What It Means to Be Landless: Alaska Native Bill in Congress

Courtesy University of Washington Libraries Special Collections Division/Frank La Roche / Village of Wrangell, ca. 1897, one of the five "landless" communities in Southeast Alaska whose Native residents were excluded from full participation in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Ironically, Wrangell was the hometown of William Paul, Sr., the pioneering Tlingit civil rights leader who is considered one of the fathers of the Native land claims movement.

Landless. To the modern world it describes a social category. To the ancient Tlingit it described a spiritual disability

The Tlingit believed all things were imbued with a spirit that existed interdependently with the spirits of all other things. Tlingit clans represented the main social unit that strove to exist in a state of balance with the spiritual energies of a certain area, thus maintaining a kinship and identity-defining relationship with the local environment that sustained them. Several clans in one area comprised a “kwan” or village. To be landless meant to be cut off from this spiritual relationship with the land, in essence to be spiritually destitute.

The Alaska Native landless bill now being heard in Congress, officially known as H.R. 2386, the “Unrecognized Southeast Alaska Native Communities Recognition and Compensation Act,” is an attempt by Tlingit in five villages to use modern legislative tools to restore balance and to heal long-standing spiritual wounds.

“These villages identified in H.R. 2386 are our traditional homelands,” Leo Barlow testified in a hearing before the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs on June 17. “All we are asking is that Congress recognize that fact and provide us with what we deserve under law and equity.”

In 1971 the landmark Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act awarded 44 million acres of land and nearly a billion dollars to 13 regional Native corporations and more than 200 village or urban Native corporations. But for reasons that are unclear, the Natives in the Southeast Alaska communities of Haines, Ketchikan, Petersburg, Tenakee and Wrangell were prevented from participating. The Natives enrolled in those areas were allowed shares in the regional corporation known as Sealaska, but were prevented from forming village corporations and could not receive the 23,040 acres of land awarded to each of the other urban or village corporations in Southeast Alaska.

Possible reasons for this include lobbying efforts by timber and pulp companies in the area who did not want to share the local market with Natives. Also, some considered these communities to be “less ‘Native’ than other villages in Southeast Alaska,” according to Barlow, who represents a coalition of the five villages called the Southeast Alaska Landless Corporation.

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“Kit Totem, Wrangell, Alaska” from the Sir Henry Wellcome Collection 1856-1936.

“This occurred despite the clear evidence that each of these communities has historic, cultural, and traditional Alaska Native characteristics,” Barlow testified.

But whatever their specifics, the modern reasons belie deeper, historical causes rooted in two completely opposite world views. The Tlingit saw the environment as a living system of which they were only one part. This view allowed their society to exist intact for thousands of years. The Russians, British and finally the Americans, however, saw the environment as something to own and to exploit for power and wealth. Fur drew the “civilized” people first, then gold, then salmon and then timber. Now, of course, oil in northern Alaska and the Arctic draws the covetous attention of big business and its partner the government. How long this worldview can endure is yet to be seen.

In the early 19th century a series of decisions by Supreme Court Justice John Marshall set the stage for the “legal” theft of Native land. In the first of these, Johnson v. McIntosh (1823) Marshall denied the right of the Illinois and Piankeshaw tribes to sell a portion of their land because he felt they did not own it, even though they had lived on it for generations.

In her unpublished book, The Drive of Civilization: How the Shtax’héen (Bitter Water) Tlingit Lost The Tongass Forest, historian Diane Purvis explains the cultural prejudice Marshall used to justify his decision:

“The judicial attitude on the part of Justice Marshall was revealed as he explains that ‘…the tribes of Indians inhabiting the country were fierce savages whose occupation was war, and whose subsistence was drawn chiefly from the forest. To leave them in possession of their country, was to leave the country a wilderness…'”

In other words, because they did not exploit their land and extract its wealth the way Western civilization does, they could not say they truly owned it.

“So this stood as the rationale for the dispossession of aboriginal lands and carried through into the 1950s and beyond as Marshall’s exact words rebounded in the 1950s Supreme Court,” Purvis explains.

This warped judicial prejudice powered the theft of Tlingit land. Now the Tlingit in the five “landless” communities engage the tools of government legislation to regain land from which their ancestors once drew physical and spiritual sustenance. That’s what the Alaska Native landless bill is really about.

The ancient Tlingit would see the modern legal connection to land with its deeds, titles, fragmented resource rights and absentee ownership as a separation from the sacred relationship of stewardship and spiritual balance they once had. To those ancestors of the modern Tlingit, it is the civilized world that is landless, not them.

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