The Presbyterians and the Fight For Native Land Claims
The Presbyterian Church can take great pride in the development of Native leadership through its emphasis on public education and training for the ministry. We can, and should, stand in awe of the impact such leaders have had on the development of the territory and state of Alaska.
March 14, 1969 -- a resolution on Native Land Claims presented by Miss Alice Green and adopted as follows:
"Be it resolved that the Presbytery urge its members to become informed concerning the problems of Native Land Claims; that we urge our constituents to seek an early and just settlement of these claims. We would call attention of our non-Native constituents of the organization SOS, Supporter of Settlement.... We recommend to our churches on the North Slope and St. Lawrence Island to study the Land Claims issue so they can become informed, active citizens."
September 19, 1969: Miss Alice Green introduced Mr. Showalter Smith who spoke to Presbytery concerning the Alaska Native Land Claims. General Assembly had also taken action.
November 22, 1969 -- Presbytery votes to seek funds for the Alaska Federation of Natives from the Fund for Freedom in the amount of $10,000. The recommendation of the Presbytery’s Mission Strategy and Evangelism Committee was adopted to request that the United Presbyterian Church, USA, be co-signers of a loan of $250,000 to the Alaska Federation of Natives for publicity.
We begin the story with a Tlingit preacher-lawyer.
William Lewis Paul
William Lewis Paul received a Doctor of Law degree from Whitworth College, Spokane, WA, in February of 1992. Whitworth, of course, is a Presbyterian school. Two years earlier, Paul, a Native of Ketchikan and alumnus of the school (1902), had provided some autobiographical comments for the school newspaper.
Following graduation from Whitworth, Paul attended San Francisco Theological Seminary and later became an attorney and member of Alaska’s Territorial Legislature. An elder in the Ketchikan Presbyterian Church, he was a major force in securing various rights for Alaskan Natives and was one of the first, on behalf of his people, to push for title to, and/or compensation for, lands traditionally owned by Alaska’s Natives.
An elder need not be modest. In his autobiography, Paul wrote:
I will be 85 years old on May 7, 1970. When my epitaph is written, it will include the following: "The glamour of it is that I wrote and introduced the bill adopting the state flag of Alaska in language so beautiful that Marie Drake put it in poetic form."
However, the work that had a direct impact on people follows:
1. I integrated the public schools of Alaska;
2. through me the Natives got their voting rights recognized;
3. also got the discriminating words in public assistance laws removed;
4. got the first appropriation for direct relief of destitution of Indians from Congress;
5. promoted the advent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to get its medical department to stop infant mortality;
6. successfully lobbied extension of the Indian Reorganization Act, bringing over $20 million to Indian groups;
7. I organized the legislative fight for "equal rights" in public service corporations, thus ending segregation in restaurants, theaters, transportation and schools;
8. I made the "Alaska Native Brotherhood" a powerful political organization through which many beneficial laws were enacted by candidates supported by Indians;
9. I got Federal appropriations for schools in Angoon, Hoonah, Ketchikan, Yakutat and Wrangell Institute
10. I procured voting precincts for several Indian villages, including Metlakatla, Klawock, Hydaburg and Saxman.
... We, the people from whom I sprung, speak the Tlingit language (here I include those who speak the Haida languages, owned all of the southeast coast from Yakutat Bay to Cape Fox and from the Canadian boundary to the Pacific Ocean, by "use and occupation" otherwise known as "Tlingit Indian Title But the advent of the "whites" of all classes told us that we owned nothing because the United States bought Alaska from Russia and so gradually our ownership dwindled and we accepted it, which is the worst thing we could have done.
“The Land is Yours, Fight for It…”
But along came a man who had been driven from his ancestral land in British Columbia in 1887 along with a group of people who spoke the Tsimshian language, but whose culture was like ours. His loss of land burned within him and being forbidden by our naturalization laws to become a citizen of the United States, he felt inhibited about inciting us to resist the encroachment of the Caucasians, and so in 1925, after I had been admitted to practice law in Alaska, he spoke to me and said, in part, "The land is yours. Why don't you fight for it?"
