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Alaska Native Brotherhood 100 Year Anniversary

A century of progress

Alaska Native Brotherhood founding fathers in 1912. From left, Paul Liberty, James Watson, Ralph Young, Eli Kalanvok (Katinook), Peter Simpson, Frank Mercer, James C. Jackson, Chester Worthington, George Fields, William Hobson (an early member), Frank Price. Seward Kunz is not pictured (nor is Marie Moon Orsen).

Alaska Native Brotherhood founding fathers in 1912. From left, Paul Liberty, James Watson, Ralph Young, Eli Kalanvok (Katinook), Peter Simpson, Frank Mercer, James C. Jackson, Chester Worthington, George Fields, William Hobson (an early member), Frank Price. Seward Kunz is not pictured (nor is Marie Moon Orsen).

PHOTO: Alaska State Library – Historical Collections

The Alaska Native Brotherhood is celebrating its 100th anniversary at their Grand Camp convention in October in Sitka, and a number of Alaska’s top leaders are expected to give speeches or send congratulations. After all, there is no organization more central to Alaska Natives’ fight for citizenship and self-determination than the Alaska Native Brotherhood and its partner organization, Alaska Native Sisterhood. ANB members believe their organization is the oldest Native fraternal organization in the United States.

In a 1971 letter to the Anchorage Daily News, ANB Grand Camp president Frank Peratrovich, a state and territorial legislator and the brother-in-law of civil rights pioneer Elizabeth Peratrovich, objected to an article that referred to ANB as primarily a social organization. He listed some of ANB/ANS’s accomplishments: claiming Native citizenship and voting rights, school desegregation, the extension of workers’ compensation, pensions and aid to children to Alaska Natives, along with protections against discrimination.

ANB’s lobbying is credited with helping form Alaska’s sophisticated Native health consortiums and facilities. And with land claims: “It can be argued with documentation,” says Gerry Hope, president of Camp #1 in Sitka, that ANB and ANS played a critical role in the negotiations for and passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and the birth of Alaska Native Corporations.

 

History in the Living Room

Bertha Karras, a lifelong resident of Sitka, was personally changed by the activities of ANB/ANS. She was in the first group of Native students to attend the newly desegregated public schools. The same went for the churches and even the local movie theater, which had separate sections for Natives and whites. Karras remembers her mother, Annie Jacobs, and her brother, Mark Jacobs Jr., both active ANB/ANS members working to get decommissioned WWII naval air base buildings to be used for Native health care and education. Today, the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, a campus of UA-Southeast, and the state-run boarding school Mt. Edgecumbe High School occupy the site.

Dennis Demmert, of Klawock, also saw history occurring in his living room when local ANB/ANS members came to his home for meetings to discuss land claims and other issues. Demmert has served a one-year term this past year as ANB Grand Camp President, representing all the local camps.

Demmert spent two decades teaching Native history and education at UA Fairbanks and can quote from memory the legislation behind a century’s worth of Native progress.

In 1912, a dozen men and one woman from the Sheldon Jackson Training School (later SJ College) started ANB during and after an educational conference they attended in Juneau to discuss important issues with Alaska educators and one another. The group of young Native leaders wrote a charter for ANB that required members to speak English, be Christian, take a sobriety oath, and dedicate one’s life to service. They established the first ANB camp—Camp #1—in Sitka.

In a speech last year to the ANB Grand Camp held in Klawock, UA Anchorage history professor Stephen Haycox commented on the conditions faced by early ANB members.

“At the time, their best thinking was that education and acculturation were the best ways to guarantee Alaska Natives’ future. It seems odd to us now, but we must remember the values of the past were not the values of today. The thinking then was that the Natives could survive only if they adopted the ideas, mores and behaviors of the dominant culture.”

Demmert, who heard Haycox’s speech, agrees: “At the time the Alaska Native Brotherhood was formed, Alaska Native people were not citizens. We could not own land. We didn’t have civil rights. What was being sought was some status to be able to work on these issues.”

After only three years, ANB achieved passage of the Native Citizenship Act. Demmert says Natives could achieve the desired status of citizen, but only after “passing a literacy test, pledging to move from the old ways to Western ways, and also to have the written endorsement of five white men.”

 

The Next Hundred Years

Once Native citizenship was assured by the 1940’s, ANB’s attention turned to land claims. Demmert explains that the statehood act contained a “disclaimer” that would prohibit the people of the new state from utilizing traditional Native lands—most of the state—unless the US Congress negotiated the Natives’ title. Some non-Native politicians wanted the disclaimer removed. Threatening to withdraw their support for statehood, ANB members succeeded in keeping the disclaimer in the statehood act. Haycox said the disclaimer was the basis of the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

“Without the settlement of Alaska Natives’ claims, not only would justice for Natives have been wanting, but there would have been no new economic development in Alaska, because no one would invest money in a project for which the title was not secure. The construction of the Alaska Pipeline, for example, could not go forward without the settlement of Native claims,” Haycox said in his speech. “In insisting on the disclaimer, the ANB and ANS did an incalculable service for Alaska Natives and all other Alaskans, and on that score alone, if on no other, is owed the deepest debt of gratitude and appreciation.”

Although there are a number of ANB/ANS camps throughout Alaska and as far south as Portland, Ore., ANB has always been largely a Southeast organization. A long list of Native groups has been developed because of ANB’s activities. The new groups involve Natives throughout the state, such as the Native regional and village corporations, Native health consortiums and the Alaska Federation of Natives.

At next month’s Grand Camp in Sitka, both Grand Camp President Demmert and Camp #1 President Hope plan to charge attendees with considering the organization’s next 100 years. Protecting traditional Native hunting and fishing rights is sure to be a priority in the 21st century, along with the continuing challenges in education, health care and economic opportunity. ANB/ANS is also dealing with an aging membership and a lack of new, young members. Young people may be motivated to invigorate ANB/ANS if they learn what their elders accomplished.

“ANB members need to carve out our role,” Hope says. “Redefine our purpose and think forward for those who are not yet born.” 

 

Will Swagel is an author living in Sitka.

This artitcle first appeared in the September 2012 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.

 

Alaska Native Brotherhood

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