'I meant business'
Barrow's Sadie Neakok walked a challenging path as Alaska's first Native woman magistrate in 1960. On one side were the demands of white law in a state just emerging from federal jurisdictions; on the other were the needs of an Eskimo community living at the very edge of American civilization. She worked constantly to reconcile demands that often clashed.
One well-known episode involved village-wide civil disobedience over leftover federal game regulations limiting waterfowl seasons to that time of year when the birds already had flown south.
As Sadie tells it, when one hunter was arrested for violating the absurd law, she quietly organized the rest of the village to protest by breaking the same law, overwhelming the game warden's administrative capacities, drawing forth the spectre of mass jailings and community emergency, and, most important, pressuring the state to change the regulation. It was, perhaps, judicial activism at an awkward peak but it brought necessary change for the people of Barrow.
Sadie is the daughter of Charles Brower, a famous Eskimo whaler and U.S. Commissioner at Barrow. She attended high school in San Francisco, but returned to Barrow as a teacher, social worker and, finally, a magistrate.
* * *
How was it that you became a magistrate the first Native woman magistrate and one who never attended law school?
I was a social worker and a teacher. My dad was Charles Brower, the U.S. Commissioner, and he died in 1945. The Navy base opened up and there was a segregation between the base and the Natives; you couldn't cross the line from this community into that camp at certain hours. They were hiring men from here to work there, but at certain hours once the men came home, no one could cross back over. It was barred. I saw how ridiculous that was; people were getting picked up for violating that type of restriction. I was forever before the commissioner defending my people even though I was not a lawyer.
In 1959, when Alaska was becoming a state, there were many changes in the legal system. We had to go on state rules. I had to do a lot of explaining because of all the changes; everything changed and we had to go by rules then not our own rules, outside rules.
There were state troopers coming in here to enforce the law. Before, we had always taken care of our own community. The first appointee for our district (as magistrate) was Eben Hobson. When he discovered he couldn't make it work, he started coming over to me and trying to talk me into becoming a magistrate.
My first case was a burglary. I didn't know the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor. I was trying to hear the case and solve it the way Dad used to do.
I discovered the magistrate had different ways of solving things; I got accused of holding a kangaroo court! I didn't even know what kangaroo court was; oh, did I ever learn fast.
How was your tribal law different from white law?
It was more severe. I was with the tribal council; any person that was an offender, if repeated, was ousted out of the community and never allowed to come back.
Did you consider this a more effective legal system?
Well, it made our people think and respect their elders. Certain types of living were required. It was hard for our people not to tell the truth. Automatically, when our people come in, they don't hesitate to tell you the truth, no matter how bad it is.
When I first started it was difficult. I needed the help of the community. I needed to let them know that I meant business. When I needed help from the police and I didn't get it, I threw them in jail. Anyone who refused to help me got stuck in jail. I meant business.
What was the best part of your work?
Gaining the respect of my people.