After decades of not being recognized by the federal government, Alaska Natives marked a milestone in the mid-1930s. Amended in 1936 to include Alaska, the Indian Reorganization Act of 1935 allowed American Indians to locally govern their affairs by a tribal government that was established by constitution and bylaws for each tribe.
Through its enactment, tribes were allowed to manage their own affairs, such as ownership and transfer of title to land and to keep records of vital events, establish their own police and court systems and set the terms of enrollment in their tribes. Alaska Natives had been working toward recognition decades before the Act was passed.
They were not considered citizens when America purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867 because they were not “civilized.”
And only citizens of the new American possession could own land, operate a business or vote.
In 1912, tribes in Southeast organized the Alaska Native Brotherhood; three years later the Alaska Native Sisterhood held its first meeting in Sitka.
Although the groups originated in Southeast Alaska – primarily among Tlingit and Haida Indians – the organizations eventually included Natives from all regions, as well as some Caucasian members.
It took years of hard work, but Alaska Natives were given the right to vote in 1922. However, certain conditions had to be met.
“Wear Western clothing; not eat Indian foods or speak Indian languages; and live apart from Indian village communities” were among the list of criteria that would make an Alaska Native eligible to vote. This was nothing new. Alaska Natives were familiar with restrictions put upon them by the government.
In 1915, the Alaska Territorial Legislature had passed a law that allowed a Native to become a citizen only if five white people testified that the Native person had met legal criteria – meaning he or she had given up Native culture in favor of Western ways. But early Native leaders knew that the only way to improve their situation in the white man’s world was to work within the system.
An article titled “Alaska Native civil rights history shaped the state,” which appeared in the December 4, 2007, issue of The Northern Light newspaper, described what life was like behind the scenes.
“What was done in public and what was done in the home, was not necessarily the same,” Helen McNeil, a Tlingit in the Alaska Native Sisterhood, told reporter Mary Lochner. “Many (Tlingits) would speak only English in public, but still speak Tlingit in the home.”
Alaska Native leaders learned to use the power of the vote to influence policies that affected Natives’ lives.
They sent advocates for anti-discrimination legislation to testify before the Territorial Legislature and pushed for equal education and recognition of land ownership for their people.
A milestone was passed in 1924 when Congress extended citizenship to all Indians in the United States and Tlingit William L. Paul Sr. was elected as the first Native to the Territorial Legislature.
But all was not rosy for the Alaska Native population following these two historic events. The Alaska Territorial Legislature put its own restrictions on who could become an Alaska citizen.
It passed a law requiring a literacy test be passed before a Native would be allowed to vote. That requirement was in effect until Alaska adopted its constitution in the late 1950s.