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Alaska Native Land Claims
Unit 3 - Alaska Natives and Their Lands
Chapter 12 - Unacknowledged Title

Chapter 12
Unacknowledged Title

Land transfers: others. Aboriginal title had not been extinguished by the Treaty of Cession and it appeared to be accepted by the Organic Act. But just as the act did not prevent the taking of the resources of the land by others, it did not prevent the taking of the land itself. Until Natives became citizens and until they could organize for their cause, there was little they could do about it.

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Rev. Duncan's Town Hall, Metlakatla, 1895

With the cession of Alaska to the United States, all of its lands and waters had become public domain—land held and controlled by the federal government. Transfers to private ownership or designation for specific uses required Congressional action.

Apart from land rights granted through mining claims, the first land rights transferred by Congress went to a group of Tsimshians who had migrated to Alaska from Canada in 1887. Under the leadership of William Duncan, a white lay missionary, they had established a community called New Metlakatla on Annette Island. Although the island was in the territory of the Cape Fox Tlingits, Congress established in 1891 an 86,000-acre reservation for the Metlakatlans "and such other Alaskan natives as may join them."

The same 1891 act of Congress opened land for townsites and trade and manufacturing sites, and authorized the President to set aside timbered areas as public reserves. There was no provision for Natives of Alaska to acquire legal title to land.

Under the 1891 law and subsequent acts of Congress, millions of acres were withdrawn from the public domain to establish Tongass and Chugach National Forests, Mt. McKinley National Park, and to serve a variety of other public purposes.

Land grants: Natives. The first of two Congressional acts that allowed Alaska Natives to obtain title to land was adopted in 1906. The second was adopted in 1926. Neither was based upon aboriginal title, nor did they recognize it. Neither was appropriate to Native uses of the lands and waters.

The Native Allotment Act of 1906 provided for conveyance of 160 acres of public domain to adult Natives. Any single tract could be selected as long as the ground did not include mineral deposits. A few allotments were issued in southeastern Alaska, but most Natives did not even know that such allotments could be obtained.

Under the second act, the Native Townsite Act of 1926, villages were to be surveyed into lots, blocks, and streets, and individual lots conveyed to Native adults.

Both of these acts provided only for the conveyance of "restricted" title. The Native to whom it was issued could not sell or lease the lot or allotment without the approval of the Secretary of the Interior. The land was, in other words, held "in trust" by the Secretary, who was a guardian of the Native as he was of the American Indian. Such restricted title meant also that the land would not be taxed.

Neither the Allotment Act nor the Townsite Act were effective in protecting lands used and occupied by Natives. Allotments were fine for farmers, but not for hunters and fishermen. And what protection for a large food-gathering territory was to be afforded by a small lot in the village?

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Tanana chiefs, 1915, (left to right), Alexander of Tolovana, William of Tanana, Thomas of Nenana, interpreter Paul Williams, Ivan of Coskaket, Charlie of Minto, and Alexander William of Tanana

Land rights conference. The continuing movement of whites into interior Alaska, brought about planning for a railroad (which would bring even more settlers). According to Stanton Patty, writing in the Alaska Journal, this led to what may have been the first conference devoted to Native land rights. It was held in July 1915 at the Thomas Memorial Library in Fairbanks.

The conference had been called by former Judge James Wickersham, Alaska's delegate to Congress. Wickersham brought the group together because area Athabascans had asked him how they could preserve their lands against settlement by others. It was attended by 14 persons, including six Tanana chiefs. What the chiefs wanted, in the words of Chief Alexander of Tolovana was that the government "not let the white people come near us. Let us live our own lives in the customs we know."

Through an interpreter, Wickersham explained that the government couldn't stop the white people, but that Indians could protect their land (1) by obtaining 160-acre allotments for their homes, or (2) by asking for establishment of a reservation.

After some deliberation, the Athabascan chiefs reported that the two choices offered were not acceptable. The allotments would separate members of the community, they explained; and besides, their people lived at many locations throughout the year, not just at one. And, as for a reservation, Chief Ivan of Coskaket (also called Crossjacket) spoke for all:

We don't want to go on a reservation, but wish to stay perfectly free just as we are now, and go about just the same as now.

Wickersham argued that the reservation would not be a prison, but the chiefs were not persuaded. "I tell you that we are people on the go," said Chief Alexander of Tolovana, "and I believe if we were put in one place, we would just die off like rabbits."

