A New Race Problem

“The Alaskan native is still uncivilized, because the effort to transform him was begun so recently that little actual change has been made.”

In the negotiations which terminated in the purchase of Alaska in 1867, it was scarcely contemplated that, in acquiring a quitclaim from Russia for an outlying territory equal in area to five of the greater States of the Union, we were also assuming a new race problem of the most interesting character. The long delay of Congress, until 1884, in making any other provision for the government of the country than applying the customs laws, and authorizing the Secretary of the Treasury to lease the two small seal islands in Behring Sea, in order to preserve the seal rookeries from total destruction, was a reflex of the indifference of the people of the entire country to this most recent acquisition of federal domain.

Ten years ago, the Board of Home Missions of the Presbyterian Church first turned its attention to this new field, and sent its agents into Alaska to break the ground for an entirely new missionary enterprise; and while that body, by reason of its priority in preempting the field, has succeeded in establishing nearly all the mission stations which exist in Southeastern Alaska, other church organizations have followed in its footsteps, and support missions and schools to the westward, and in the great Yukon Valley north of Mt. St. Elias. In addition to these private enterprises undertaken to christianize and civilize the natives, Congress, during the last four sessions, has appropriated a sum of money ranging from forty-five thousand to fifty thousand dollars annually, to be expended in the support of the general education of both the natives and the whites, and placed the same under the control of the Secretary of the Interior and of the Bureau of Education in that department. The amount appropriated for the current fiscal year is fifty thousand dollars. For the purpose of wisely distributing this fund, and carrying out the design of Congress, the Secretary of the Interior constituted a local board of administration, consisting of the governor, the United States district judge, a general agent of education residing in the Territory, and two other residents. This board has no authority, however, beyond making recommendations, — the ultimate execution of the law and the application of the appropriations depending upon the will of the Commissioner of Education, subject to the supreme direction of the Secretary of the Interior. The natives, or Indians of Alaska, as they are frequently and perhaps inaccurately designated, are in no sense subject to the Indian Bureau or the Superintendent of Indian Schools at Washington; and the only recognition of their Indian character by any federal official in the Territory is in the courts, in applying the statutes of the United States which prohibit the sale of certain firearms and intoxicating liquors to them.

Whether these people present a new and distinct race problem from that which has vexed the public authorities for several generations elsewhere depends upon the view that is taken of the marked characteristics and peculiar environments which distinguish them from the other aboriginal peoples of the continent. The natives of Alaska are grouped into three great divisions, definitely localized, but having so many things in common, and habits and usages so similar, that some general principles, in the effort to civilize them, are applicable, and deserve attention now, after so many years of absolute neglect on the part of the government. The Eskimo are the occupants of the northeastern shore of Behring Sea, and have their miserable villages in the valleys of the Yukon and the Kuskokwim. The Aleuts, who seem to be ethnologically distinct from the Eskimo, and the people farther down the coast, below Mt. St. Elias, inhabit the Aleutian Islands, which separate Behring Sea from the North Pacific Ocean, and are the favored employees of the Alaska Commercial Company in killing seals, on St. Paul and St. George islands, in Behring Sea. It is a fact that the Aleuts on the seal islands were transferred from the Aleutian group during the period of Russian occupancy, and have acquired the sole prescriptive right to engage in seal killing during the proper season. Beginning in the vicinity of Mt. St. Elias, and extending down the coast to the British boundary, and along the indented shores of the islands of the Alexandrian Archipelago and of the thirty-mile mountainous strip called Southeastern Alaska, an almost entirely different class of natives comes into view. These are of the great Thlinket family. No accurate census has ever been taken of the inhabitants of the Territory.

In 1880, Petroff, a man of mixed Aleut and Russian blood, was employed as the census commissioner, and, while it was wholly impracticable for him to visit the remote villages in Western Alaska, he made an approximate estimate of their number where it was impossible to make an actual count; and, since then, Congress and other departments of the government have accepted his conclusions, in the absence of more definite information. He placed the native population at forty thousand. Outside of the Russians who remained after the transfer, there were only a few hundred whites in 1880, distributed in very small groups. After the discovery of gold at Juneau and Douglass Island, in Southeastern Alaska, in 1881, and with the subsequent development of the salmon-canning industry all along the coast, the white population increased, so that the most careful and judicious observers now estimate it at five thousand. The villages of the several divisions into which the natives have been distributed occupy portions of the Territory in about equal proportions. In Southeastern Alaska, east and south of Mt. St. Elias, the villages are placed close by the beach in all cases, except those of the Chilcatts, whose three towns are up a river of the same name, about thirty miles. In Western Alaska, the rivers, such as the Yukon and the Kuskoquim, are navigable for canoes and badarkis, or skin boats, for fifteen hundred miles; and numerous villages stand on both sides of those streams as far as they are navigable, but nowhere in the Territory can a village be found more than a few rods distant, on the banks of some such stream, or close by the seashore. Land travel in all Southeastern Alaska is wholly out of the question.

