November 30, 2015

The Activist Work of Amy Hallingstad: "Taking our land from us means driving us off the face of the earth"

 Petersburg, Alaska. ASL-P258-III-67-687
On December 19, 1947, two years after the passage of the Alaska Anti-Discrimination Act, a Tlingit resident of Petersburg, Alaska Amy Hallingstad wrote a letter to the National Congress of American Indians, then a newly founded Native rights organization. Though beginning with an ironic opening line, her correspondence progressed to concerned the fierce racial oppression Native people in her village faced on a seemingly day to day basis. The Anti-Discrimination Act was to allow Native people to live in Alaska with access to public spaces and to conduct themselves without the fear of prejudice from non-Native residents. Her letter begins as follows,

         Dear Mrs. Bronson:

       Here in the land of Santa Claus, Christmas will bring little cheer to our children this year.
       We natives, 35,000 Eskimos, Indians and Aleuts, are half of Alaska's permanent population,
       and we must watch our children die of diseases that come from cold and lack of food. Our
       homes and lands, our fisheries and trees, our trap· lines and reindeer, everything we possess
       is being seized or threatened by unscrupulous white men, who tell us that what they
       are doing to us has been approved in Washington.
       All of the promises that have come to us from Washington are now broken.

President of the Alaska Native Sisterhood, Amy Hallingstate happen to be the first Native student to enroll at the Peterburg school as a child, and as an adult, when writing the letter, she grappled to understand why "Eskimos, Indians, and Aleuts," would be having their property forcibly taken by white men, regardless of the territory's laws against such behavior. As national citizens in the Alaska Territory, Native people in villages and towns, many of their own making, were having non-Native residents vandalize and assault them with impunity. Her list of such abuses includes livestock, trees, and entire fisheries that non-Native people had taken from them. After highlighting the illegal and horrifying aggressions perpatrated upon the Native community in Petersburg, her letter then lends treatment to the legal agreements forge between Native communities and the federal government that vowed the Native land rights and other associative hunting and fishing agreements.

       Presidents and Secretaries of the Interior have promised us the last time was in June, 1946
       —that the boundaries of all our lands would be marked out clearly so that no trespasser  
       would take the fish and game and furs that we need to keep our children warm and well fed
       throughout the long Alaskan winters. Now Secretary Krug, who is supposed to be our
       guardian, refuses to let this promise be kept. Petitions on his desk from many native villages
       are still unanswered. Secretary Krug himself promised us, on the 9th day of last December, 
       that he would have such boundary line drawn immediately, beginning with the 
       lands of Klukwan. That promise, too, stands broken. Our friends in the Indian Bureau
       have made many efforts to hold such hearings. Always Secretary Krug has stopped them.

Drawing the connection to land and environmental resources with the wellbeing of Native children, Hallingstad illuminates the importance of subsistence life-ways for Native people. For her, the government breaking an agreement that demarcated established boundaries to traditional areas, as well as access for hunting and fishing, held dire consequence on the village's most vulnerable. The federal government has not responded, even though villages residents had organized petitions demanding answers and solutions to such problems. In pointing out Krug's alleged unwillingness to work in concert with prior accords with Native people, Hallingstad sites an example from the arctic region of the territory.

       We were promised by Secretary Krug on the same day, that our farthest north Eskimo town,
       Barrow, on the Arctic Ocean, would be allowed a town reserve to include its whaling grounds
       and the places where its men dig the coal to keep warm with through the long Arctic night.
       That promise, too, stands broken. We were promised by President Roosevelt, President
       Hoover, President Coolidge, President Wilson, and even by presidents before their
       days, that our possessions would always be protected.

Point Barrow, Alaska, 1899-1908. Reverend Samuel Spriggs. Photographs. ASL-PCA-320
In Barrow, she cites, how Native people's access to traditional whaling grounds had been denied, leaving them without a way to sustain themselves for the winter season. Moving from how the government failed to keep up its legal agreements with Natives, she discusses how not only are people being denied entry into places they have always gone (and possess federal rights to be there), but that they are being arrested for the very same actions the government allows corporations. The letter reads,

      Now the men in Washington who are supposed to be our protectors say that big corporations 
      can take our trees, our minerals and all our lands without asking our permission or paying us. 
      One of our Eskimo boys was arrested and thrown into jail when he tried to mine jade on the 
      lands that belong to his own people. One of our Indian men was arrested when he tried to fish 
      in the fishing grounds that always belonged to the people of his house. Now the Agriculture 
      Department men threaten to arrest us if we cut down our own trees. We are wondering if 
      they expect us to live on snow and to keep warm in the winter by burning ice.

       Now a bill has just been introduced in Congress by the heads of the Indian Affairs
       Committees, who are supposed to protect us, that would take away our reservations,
       which are our homes and our Promised Land. Where can we go then? We are not like
       white men who are always moving. Most of our homes and villages have been right
       where they are now for many hundreds of generations. We know this is true because
       animals that have not roamed on earth for thousands of years are sometimes found
       in the dump heaps of our villages. Taking our land from us means driving us off the
       face of the earth. When we were under the Russian Czars they said that nobody should
       take our possessions without our consent. When they sold Alaska they did not consult us,
       but they asked the United States to promise that our land rights would be respected. That
       promise is set out in the Treaty, but it is no longer observed.

Columbia Lumber Company sawmill at Whittier, May 7, 1947. ASL-P207-31-29 
She insists that the laws in practice previous to the coming of the United States to Alaska, of which the nation agreed to honor, had been violated, even though Native communities have done there best to abide the newcomers. "We have gone to schools and learned how to operate sawmills and canneries in the most modern way," she wrote but, "Now that we are attempting to do this with our own resources, everything is taken from us, and we are thrown into jail." So while Natives attempt to adapt to the new regulations, the government and business are not living up to their side of the bargain struck with Natives. For Hallingstad, this breach is dispossessing entire communities to such a degree she asks, "Why? Why are we suddenly to be made what you call 'displaced persons?'" The laws, for her, are removing Native people from an environment that is used to construct the very cultures they possess. This leads her to ask,

       Is it because our skins are not as light as yours? But the Declaration of Independence
       you brought us says that all men are created equal. Your constitution promises that the
       property rights of all men-not just white men-shall be safeguarded. And the Bible that
       you brought us and translated into our native tongues says that we are all brothers
       and children of God. It does not say that it is all right for white men to rob from men
       of copper skin.

Referencing both the nation's Declaration of Independence and the Bible, she pushes to understand why the government, and its actors, would allow such treatment to Native people. "Is this done to us on the ground that we are not citizens," she asks, "But your Congress passed a law in 1924 making us all citizens, and that law is still alive." While the Indian Citizenship Act made Native people throughout the nation's states and landholdings citizens she insists there might be a piebald organization to US citizenship. In closing her letter, she returns to referencing the Christmas season , writing,

      You have asked us not to lose faith in the American people, but to tell our story to
      those who will listen. And so we are asking Santa Claus, when he rides through
      Alaska this year, on his way south to gather the cries of our children and to take them with
      his sleigh bells to the hearts of men and women in the States who will dare to raise their
      voices in our behalf and to insist that their public servants in Washington shall not enrich
      their friends by giving away our trees, our fisheries, our traplines, our lands, and our homes.

                                                                                     Amy Hallingstad



Petersburg Listening Project: The Legacy of Amy Hallingstad"Alaska Native Sisterhood Human Rights Leader Amy Hallingstad – A Glimpse to 1947"

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