The National Archives at Anchorage

Protecting Alaska's Native Population-With Federal Records

by Thomas E. Wiltsey
Published in The Record, 1995

Standing next to an abandoned woodframe house near Northeast Point, with the wind moaning and the waves thundering against the rocky shore, knowing that there is nothing beyond except the polar ice cap, one is nearly overwhelmed by the enormity and rawness of Nature. Nothing grows higher than the tough tundra grass, undulating in the wind like a thick green sea. At its most benevolent, the environment is forbidding. It is almost impossible to imagine human endeavor, let alone pervasive government activity, in such a place. Yet paradoxically, here in this most marginal of habitable land, Federal agents not only found something to keep themselves busy but controlled perhaps the most tightlymanaged, longest-running government program in the history of the Republic.

These wind swept specks of land are the Pribilof Islands, isolated in the vastness of the Bering Sea, linked only in heritage to the Aleutian Islands to the south. It was here that the real joke behind SSeward's Follyw existed, for these five tiny islands are the summer breeding grounds of the northern fur seal. In 1887, harvesting the seals' hides was a proven commercial venture of fabulous value. Long before the salmon industry or the gold rush or the pipeline, Seward knew that the United States government would acquire a mother-lode with the purchase of Alaska.

The background of the Pribilof sealing industry is complex in the Russian era, more complex in the American. It can be briefly highlighted, however. From their earliest intrusion into Alaska, Russian interests lay almost exclusively in furs. Russian traders concentrated on the Aleutian archipelago, using the indigenous people as hunter-processors. As local fur animals, particularly the sea otter, were pursued almost to extinction, the Russians searched for the mysterious northern lands to which the fur seals returned each summer. Watching these migration patterns, they well knew that the richest hunting grounds still eluded them in the mists and icy waters of the Bering Sea. After years of searching, Gerasim Pribilof, a navigator for Lebedev-Lastochin (sort of a Russian Hudson's Bay Company) discovered the islands in 1786. The islands being uninhabited, the Russians enslaved Native hunters from the Aleutians to create an instant workforce. Over the years, women came to the islands, &milies developed, and small Aleut-Russian communities grew on the two largest islands of St. Paul and St. George.

With the purchase of Alaska in 1867, the United States also inherited the sealing program. The Americans perpetuated the system, institutionalized it, and ran the program until the 1980's. In everything they did, the government created records.

Long ignored, long abused and left to deteriorate, the government's records now have a very contemporary utility in protecting the rights and interests of these American citizens. It is a classic example of the serendipitous value of historical records and how that value can evolve in ways the creators of the documents could never have foreseen.

For example, when the fisheries agents paid the native workgangs canteen wages, they unwittingly made the sealers employees of the Federal Government. Money paid to the sealing crews listed in these files are often the only surviving evidence to validate claims of Aleuts who are seeking pensions under the 1883 Civil Service Act.

In a typical case, an abstract of native earnings on St. Paul for wPeter B." shows that he labored on the 1939 sealing harvest and, among other duties, prepared 850 sealskins for shipment, earning a total of S1,039.54 from April 1938 to March 1939. This amount isn't much for a year's brutal physical labor but it qualified Peter for a government pension five decades later. Since the establishment of the National Archives' Alaska Region, a rising number of Pribilovians like Peter have used our records to document their servitude for benefits and rights that most citizens take for granted.

As wards of the Federal Government, the islanders received housing, health care, education and other services. They were paid for working on the seal harvest and little else. Mixed in with the records on individuals is correspondence about the annual seal harvest, daily kill records, tallies of skins shipped and of meat and oil by-products, letters from off-islanders asking (and usually being denied) permissions to land, scientific studies and wide-ranging comments and observations made by the fisheries agents. Some of the most poignant records relate to the 1942 evacuation of the islanders to abandoned canneries in Southeast Alaska.

But even this tragic occurrence, and its aftermath, generated records that assumed very valuable contemporary use. For example, most people today know about the compensation for Japanese-Americans interned during World War II. Far fewer know that the survivors of the Aleut relocation and their descendants used Federal records to win inclusion in that legislation. Based on the evidence in archival records, the law awarded each survivor or heir $12,000 compensation.