That started me to examine the precedents dealing with aboriginal land rights....
It took me four years to persuade my people to endorse my idea to sue the government for compensation for the land taken from us, but at the ANB convention at Haines, Alaska, the people sponsored such a suit. Judge James Wickersham wrote the bill but I marked out the operandi, viz., that the judgment fund should be distributed per capita at once and thus defeat or avoid the usual custodian process of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. After 1929, Judge Wickersham disconnected himself from the case because he became a candidate for Congress. In the campaign that followed, the Democratic candidate, a lawyer too, charged us with practicing a fraud upon the Indians, alleging there was no merit in our project.
He won the election, and I had the job of persuading him to introduce my bill. He did, and helped greatly in promoting it. The bill was enacted and signed on June 19, 1935; but not before the BIA got in its licks, to wit, prohibiting per capita payments and requiring that our tribes make a roll of membership.
Because the current fight for legislative solution of the land rights of the "westward" Natives, whose proponents discouraged an action in trespass available to owners of land everywhere, I have to recite the fact that our struggle did not begin in 1935, as is so often alleged, but in 1955, although our complaint was filed on October 1, 1947. In 1955, the Court of Claims cited the current firm of attorneys to explain why this case had made no progress. The attorney made his apologies and promised to work. The judgment on liability was rendered favorably on October 7, 1959, so the "fight" actually only lasted a little over four years.
In January of 1968, the court gave us a judgment of $7.5 million dollars, totally inadequate but in keeping with the history of Federal-Indian land settlements, a token payment for our timber, easily worth $600 million.
Destined to be a Lawyer-Preacher
... As I look back over the years, here is the first clear evidence that God was pushing me into the path of what I now consider my life. I had all the evangelical qualities for preaching; and without knowing it, I was destined to be a lawyer-preacher to organize what many call my people. They didn't need another minister -- they needed a lawyer who could organize them and speak for them -- although, I was faced with the same problem our first missionaries had to face -- not knowing the language and having to use an interpreter.
One incident will illustrate what I mean. The first Protestant church in Alaska was started by Dr. A.L. Lindsley in Wrangell. He decided to visit this mission field and when he arrived there, he found the people had turned out en masse. Of course, he preached the sermon on the subject of predestination, a subject that was in vogue then. My father's aunt was his interpreter. Her name was Mrs. Sarah Dickinson, and she had learned her English from her trader husband. The next day the local pastor, Rev. S. Hall Young, asked her, "Sarah, did you understand that sermon?" To this she answered, "No, but I preached them a good sermon." (Rev. Young’s comeuppance!, editor’s note.)
Wins Indian Citizenship Case
... I won the citizenship case in 1922, when my mother was indicted by a grand jury for interpreting the challenge oath, while our tribal chief was indicted for voting. I paid all the expenses except $100 from the Sitka "Camp." This case is the one that assured the Indians' right to vote....
Files North Slope Land Claim
... When I became convinced that the Natives of Alaska owned their Indian title, I began to write letters to everybody and anybody who might inform these Natives. I remember writing to the Eskimos of Barrow in 1940, and happily in 1968, I got a letter from the people of Barrow asking me to be their attorney to protect their ownership of what is now the North Slope Oil Fields. I agreed, and even without a fee, I filed a "blanket claim" to all the land from the Canadian border west and north of the Brooks Range. The area, comprising 450,000 acres of land, is where leases were sold for $900 million.
No doubt oil would have been discovered without my filing those blanket claims, but I was the agent who prevented the oil companies from taking it "for free" and started the billion dollar North Slope oil fight.
It is interesting for Presbyterians to know that the center of the foregoing oil fight is in Barrow, better known as "Point Barrow," an outpost of our church and long serviced by the Sheldon Jackson School and Junior College.