FAIRBANKS - Delta Junction’s Judy Ferguson has spent decades seeking out and interviewing longtime Alaskans. Focusing on people’s personal experiences, she explores how our state’s history has been lived rather than rooting through the documents to see how it has been recorded.
While readers of her books need to look elsewhere for precise and detailed chronologies of key events, what they gain from Ferguson is a deep understanding of how those events affected individual lives. It’s an approach that offers history as it truly is: a messy and often morally ambiguous thing that impacts everyone living through it.
In her latest book, “Windows to the Land,” Ferguson turns her attention to 20th century Native Alaskan history, with a special emphasis on land rights struggles. It’s an impressive, informative, and expansive collection (and as the subtitle notes, it’s only volume one; a second volume is slated for publication later this year). It is also consistently fascinating to the last page.
The opening chapters include accounts by Natives from different regions of the state who share family and personal histories that shed light on the complex interactions they have had with Russians and Americans. In many of these interviews, Native elders tell of childhoods spent learning the ways of living on and from the land. They also provide glimpses at daily life in the newly established villages Natives were moved into early in the 20th century. Weaving throughout these accounts are recurring themes of cultural survival, finding ways to interact on Native terms with modern civilization, struggles with social problems and substance abuse, and the central role of faith.
A lengthy chapter focuses on Tanacross Natives of the Upper Tanana Valley region. It’s an illuminating history of their experiences and relationships with European immigrants — including early traders, missionaries, and government officials — and of the tug-of-war that gradually developed over control of traditionally Native lands. It was a period during which a nomadic people went from subsisting on millions of acres to being settled in villages. The names of many people and places familiar to Interior residents appear in this section, offering more recent arrivals a strong sense of what occurred here during the past century.
Unangax elder Alice Petrivelli tells of being evacuated from her childhood home in the Aleutians during World War Two and placed in a Southeast Alaska internment camp without food or potable water by a disorganized and largely indifferent government.
We also meet Tlingit elder Ada Haskin of Skagway, who grew up on the Canadian side of the border. At age 6 she was badly mauled by a dog team and spent five months in the hospital. At the time all Native patients were warehoused in a single room regardless of their medical condition. Upon her release Haskin was barred from attending the white school in Carcross. She was sent to the mission boarding school for Native children where the minister in charge was molesting girls. She reported this to her father who wrote an angry letter to the government. His efforts led not to the minister’s removal, but instead to her expulsion and the end of her formal education.
These are stories that need to heard.
Much of the book is taken up with the fight for land rights that culminated in the 1971 passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA).
Tlingit leader Richard Stitt explains how the course chosen by the Alaska Native Brotherhood of pursuing rights and land claims through congress and court challenges probably prevented a violent confrontation. Unmentioned is that in the long run it also probably gained more for Natives than direct action would have.
In a chapter that reads like a legal thriller, Emil Notti tells the story of how he pushed for the establishment of the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN). Starting with nine dollars and a handful of activists, they quickly gathered into a force that moved the halls of congress.
Ferguson reprints an interview between Bill Byler, who headed the East Coast-based Association of American Indian Affairs during the early seventies, and former AFN vice president Don Mitchell. It gives readers an inside account of the political maneuverings that led to passage of ANCSA and is filled with the intrigue, unexpected twists, and ultimate triumphs of a good novel.
A variety of opinions on the Native corporations that were mandated by ANCSA are found here. Alutiiq fisherman Bruce Robertson discusses the shortcomings of corporations for Native lifestyles, while Tanana Chiefs Conference (TCC) president Jerry Isaac insists that Native interests can only be extended by working with the wider capitalist economy. Meanwhile Al Ketzler, who organized the revival of the TCC in the sixties, was initially leery of the corporate structure but eventually came to terms with it. Notti worries that the exemption of Native corporations from oversight by the Securities and Exchange Commission leaves them open to self-indulgence and abuse.
A patient and attentive listener, Ferguson remains largely in the background, for the most part only stepping in with occasional clarifying details. If she has any bias at all, it is toward including as many viewpoints as possible. This is a tapestry of many voices, including a number of the people who are no longer with us, making Ferguson’s hard work all the more important. Along with the stories come hundreds of photographs, many of them historic and never seen in print before.
The inclusion of so many personal accounts makes this book a major addition to our understanding of Native concerns. Its value is perhaps best summarized by Gwich’in Chief David Salmon, who reminds us that “life is in the old chiefs’ words. Listen awhile; then, let the young take over.”
Freelance writer David A. James lives in Fairbanks.