McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin for his vice presidential running mate has opened a political window into Alaska. The world is peeking through in hopes of discovering sordid information about Palin’s life. A close look reveals approximately 130,000 Alaska Native people facing ongoing violations of their fundamental human rights. Politically speaking, this image – one that Republicans and Democrats alike fail to acknowledge – may snowball into a series of events reminiscent of India’s liberation from the British.
There is a powerful and well-informed movement building among Alaska Native peoples to address root causes of the cultural, spiritual, social, political and economic challenges people are facing. It is a movement of healing, awareness, truth and action.
We must look within history to uncover the solutions. In 1867, the United States paid Russia pennies on the acre for Alaska through the Treaty of Cession. Russia did not have dominion over Alaska. At best, Russia had claim to a few trading posts and some land on the Aleutian Islands. In the Treaty of Cession, Alaska Native peoples were referred to as the “uncivilized tribes,” a title given to those excluded from decisions regarding their lands, lives and resources.
In addition to deeming Natives “uncivilized,” the United States sent military convoys throughout Alaska and determined that Native peoples “posed no military threat.” These determinations furthered the U.S. agenda of resource exploitation and cultural genocide. My wise grandfather, who helped raise me as a child in northern Alaska, was born in 1904 into an “uncivilized” status. He was not a U.S. citizen, he could not vote, and he had to endure business signs that read “no dogs, no Natives.” This diminishment of Alaska Native status enabled the United States’ unjust and illegitimate claim to control Alaska’s land and vast resources.
In 1924, my grandfather became a U.S. citizen. In 1943, my tribe became one of the few federally recognized American Indian reservations in Alaska through the Indian Reorganization Act. The government quickly disallowed other Alaska Native peoples from following suit, realizing they would lose claim to most of Alaska if the process were allowed to continue.
World War II opened peoples’ eyes to the horrendous nature of genocide. Subsequently, the “United Nations Charter” established a list and framework for the decolonization of non-self-governing territories. African and disenfranchised European nations were excited to begin the process of reclaiming their right to nationhood and self-governance. The United States voluntarily added the territory of Alaska to this list, an acknowledgment that it did not hold legitimate control over Alaska Native lands and lives.
Alaska Native peoples went from traditional societies, rooted in practices of sharing, equity, humility, celebration, stewardship of land, and tribal self-governance, to shareholders of state chartered regional corporations.
However, in 1959 the United States violated its agreement pursuant to the United Nations Charter and ushered Alaska into statehood, less than 20 years after the non-Native population surpassed that of Alaska Natives. The government and colonists were interested in securing access to oil, gold, timber and salmon, among other natural resources. Alaska was also in a militarily strategic position in relation to the USSR and Asia.
Still, the United States had not established legitimate dominion over Alaska and there was growing pressure from industry to exploit oil on the North Slope. The government and oil industry needed a solution that would prevent Alaska Native lawsuits over the unjust taking of lands and resources. In 1971, the U.S. Congress enacted the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. It was the greatest legislative theft of American Indian lands since the Dawes Act of 1887. The Dawes Act resulted in the loss of approximately 90 million acres of Indian treaty lands in the continental United States.
ANCSA was not a treaty settlement with Alaska Native peoples – it was a unilateral congressional act. It extinguished all federal Alaska Native land claims, resulting in the theft of approximately 321 million acres of land, three and a half times the amount of land stolen pursuant the Dawes Act. In addition, ANCSA extinguished all but one Indian reservation and all indigenous hunting and fishing rights.
ANCSA provided a corridor for the trans-Alaska pipeline. The oil industry, state of Alaska and federal government have benefited more than $100 billion. On the other hand, Alaska Native tribal governments were undermined as ANCSA established 13 regional, for-profit, Native-led corporations. The Alaska Native corporations were provided lands not taken and a one-time payment, equivalent to approximately 1/20th the annual profits made from Alaskan resources in one year. Alaska Native peoples went from traditional societies, rooted in practices of sharing, equity, humility, celebration, stewardship of land and tribal self-governance, to shareholders of state-chartered regional corporations.
As a former chief, I have experienced the direct correlation between this history of colonization and the overwhelming challenges Alaska Native peoples are encountering today. As Alaska Native peoples, we are among the only indigenous peoples whose traditional hunting and fishing rights have been federally extinguished and we are the most dependent on this way of life. We have among the highest rates of suicide and are among the most economically impoverished in all of the United States. Our traditional leadership systems and rights to self-governance at a tribal level have been undermined and fragmented. The result of these human rights violations has been devastating.
Simultaneously, I am confident that a just and equitable resolution can be reached between Alaska Native peoples and the federal government. It is a pivotal time to enter treaty negotiations with the federal government to address the atrocities of a past rooted in blatant injustice, manipulation, exploitation and cultural genocide. We now have a deepening holistic knowledge of the past and its impact on our present situation. With this knowledge, humanity must work to confront injustices and heal dysfunction within all aspects of our lives.
Evon Peter is a former chief of the Neetsaii Gwich’in from northeastern Alaska and the current executive director of Native Movement.