While the unique history of the Pribilofs' peculiar institution provides spectacular examples of how one small ethnic group can use archival sources to protect their rights, Alaska's Native community at large is learning to use the Region's holdings in similar practical ways.

One of the Alaska Region's most active series of records is the student folders for Mt. Edgecumbe, the Bureau of Indian Affair's largest and most diverse school. Located in Sitka, Mt. Edgecumbe attracted boarding students from virtually every village in Alaska. Operated by the BIA until 1986, Mt. Edgecumbe's student folders are much more than dry academic interest. Not a week passes without the Region receiving a request for a transcript for such varying reasons as employment with UPS, application to Stanford University, or for entry to truck driving school in Casper, Wyoming. Even as this is being written, there is an elderly native in the research room hoping to satisfy his employer's demand for proof that he is a high school graduate.

Just as vital are the records created by the BIA known as the village census rolls." From 1912 to 1972, the Bureau periodically took a census of some 328 native villages throughout Alaska. Compiled by the Bureau's teachers, physicians, nurses or other agents, the census enumerates the head of household, people living therein and their relationship to the head, and some personal information such as place and date of birth, percentage of native blood, education, and other matters. The census forms also often contain observations about housing, source of income, and family conditions.

In many cases, the village census rolls are the only extant documentation of when an older native was born, what his familial relations were, or what percentage blood he has of Alaska's three distinct native groups. Fascinating for anthropologists and other researchers, these records have more than passing value to the people they concern. For example, the daughter of an elderly man in Chignik Lake, a tiny village where the Aleutian Chain meets the Alaska Peninsula, contacted us as a last hope. She was dying of cancer. Her father had no personal records to prove his eligibility for government medical assistance. A very old Native in a tiny hamlet near the Aleutians, not even on the coast-why would he have personal records? Where would he have gotten them? But the BIA included the village in its census-taking and Regional staff found his listing, provided certified copies and the man gained his rightful benefits.

These examples are repeated and extended as Alaska's Native community discovers the rich holdings of the Alaska Region. And they are not the only ways in which these citizens are learning to use the records to establish and protect their rights and interests. Bureau of Land Management records are of as much practical use as those of the BIA. Townsite Trustee records provide evidence of native land rights-to establish historic rights of way and as a basis for nonrestrictive native deeds." Records resulting from the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act protect traditional-use sites and Native land claims. City managers of predominantly native communities, like the heavily Inupiat Barrow, use the records to establish village and personal land titles. Old, mundane material like the Navy files (RG 181) gain new importance by documenting environmental hazards and potential relationships to native community health issues.

In myriad ways, the Alaska Region is providing rich information on various issues. Land claims? The state is still selecting portions of the public domain as provided under the statehood act, working around those lands documented as being traditional-use sites. Native affairs? Native-government relations remain powerful and pervasive and records that have matured into mainly historical interest in other regions are of practical day-to-day value here. The records of many agencies document the impact of the Exxon Valdez oil spill; provide compensation for fishermen many of whom are native; establish a wealth of archaeological evidence of early occupation; and will provide a documentary record of all these things far into the future. Based on information in the records, the Coast Guard cleans up its two Aleutian lighthouses; National Marine Fisheries restores the fragile environment around its old facilities on the Pribilofs; the Corps of Engineers removes nuclear waste discovered near a native village on the Bering Sea.

The Alaska Region is reaching a range of people who had never heard of the National Archives, had no awareness of how the information in its holdings could ameliorate the conditions of their lives, and who daily are learning that the government's records document and protect their rights and interests, too.

And the native in our research room hoping to show his employer that he's a graduate of Mt. Edgecumbe? He is and can prove it.

Tom Wiltsey is Director, National Archives-Alaska Region

Top of Page

NARA's Anchorage Facility Main Page


The National Archives at Anchorage >

The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
1-86-NARA-NARA or 1-866-272-6272