Blogs > HNN > Wesley Hogan. Reviews Kimberly L. Metcalfe, ed., In Sisterhood: The History of Camp 2 of the Alaska Native Sisterhood (Juneau, Alaska: Hazy Island Books, 2008)

Jan 14, 2010 12:47 pm

Wesley Hogan. Reviews Kimberly L. Metcalfe, ed., In Sisterhood: The History of Camp 2 of the Alaska Native Sisterhood (Juneau, Alaska: Hazy Island Books, 2008)

Wesley Hogan is Professor of History and Philosophy and Co-Director of the Institute for the Study of Race Relations at Virginian State University.

Native Alaskan women’s history has been marginal to the “big story” of US history since the professionalization of the discipline in the 1870s. Indeed, few groups have seen more marginalization – by distance from Washington DC, by gender, by ethnicity, and by culture and language – than the women who populated the Southeast Alaskan coast, members of the Tlingit (pronounced “Klink-It”) and Haida tribes.

In this oral history, one father cautioned his daughter Gaxaansán (Olga Keene Wilson) as they rounded Point Retreat by boat to Juneau: “We’re coming into white man’s territory so you have to learn their ways.” Reading this collection of oral testimony by Tlingit women, one realizes anew how dislocating and odd it could be to interact with Euro-Americans in our own time.

Indeed, the timing of this contact – the 20th century – marks it as distinct among the vast majority of contact stories that make it to mainstream US history narratives. Schoolchildren learn about Pocahontas and John Rolfe in Virginia’s 17th century and Sacajawea helping Lewis & Clark from Dakota to the Pacific during the early 19th century. But they should also learn about Eliza Marks, grandmother of Nora Marks Dauenhauer, who saved her family’s hereditary land outside Juneau: “The surveyor was coming down to survey the whole place and she took an axe to them. She was so tiny. After that, they left them alone.”

In this beautiful collection of oral histories, readers learn what contact was like in our own era. Rich in detail about cultural, economic, and political life, these women’s narratives challenge us to rethink the impact of families’ internal relationships on broader society and politics, as well as basic causal relationships such as what caused Alaskans (Native and white) to succeed in the fight against Jim Crow well before the 1964 Civil Rights Act became the law of the land.

Oral historian Kim Metcalfe’s interviewees share their experiences with the education system, motherhood, labor, community work and political struggles. Their histories reveal that Tlingit children identified themselves by their mother’s ancestry. “It wasn’t just the family, it wasn’t just your uncles that raised the children. It was the whole village…We always saw people looking out the doorway and they would report back to our Mom where we were.” “My grandmother came from a family of 14 daughters,” recalled Kaayistaan (Marie Olson). “A family with that many daughters was considered a wealthy family-I mean rich, rich!” (107) “The Tlingit nation is very clan oriented,” recalled Geethlá (Harriet Roberts). “You can talk to somebody, you ask, ‘What is your mother’s name?’ and you know who they are.”

Fishing culture dominates many of these histories. Generations of Tlingit women describe how the nets were made, who caught, dried, fried, and sold them. Women fished in skiffs or canoes with their mothers and grandmothers. Subsistence living continued throughout the past century and into our own: Tlingits continued to smoke salmon, halibut and seaweed, and harvest clams, cockles, deer meat, seal meat, seal grease and herring eggs as well as salmonberries and blueberries. Often during the summer women would take their children and work in the canneries to make enough money to buy clothes, shoes and winter coats for the children.

The brutality of resource extraction emerges as women tell of their husbands, brothers, and fathers. One father worked in a gold mine on the crusher, alongside other Natives, Filipinos, Mexicans and poor whites. Each man put a brass tack on the board upon entering the mine, and took it off when he came in. “After the shift was over, the foreman would check the board. If there were some missing, it meant [the men] fell in [the crusher]. They never stopped the crusher, they would just hire new people.”

Like many western regions focused on extracting natural resources, Southeast Alaska witnessed a significant influx of men from abroad who came to work in the canneries and mines, and as fishermen. Russians and Filipinos in particular intermarried with Tlingit women. These Native women often set up fundraisers and recruited support for their own communities, a Filipino community hall , as well as for Russian Orthodox schools and orphanages. While a frontier mentality often promoted acceptance of this cultural mélange, at times, such intermarriages could lead to discrimination. Doloresa Cadiente (Gloodás) remembered that her father, a Filipino, was told by the community center people he was welcome, but needed to leave his wife, a Tlingit, at home.

Contact with white Alaskans often resulted in bigotry. In 1915, the legislature began to force Natives to apply for a “certificate of citizenship,” to prove they had “abandoned tribal customs and adopted a civilized lifestyle.” Alaska natives were segregated from whites in education, housing, and business establishments. Natives recalled the parallel with Jim Crow. Their kids were not allowed to ride school buses, whites designated some restaurants and bars off-limits with signs reading “No Natives or Dogs Allowed,” and they were forced to sit in the balconies of movie theaters. Even more appalling, children who spoke Tlingit in school had plaster put across their mouths, or had a shaming white rag tied in their hair. Stella Martin (Yaan da yein) recalled that outside of Juneau, “after Christianity came in, the Indian customs were done away with. You were fined $40 if you were caught putting on something Indian, which in those days was an extreme amount.”

