His landmark legal assault on the U.S. government beginning in the 1920s laid the groundwork for the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, which returned 44 million acres of land and nearly a billion dollars to Alaska Natives. But instead of reviewing his life, I’d like to examine just one episode, William’s 1923 defense of the Tlingit leader Charlie Jones, who was charged with illegal voting.
The Sophisticated Tlingit Lawyer
William Paul came from the small town of Wrangell, Alaska, the son of a half-Tlingit mother and a half-Tlingit father. He attended Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania and later received a baccalaureate degree from Whitworth College in Tacoma. He knew Latin and Greek and was said to have a beautiful tenor voice. After studying law through LaSalle University, he became the first Native to pass the Alaska Bar.
In 1920 he returned to Wrangell, determined to make enough money fishing to finance a move to New York, where he planned to train for the Metropolitan Opera. But, like a Tlingit George Bailey, he would never go.
The Traditional Tlingit Elder
Charlie Jones was a full-blooded Tlingit elder, the head of the Naanya.aayí clan located near the mouth of the Stikine River in Southeast Alaska. He was considered the seventh successor of the title, “Chief Shakes,” a tribal leader of the entire Stikine area.
By all accounts he was a friendly and well-loved older gentleman who spoke little English. As a respected Native leader, he had been allowed to vote in several previous elections, in spite of the Alaska Territorial Act of 1915, which only allowed literate, “civilized” Natives to vote.
The Fish Trust Bosses
From no doubt luxurious offices in cities far away, the owners of the canneries in Alaska were becoming concerned about a growing threat to their control of the fishing industry: the Alaska Native Brotherhood, a grassroots organization devoted to the betterment of Natives. The ANB was challenging cannery owners regarding the use of fish traps, devices that automatically scooped salmon from rivers. These and a new federal law requiring fishing permits, which were difficult to get, made it nearly impossible for Native fishermen to make a living.
The ANB Grand President was Louis Paul, William’s younger brother, and by 1922 William himself was the Grand Secretary. Together they planned to use William’s legal know-how and the ANB’s political power to lift the permit requirements and force the canneries to stop using fish traps.
The key was Native voting rights. By winning Native voting rights, William would control the Native vote. The cannery owners were determined not to let that happen.
On November 7, 1922, Charlie Jones went to the polls in Wrangell to vote. Three voting officials, U.S. Commissioner William Thomas, Ole Gunderson, and mayor John Grant, all of whom were said to be in the pockets of the cannery owners, told Charlie he couldn’t vote and turned him away.
Charlie left, confused, and later returned with an educated Tlingit woman, Matilda “Tillie” Paul Tamaree, William’s mother, whom he had enlisted as an interpreter. Once she understood the situation, Tillie demanded Charlie be allowed to vote. The officials gave in, then reported the incident to the U.S. Attorney’s office. Both Tillie and Charlie were later arrested and transported to Ketchikan to stand trial.
The Toilet Paper Defense
The trial began in the fall of 1923. William’s strategy was to prove Charlie was civilized, even though he lived a traditional Native lifestyle. If he succeeded, the jury would have to find Charlie and Tillie not guilty.
But how do you prove someone is civilized? William showed that Charlie owned a home, paid taxes, and used a knife and fork. William jokingly called this the “Toilet Paper Defense,” since all Charlie’s behavior was clearly embedded in the modern world, for example his use of toilet paper instead of tree leaves for personal hygiene. William also showed Charlie regularly donated money to the Red Cross. Charlie explained on the stand he gave donations for himself, his wife, his son, and for their little dog, Captain Wilson. You can’t get much more civilized than that.
Judge Thomas Reed instructed the jury to disregard the Alaska Territorial Act of 1915, explaining it was superseded by federal law. The jury subsequently found Charlie not guilty and dropped Tillie’s aiding and abetting charges.
Citizenship for Natives wouldn’t officially be granted until 1924; but because William demonstrated the absurdity of the state’s law and the charm of Charlie’s personality, the trial won in the public’s mind the right of Alaska Natives to vote. In 1924 William was elected to the Alaska Territorial Legislature, due in large part to grateful Native voters.
It would be nice to say William was inspired by the Tlingit elder, Charlie Jones, to give up his dream of big city life and devote himself to Native rights. The truth is many people, events and inborn abilities molded him into the Native civil rights champion we remember today. But looking at pictures of Charlie Jones in traditional regalia, his kind eyes twinkling, I can imagine he must have empowered William to fight his later battles against the government with the fierceness of a true warrior.
Happy birthday, Mr. Paul.
Sources used in this piece include: