Assimilate This The Alaska Native Brotherhood and the ThreePiece Suit of Courage
My earliest memory of Seattle is of sitting underneath our front porch in Georgetown. Under those wooden steps I found a hiding place away from the other kids I barely knew, and most importantly away from my mother. It was my third birthday.
Our family moved from Juneau, Alaska to Seattle two months before and I thought we were just here visiting my Aunt Judy. I thought we’d stay a few days in this strange place and then return to Juneau as my mom and I had done once before. But the days away from Juneau became weeks and then months. Finally, on my birthday, I understood. We weren’t going back. It was all a trick, no, a punishment. I was bad. My father discovered this and to punish me he took Juneau away. Worse yet, my mother had been in on it the whole time. That’s how my 3-year-old mind perceived my Caucasian father’s and my Tlingit mother’s decision to assimilate into white society by moving to Seattle.
Assimilation is a quiet process that destroys indigenous cultures by absorbing and diluting them. “Resistance is futile,” the Borg would say in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
But it’s not. When you see it coming you can protect what’s most important and survive. You can resist. That’s what the early leaders of the Alaska Native Brotherhood did. In his recent book, A Dangerous Idea: The Alaska Native Brotherhood and the Struggle for Indigenous Rights, (University of Alaska, 2014) author Peter Metcalfe documents how Native leaders in Southeast Alaska fought the oncoming firestorm of assimilation a century ago.
The motor of assimilation is a choice, what to fight and what to accept. We may oppose logging near sacred burial sites but accept generic images of Natives on Valentine’s Day cards. Some choices are clear, but many aren’t.
The choice in my people’s history that always concerned me was the one between reservations and corporations. Many tribes in the Lower 48 refused to give up their sovereignty. The government, after years of genocidal brutality, only allowed them this right in certain areas proscribed by treaties. To me, these “reservations” represent the Native people’s refusal to give up their traditions and join white society. I’ve always felt this heroic. I still think it is. But that caused a problem for me. My tribe never went to war with the U.S. and had chosen the corporate system instead of reservations for dealing with the government. I am not a tribal citizen, I am a shareholder in a Native-owned corporation.
That’s not very cool sounding. It made me wonder if we’d sold out or if some corrupt leaders had tricked us. I felt ashamed I was Tlingit, one of those corporate tribes.
So I read Metcalfe’s book hoping to understand what happened. I discovered reservations had been a disaster for other tribes. Metcalfe writes, “…reservations in the Lower 48 were sinks of poverty, ill health, unemployment, and want.” Additionally, we would have been under the control of the Office of Indian Affairs, later the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
“Never by a single word shall I concede a single right that belongs to me….” William Paul Sr. said in 1941 about the specter of subjugation under the Office of Indian Affairs.
These guys were hardcore. I started to picture them in court proceedings wearing their customary three-piece suits. My grandfather, George Ward, was at many of the early Alaska Native Brotherhood meetings. The only pictures I have of him show that suit. I never thought much about it. Then, as I looked at the cover of Metcalfe’s book, which features a totem pole carved with a man in a suit and a woman in a white dress on it in honor of the early members of the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood, it hit me. My grandfather was a fisherman from Sitka. Why did he ever need a three-piece suit? It was a sign, a signal. By wearing them they said, “These suits are as uncomfortable as hell, but when we wear them we’re fighting for you. Don’t be afraid. We got this.”
I saw the bravery of facing hard choices. Partial assimilation may be unavoidable. But we can choose how far it goes. The corporate system has many flaws and continues to damage our culture. But because of it we have the economic tools to compete and thrive and the freedom to use them without BIA oversight.
What was once a source of shame for me transformed into a source of pride as I learned about our past. That little boy under the porch began healing. The hard choice my parents made to move to Seattle caused injuries, to me, my mom, my brothers, even my dad. But many economic opportunities opened up because of it. My two older brothers prospered. My emotional problems persisted. But understanding the choice our early leaders made helped me understand the choice my parents made. I’ve learned to forgive them, and forgiveness opens a conduit through which love can return.
For me the three-piece suit now represents the three qualities that will keep our culture alive no matter how much assimilation damages it. These qualities are: love for our people, respect for our traditions, and courage to fight for what’s right.
Frank Hopper (Tlingit, Kagwaantaan clan) is a freelance writer born in Juneau, Alaska. His work has appeared in the Tlingit website, Lingit Latseen; in the political website, Attack the System, and in Autonomy Cascadia, a Journal of Bioregional Decolonization. He lives in Seattle.