bare subsistence for the Tlingits and Haidas and nothing for trade and accumulation of wealth. Thus it seems clear that the United States both failed and refused to protect the interests of these Indians in their lands and other property . . . (and) is liable under such act to compensate the Indians for the losses so sustained."
The millions of dollars expected to go to these children and grandchildren of the original protesters will not be divided up among the Indians as individuals. It will go to them as communities.
First of all, the money will be set aside in the U.S. Treasury and begin to draw interest at 4 per cent, after all attorney fees are deducted. Then amounts will be requisitioned from time to time by the various Indian communities, with the advice and consent of the secretary of the interior, in order to promote the economic security and stability of the Indian groups. None of the money can ever be used to make payments directly to individual Indians.