No tribal relations have ever been known to exist among these people, as among the aborigines of the interior of the continent. The family was, and still is, the unit. Whatever political combination there was in the savage state embraced no more than a single village; and while this is yet maintained to some extent, contact with the whites has so weakened this bond that it can scarcely be said to exist. The public authorities in the Territory deal with the people wholly as individuals, and in that respect they are placed on the same footing with whites. The courts utterly refuse to recognize the force and validity of Indian custom and law. When a native is charged with any offense against the laws of the United States, or the laws of Oregon, which have been made applicable in some cases by the Act of Congress providing a civil government for the Territory, he is tried according to the forms that apply in the case of a white man, and subjected to the same punishment and penalties, whether the offense was committed against a white man or his property, or against one of his own race. Herein there is a marked difference between the rights accorded to an Alaskan Indian and those of a reservation Indian in the States and other Territories, where, if the offense is committed by one member of the tribe against another, the trial is in an Indian tribunal, according to Indian usage and custom.

The elective franchise has never been extended by any Act of Congress to the inhabitants of Alaska. There is no legislative body whatever in the Territory. It is governed entirely by laws enacted by Congress, and executed by officers appointed by the President, with the advice and consent of the Senate. If the elective franchise were now extended to the people of that country, with no other limitation than that of sex and nonage, every male native of Alaska would become a voter, and count at the ballot-box as much as the most intelligent citizen of any of the States. With the exception of the electoral disfranchisement, which he endures with every white man in the Territory, he has all the civil rights that are accorded to any man in the United States.

How, then, does the race problem as applied to him differ from that of the North American Indian? The Alaskan native is still uncivilized, because the effort to transform him was begun so recently that little actual change has been made. The country, according to the opinion of those most experienced in public service there, will never be adapted to cattle raising; and hence it will be impossible to introduce the native to that intermediary stage of a pastoral life, which has found much encouragement among those who have regarded it as one of the most important steps in civilizing the Indians of the “plains.” The intensely humid climate, with hundreds of days in each year of rain and cloudy weather, and the mountainous topography will forever deny those people the blessings of agriculture. The science of engineering has not yet, and doubtless never will, overcome the obstacles to railroad building, so as to entice capital in the most remote hope of profitable investment. The industries, outside of the seal rookeries, will be the development of coal fields to the westward, with transportation wholly by water; gold mining in the southeastern section; and salmon canning and cod and halibut fishing, from Portland Channel to Behring Sea. The steps already taken in civilization are tending to the increase of the native population, by giving them better dwellings and clothing, and teaching them a greater regard for healthful sanitary conditions; while there are so few inducements to whites to make the country a permanent home that the latter will always remain in a decided minority.

The existence of the capital at Sitka is maintained by about eighty Americans, all told, while the gold mining of Juneau and Douglass Island, one hundred and eighty miles northeast of Sitka, sustains a white population of not more than fifteen hundred; the remaining whites being scattered along the coast, at the fisheries, in groups of eight or ten persons, and at missionary stations. In every instance, this white population is of such a transitory character that local self-government, if now adopted, would be a mere travesty. If suffrage were granted, without specially excepting the native races, the latter would be entitled to exercise it, and, being settled, for the most part, in compact villages of several hundred adult persons, would only become the tools of designing adventurers. The mountainous character of the entire country will make it impossible to create Indian reservations, on which to herd and teach the natives. They are all self-supporting and easily controlled. Men and women are equally industrious and frugal, and have a strong inclination to improve their habitations, food, and clothing. Hundreds find employment at the salmon canneries, and as common laborers at the gold mines.

No antagonism yet exists between the natives and white laborers in the same kind of employment, under the same employer. The government has never spent anything for their support, and need never do so, if proper and intelligent interest is taken in educating them with reference to their natural environment and the only industries that are capable of development in Alaska. The topography of the country makes it improbable that Alaska’s resources can be developed and made valuable in any other way than by the massing of capital through the agencies of corporations. There will be few opportunities for the exercise of the ordinary mechanical trades. The labor, therefore, of the great mass of the natives will come under the control of those corporate enterprises; and if the Territory is accorded self-government, the natives, greatly out-numbering the whites, will become a perplexing element in every political contingency. They are unlike the negroes of the South. They have never been a servile race, nor have they been at war with the whites for a century, and then brought into subjection after defeat, and placed on reservations. They have none of that resentment which the Indian Bureau finds so difficult to overcome in the case of the other native races of North America. They realize that everything is changing about them, and are anxious to pattern after the whites in better dwellings, more comfortable clothing, and a greater diversity of food, but they fail to realize yet the importance of education. The adults are serious obstacles to the education of the children; and no radical change is possible until attendance at the government schools is compulsory. It is not enough to provide schools and teachers at the public expense, but Congress must go further, and authorize the employment of Indian policemen at every village, to compel the attendance of the children.

Many of the native schools have an enrollment of sixty pupils, with an average daily attendance of ten. This is due to the total lack of means of enforcing attendance. Until the system is changed, at least two thirds of the annual appropriation for education in Alaska will be wasted; and the race problem presented in the subject of their education and possible participation in the political affairs of the country is of too serious a character to be thus ignored by those who are now responsible for their future development.