When US troops arrived during WWII, the Juneau USO prohibited “any soldier from publicly associating with Indian girls.” Juneau’s Tlingits protested in a public letter: “The inference drawn is that there are no decent Indian girls, and that the regulations are to protect the soldiers from contamination.” They reminded the USO of the blood of young Indian men being spilled on foreign shores in the name of democracy: “Their wives and sisters are entitled to the same rights as are being fought for in China, Europe and Africa.”

In Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, and other parts of the South, challenges to Jim Crow would be driven by youth groups (like SNCC), church groups (SCLC), and middle-class organizations (NAACP). Similarly, in Southeast Alaska, the Alaska Native Sisterhood (ANS) and Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB) served as the grassroots organizing nerve center against discrimination. In Sisterhood documents the path by which the ANS, ANB, and human rights advocate and Alaska’s territorial governor Ernest Gruening, combined to push through the first human rights act in the US since the Civil War – the Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945-- nineteen years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would do the same for the rest of the nation. (Gruening eventually became a US senator from Alaska and he and Senator Wayne Morse were the only ones to oppose the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in 1964)
Gruening, another fascinating Western leader largely absent from the dominant American narrative, had experienced East Coast anti-Semitism first hand as a young man, then a hearty dose of colonial arrogance through his experiences working for the Interior Department and as Administrator of Puerto Rican Reconstruction before coming to Alaska as part of the International Highway Commission in 1938. As governor, he “put as much feeling as I knew how into an appeal” for the anti-discrimination legislation in 1945. State Senator Allen Shattuck violently opposed the measure: “Who are these people, barely out of savagery, who want to associate with us whites with five thousand years of recorded civilization behind us?” Another senator also noted opposition to the bill: “He did not want to sit next to Eskimos in a theater; they smelled.” As per Alaskan territorial custom, the chamber then offered to anyone present to state his or her view. A young Native woman, Elizabeth Peratrovich, stepped forward: “I would not have expected that I, who am barely out of savagery, would have to remind gentlemen with five thousand years of recorded civilization behind them of our Bill of Rights. When my husband and I came to Juneau and sought a home in a nice neighborhood where our children could play happily with our neighbors’ children, we found such a house and had arranged to lease it. When the owner learned that we were Indians, they said, ‘no.’” She continued on, as Gruening noted, with a plea that “could not have been more effective. When she finished, there was a wild burst of applause in the gallery. The Senate passed the bill, eleven to five.” By 1969, the first Natives won seats on the Juneau city council and school board.

The second half of the century showed more positive results. Lyndon Johnson’s Model Cities program helped to incorporate Tlingit culture and language into the K-12 system. But “Great Society” urban renewal also forced long-time residents out of their homes without replacement housing, “resulting in the wide scale transfer of land from low income people to commercial entities” like luxury condominiums and office buildings. It eliminated “the ethnic neighborhood that was mostly of Tlingit families and mixed Filipino-Tlingit marriages and created a Diaspora to scattered suburbs.” Still, the ANS continued to work within the US political system, lobbying legislators, organizing voter registration drives, putting their candidates up for office.

Within the last decade, the ANS has organized marches and public demonstrations, particularly to support Native subsistence rights to hunt and fish in areas prohibited by federal law. In 1999, Desa Jacobsson and four other Southeast women caught five sockeye salmon in an act of civil disobedience to protest the closure since 1962 of a traditional fishing site for the Aak’w Kwáan. The following year, Jacobsson went on a hunger strike to support subsistence rights, and repeated it again in 2006, to protest proposed federal policies that endangered subsistence hunting and fishing in rural Alaska.

The book follows in the tradition established by oral historians of giving history back to the community from which it comes. However, this means that people unfamiliar with Southeast Alaska may need more context at times, or may feel like the histories are disjointed compared to a traditional narrative. And because of the difficulties for oral historians in treading on too-personal ground, the book lacks much discussion in the key areas of religious practices and beliefs, and sexuality. Still, it’s hard to criticize a book that covers so much ground, from Native traditions to Native-white cultural synthesis. For example, just as in the lower 48, sports provided a bridge between segregated communities. Basketball, “a community obsession” for both Natives and whites, became a “bright spot in race relations in Juneau,” where everyone turned out to watch the competition. Indeed, basketball gave birth to the book: Editor Kim Metcalf’s father, a regional basketball announcer, introduced her to Tlingit culture, fostering the relationships that eventually led to the book’s inception.

The founder of the Alaska Native Sister, Bessie Visaya (Kaachgun), epitomizes the approach so many Tlingit women took to improving their communities: “When I was grant president sometimes I’m way down. I didn’t have enough education. I feel broken hearted sometimes, and then I cheer up. I tried, I’m going to work because [even without] education, still I said to myself, ‘I’m going to work and I’m going to fight with the people. My feeling is strong.’” Such powerful testimony invites conversation and reflection.

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