August 29, 2016

Whiteness and the 1923 Southern Alaska Territorial Secession Plan

Map of Southeast Alaska, 1911
"In justice to the white residents of the First Judicial Division and in accordance with their wishes," the 1923 delegates of Southeastern Alaskan Territory, also known as the Alaska Panhandle, wrote amid a political convention that they supported the establishment of a colonial territory separate from that of Alaska. Southeast Alaska is located northwest of Seattle, Washington, USA, and Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Unique from the rest of the state of Alaska this region, due to its proximity to the contiguous part of the nation, possesses a culture  fastened to the Pacific Northwest. When the United States arrived amid the mid-nineteenth century and the international boundary disputes between the USA and Canada somewhat settled by the early twentieth century,  the politics of Southeastern Alaska dominated the political order because people could relocate from the states to there with more ease than other parts of Alaska. Given this aspect of US settlement, the region's Indigenous history and politics, and even it arts, emerged with characteristics distinct from the larger body of Native Alaska. Mentioned in earlier posts, Native people in the Southeast faced the wholesale theft of their material culture and cruel forms of displacement under the guise of the national forest proclamation. There was even a plan after World War II to create a settlement in Sitka for jewish survivors of the European Holocaust (fictionalized in Michael Chabon's 2007 novel The Yiddish Policemen's Union). In response the Native people of the region politically organized  forming the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood that made progress to achieving political rights for Native people in the US governance of Alaska. Yet their tremendous activism paled in the light of non-Native politicos  who created policies and instituted laws to strip Native people of their land and stop them from practicing their cultures.

The 1923 initiative to create the Southeast as a political territory autonoumous from the then Alaska Territory based on claims that white people composed the majority of the region's denizen proves a fascinating part of the region's history. For throughout the United States policies and laws have been constructed based on how it served to make and strengthen "whiteness" as a social category and this movement to form the Territory of Southeast Alaska serves as a example of such a development. In the iconic article "The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: Raicalized Social Democracy and the Problem with "Whiteness" George Lipsitz contends that this practice proved to be an "investment" in creating and maintaining the fictive identity of whiteness, organized from European settlers in the Americas to possess an unified an identity. He writes as follows:

"From the start, European settlers in North America established structures encouraging possessive investment in whiteness.The colonial and early-national legal systems authorized attacks on Native Americans and encouraged the appropriation of their lands. They legitimated radicalized chattel slavery, restricted naturalized citizenship to "white" immigrants, and provided pretexts for exploiting labor, seizing property, and denying the franchise to Asian Americans, Mexican Americans, Native Americans,and African Americans. Slavery and "Jim Crow" segregation institutionalized possessive identifiertion with whiteness visibly and openly, but an elaborate interaction of largely covert public and private decisions during and after the days of slavery and segregation also produced a powerful legacy with enduring effects on the radicalization of experience, opportunities and rewards in the United States possessive investment in whiteness pervades public policy in the United States past and present-not just long ago during slavery and segregation but in the recent past and present as well-through the covert but no less systematic racism inscribed within U.S. social democracy."(371)

Juneau Delegate John Troy who signed the resolution. ASL-P523-11
Collection Name John Weir Troy Photograph Collection, ca. 1933-1939. 

As one can see that in territorial Alaska at the beginning of the twentieth century, the number of white residents became the main argument in 1923 when political actors proposed that Southeastern Alaska should become its own separate territory. Using numbers gathered from the 1920 cenus they made a claim that due to the number of white people living in the area that they were special should be proclaimed a separate territory from the greater Alaska Territory. Delegates of towns such as John Troy of Juneau and Henry Roden of Petersburg wrote that "Our white population is greater than that possessed by Arkansas, Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nevada, Utah, Dakota, or Washington when they were organized as Territories," and thus deserved to stand as its own political unit. For these politicians whiteness justified not only racicalized social segregation from Natives and other non-whites in daily southeastern life through Jim Crow laws but the racial construction served to them as a reason to be distinct from the rest of the Alaska colony. Unstated in their resolution is that Native and non-Native populations elsewhere in the colonial holding amounted to either a more even split or more Native in the hundreds of villages.

In the wording of the movement's "Memorial of the People of the First Judicial Division of Alaska" that they sent to the Congress and the president they write:

"An analysis of the foregoing and of the bulletins on Alaska issued by the Federal Departments and by the Governor and Territorial officials of Alaska shows:
(1) That Southeastern Alaska has a permanent population which has been steadily increasing for the past fifteen years and which is two-thirds white people;
(2) That the white population of the combined Second and Fourth Divisions has steadily decreased during the same period, until now comprises only 35 percent of their total population and is 35 percent less than the white population of the First divisions"

Supporter and Senate member, Henry Roden, First Alaska Territorial Legislature, 1913
Identifier ASL-P461-22
The proposal was denied yet its history enlightens us to how people used whiteness in their expression to govern parts of what is thought to be a social democracy. The southeastern part of the then Alaska Territory was valued to them more because of its relationship to white dominance and the political economy it created there. This is a great example of what Lipsitz asserts as the "possessive investment in whiteness" that "pervades public policy in the United States past." This example also shows me the atmosphere that gave rise to the sort of activism Tlingit, Haida, and coastal people engaged in at the time. (check previous posts on this) I think the legacies of such a "possessive investment in whiteness" continues to touch the Native lives and cultures of Southeastern Alaska.

Memorial of the People of the First Judicial Division of Alaska and Resolution. 1923.