- Associated Press - Saturday, December 6, 2014

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - When Peter Metcalfe was a kid growing up in Juneau, school history lessons about Alaska didn’t include the perspectives and contributions of the state’s Native residents.

“I grew up in the Juneau school system and I just don’t remember being taught anything at all other than the comic book version of Alaska history, which is the Gold Rush, Wickersham - white history,” he said.

The situation has since improved, Metcalfe said, but many stories remain untold. As a writer, he has worked to bring attention to important aspects of Alaskan history that have been overlooked, most recently through his new book, “A Dangerous Idea: The Alaska Native Brotherhood and the Struggle for Indigenous Rights.”

Written with the assistance of Kathy Ruddy, who acted as researcher and legal assistant, the book was undertaken with Andy Hope III in 2008 through a grant provided by the Alaska Humanities Forum and funded by the Rasmuson Foundation as part of the Alaska Statehood Experience program. Twenty-eight projects were funded through the $1 million grant, Metcalfe and Hope’s among them. Hope’s grandfather, Andrew Percy Hope, was an early organizer of the ANB, founded in 1912.

“A Dangerous Idea” tells a complex story about early civil rights efforts in Alaska, focusing on the years leading up to statehood (1945-1958). It traces, through documentary evidence, the Southeast-based Alaska Native Brotherhood’s early work in establishing a basis for Native land claims, eventually settled in 1971 with the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

In the book Metcalfe argues that had the groundwork for establishing Native land claims not been established by the ANB, two major acts that shaped the state - the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971 and Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980 - would likely never have occurred. As the only viable Native organization working at the time, the ANB essentially defined the terms of an argument that would eventually be taken up by the Alaska Federation of Natives in the 1960s.

“For a lot of people, Native claims started in 1966 with the formation of the Alaska Federation of Natives, when in fact it has a much longer history,” Metcalfe said.

The original idea for Hope and Metcalfe’s project was to explore Alaska Native attitudes toward statehood.

“It initially began with just trying to figure out what Alaska Natives were doing in regards to statehood — were they for it, against it, promoting it, what were the attitudes about it,” he said. “And we were coming up kind of empty on that until we realized that the ANB was, without a lot of fanfare, staking their claims and were making it clear they would be vocal opposition to any statehood bill if their claims were jeopardized in any way.”

Ruddy, an attorney who also provided legal expertise for the book, said one of the rewarding parts of the project for her was the opportunity it provided to explore this complex topic at length.

“It’s so complex, that’s one of the reasons it’s been such a joy to work with Peter, it takes time to unfold these stories,” she said. “It’s been so satisfying to be able to work through these things I’ve always wanted to know — what really happened with aboriginal rights? I came here as a young attorney and never had the time to figure it out.”

Like Metcalfe, Ruddy said her visions of the statehood movement as a kid were dominated by a skewed view of Alaska history.

“I was a kid in Kodiak in 1956 when all this was going on and that was the thing, ‘Oh hey, this wonderful state is all being set up by people coming in from the Outside,’” she said. “The indigenous history was really not being told. That’s why this is so refreshing to think about, 50 years out, these stories can be brought out. They should have been brought out before, but now they’re being brought out.”

Much of Metcalfe and Ruddy’s research was first published as an essay, “The Sword and the Shield,” completed in 2010. “A Dangerous Idea” builds on the essay through textural additions and revisions and through the addition of numerous historical photographs that help humanize the story.

Because the story is so complex, Metcalfe said he and Ruddy concentrated on people for whom documentary evidence was available, noting that the range of individuals involved is far greater than what is presented.

“We just concentrated on a few people but it was the people we had documentary evidence on, the Peratroviches and the Pauls and the Hopes,” Metcalfe said. “But there were so many others. We’re trying to at least get across the point that it wasn’t, say, Elizabeth Peratrovich leading the civil rights thing, it was her and her husband, for one thing, and there were other people who played big roles in this. The comic book version is Elizabeth Peratrovich in the same way, say, Martin Luther King is looked at on a national level. Those are easy bookmarks as opposed to what necessarily really happened.”

In researching the book, Metcalfe and Ruddy drew on 30 file boxes of documentation left in their care by Hope, who passed away very soon after the grant was awarded.

Metcalfe also sought out other materials, including an especially valuable box of letters written by key figure William Paul, obtained through Paul’s grandson.