Perhaps Chief Joe of Salchaket best expressed the request of the Tanana Chiefs when he asked, "We are suggesting to you just one thing, that we want to be left alone. As the whole continent was made for you, God made Alaska for the Indian people, and all we hope is to be able to live here all the time."

The chiefs expressed the hope that Wickersham could accomplish their request before he sought re-election as delegate. In reply, Wickersham said he was pleased at their interest in who would be delegate to Congress. He asked the interpreter to tell the chiefs that "as soon as they have established homes and live like white men, and assume the habits of civilization, they can have a vote."

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Founders of the Alaska Native Brotherhood (left to right), Paul Liberty, James Watson, Ralph Young, Eli Katinook, Peter Simpson, Frank Mercer, James C. Johnson, Chester Worthington, George Field, William Hobson, Frank Price

Alaska Native Brotherhood. Winning citizenship was a primary goal of the first Native organization to be formed on more than a local basis. This new organization was the Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB).

The ANB was founded by a Tsimshian and nine Tlingits from Sitka, Angoon, Juneau, and Klawock at a meeting in Sitka in 1912. Within three years, a women's organization, the Alaska Native Sisterhood, was established. Within a decade, chapters (called camps) were established in most towns and villages of southeastern Alaska.

Along with the goal of winning citizenship, the ANB had two related concerns: education for themselves and abandonment of aboriginal customs which were seen by whites as "uncivilized." The Dawes Act, it will be recalled, provided that citizenship could be obtained by Indians who "severed tribal relationship and adopted the habits of civilization."


Citizenship. Although the Dawes Act permitted Natives to become citizens, many whites in Alaska resisted the idea of Natives having citizenship rights. In part because of ANB efforts, the territorial legislature adopted in 1915 a similar act for the specific purposes of allowing Natives to become citizens. A few additional Natives became citizens under the 1915 act, but most Natives did not become citizens until adoption by the U.S. Congress of the Citizenship Act of 1924.

One right of citizenship—the right to vote—was exercised by some southeastern Indians two years before the national legislation was enacted. This came about as the result of efforts by William L. Paul, a Tlingit, attorney, and active member of the ANB. Charlie Jones, also known as Chief Shakes, had been denied the right to vote by Wrangell election officials. Paul defended Jones, pointing out that he had voted before and that he was a responsible member of the community. Jones was found not guilty. While the case "did not really affect the legal status of Natives," according to anthropologist Philip Drucker, "it was accepted as doing so in the popular mind, both white and Indian." As a result, there was increasing acceptance that the Indians had the right to vote.


"In the beginning, and for a long time after the cession of this Territory, Congress took no particular notice of these natives; has never undertaken to hamper their individual movements; confine them to a locality or reservation, or to place them under the immediate control of its officers, as has been the case with the American Indians; and no special provision was made for their support and education until comparatively recently . . .

"Later, however, Congress began to directly recognize these natives as being, to a very considerable extent at least, under our Government's guardianship and enacted laws which protected them in the possession of the lands they occupied; made provision for the allotment of lands to them in severalty, similar to those made to the American Indians; gave them special hunting, fishing, and other particular privileges to enable them to support themselves, and supplied them with reindeer and instructions as to their propagation. Congress has also supplied funds to give these natives medical and hospital treatment and finally made and is still making extensive appropriations to defray the expenses of both their education and their support.

"Not only has Congress in this manner treated these natives as being wards of the Government but they have been repeatedly so recognized by the courts . . .

"From this it will be seen that these natives are now unquestionably considered and treated as being under the guardianship and protection of the Federal Government, at least to such an extent as to bring them within the spirit, if not within the exact letter, of the laws relative to American Indians . . ."

—from Office of the Solicitor,
U.S. Department of Interior,
February 24, 1932

Source: Anderson, H.D. and Eells, W. C., Alaska Natives, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 1935.


Political action. From its beginning, the ANB had addressed politics and political issues. Until Natives secured the right to vote, however, their effectiveness was very limited.

In 1924, the man who had won a reputation as a champion of Native rights, William L. Paul, won election to the Territorial House of Representatives. He was the first Native to win a legislative seat.

Even though one legislative seat had been won, it represented very little political power in a 40-person legislature. And even though the right to vote was secured, Natives living in remote settlements away from southeastern Alaska were not generally aware of it. Their children were enrolled in schools as they were established, but most adult villagers had but little formal education. By and large they were not concerned about elections and the operation of territorial government. Their concern was, instead, to continue to live on the land as they had for generations.

Alaska Native Land Claims Copyright 1976, 1978 by the Alaska Native Foundation
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