“William Paul’s grandson had this box of correspondence - it was like opening something up and it’s glowing gold,” Metcalfe said. “For some reason it was kind of concentrated, so much was pertinent to the story we were trying to tell, it was just super valuable.”

Luckily for the researchers, Paul was a prolific writer who kept great records.

“He must have written several thousand letters in his lifetime,” Ruddy said.

Paul, Peter Simpson and Judge James Wickersham made up the “triad” that pushed the idea of suing the U.S. government, Ruddy said. At that point, in 1929, Alaska Natives had only been considered citizens for five years, following passage of the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act. Some Alaska Natives, worried about jeopardizing their fragile position as new citizens, disliked the suit for that reason.

“Suing your own government, when you’ve only been citizens for five years, that’s the dangerous idea,” Ruddy said.

The unresolved land claims situation in Alaska was unusual compared to what had happened in other parts of the country, where Native claims had been often been settled through treaties and the establishment of reservations. In Alaska, no treaties had been signed with Alaska Natives. The 1867 Treaty of Cessation, an agreement between Russia and the U.S., left the issue of aboriginal title unresolved, and so it remained.

“Any treaty you look at in the Lower 48 that resulted in a reservation or whatever, was generated by conflict. Generally it was when white people were moving into an area and taking property rights. In the case of Southeast Alaska the ‘aha’ moment for me was, there’s 40 years from 1867 to 1907 when fisheries started changing, 40 years in which Native people were able to adapt and there wasn’t a lot of pressure on occupancy, Juneau being a case in point. … it was only later, especially after there were laws against subsistence fishing in streams that started to be enforced, that things became oppressive for Native people and that was 40-50 years after the Americans showed up. It wasn’t like it was overnight.”

That isn’t to say there wasn’t conflict, he added.

“(In Southeast) there was some conflict, obviously, with Angoon and Kake being two examples, but there was no protracted fight by which the U.S. came in and suppressed the Indians and forced them into reservations. That didn’t happen.”

Metcalfe said many issues touched on in the book warrant further study, for example the issue of assimilation, which is quite complex on its own.

William Paul, an ambitious and outspoken Tlingit lawyer and ANB member, provides a particularly fascinating example. He was the first Alaska Native to become a lawyer and, the state’s first Native legislator, working to win citizenship and voting rights for Natives, among many other accomplishments. (The archives of the new Sealaska Heritage Institute’s Walter Soboleff Center in Juneau were recently named for Paul, read more here: https://www.sealaskaheritage.org/news/news_article_WilliamLPaulSrArchives…)

For Metcalfe, historical heroes like Paul were much more than names, they were real people he’d met through his father, Vern Metcalfe. It was his dad’s respect for Native culture and widespread acceptance in that community that helped Metcalfe gain an awareness of the omissions of history and to begin doing his part to address them.

“My father was most famously a basketball announcer and that’s how he became really well known,” he said. “At the time there was AM radio and he’d travel with the team and call in by telephone line and it would go out over AM broadcast so it was live basketball throughout Southeast. He just remembered everybody’s name, and who they were related to and who their grandparents were … when he did a basketball broadcast it was all about the family and who was sitting in the front rows cheering for the hometown heroes from Hoonah. I just absorbed that. It didn’t strike me as remarkable until I was an adult.”

Metcalfe and his sister, Kim Metcalfe, have both followed in their dad’s footsteps in establishing strong relationships in the Native community; Kim’s book on the Alaska Native Sisterhood, “In Sisterhood,” was published in 2008.

Metcalfe said he’s been surprised to find how few writers are focused on Alaska Native history.

“Twenty percent to a quarter of our population is Alaska Native in Juneau and statewide for that matter, they preceded us here,” he said. “I’ve always been kind of bowled over by the fact that it’s been kind of an open field for me as a writer with these topics. There hasn’t been that much written about it, very few people understand it locally, let alone statewide.”

Metcale’s book has already been hailed as an important contribution to Alaska history by AFN president Julie Kitka and ANB grand president William Martin. Metcalfe speculates that his original partner in the undertaking, Andy Hope, would be happy with the end result as well.

“He would have been very, very proud of this, there’s no doubt in my mind,” Metcalfe said.


Information from: Juneau (Alaska) Empire, https://www.juneauempire.com

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