The Inspiration and
Strength of William L. Paul, Sr. and the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act
By Alyssa London
Last June, I attended the Latseen Leadership Training sponsored by the Sealaska Heritage Institute. Latseen is a Tlingit word that means “strength.” The camp, held in Juneau, Alaska, focused on strengthening Native youth leaders in order to preserve Tlingit culture. I participated in several sacred practices that I had never experienced before, including skinning and honoring a seal and creating a salve from devil’s club and other natural ingredients we harvested. Latseen gave me a greater understanding of who I am and a greater sense of belonging within my Native community. I more fully appreciate the unique position I am in as a Native youth leader who will attend Stanford University next fall. Stanford has a strong Native community where I can maintain ties to my culture, promote awareness of the beauty of Native heritage, and gain the skills necessary to help further the interests of Tlingit people.
As I prepare for college and my career, William L. Paul Sr. (1885 – 1977) is someone I look to for inspiration and strength. Paul was a Tlingit civil rights leader who sought higher education and positioned himself to create positive change for his people. Paul is often referred to as the “Father” of the Alaska Native land claims movement. His work impacted the lives of all Alaska Natives and laid the groundwork for the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 (ANCSA). Paul was committed to contributing to his Native community and to preserving Native culture and values. I am working to do the same.
William Paul was at the heart of the Alaska Native land claims struggle. Paul and other leaders hoped to get back from the federal government what was owed to Alaska Natives and to attain the equal rights they deserved. Paul successfully advocated for Native civil rights and his quest for equality brought justice to Native people. He strongly believed that justice and equality would be won through legal action. Therefore, Paul became educated and put himself in the position to create monumental change. Paul was the first Alaska Native lawyer, the first Native elected to the Alaska territorial legislature and a forceful advocate for Native rights. He brought cases that established Native voting rights and desegregated public schools. Paul’s positions of leadership in the Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB) and the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN), and his work on Tee-Hit-Ton Indians v. United States, 348 U.S. 272 (1955), paved the way for ANCSA.
William Paul understood that educating oneself and using the support of others gives a person the utmost power to create change. In the 1930’s Paul spent time in Washington, D.C. where he met and collaborated with Alaska’s delegates to Congress and other federal officials. He was prompted by an ANB resolution seeking Congress’ approval for the Tlingit and Haida people to pursue their aboriginal claims to lands taken to create the Tongass National Forest. His time in D.C. was invaluable to the process of amending the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 so that it could be applied to Alaska. It also gave Paul the opportunity to collaborate with others and prepare revisions to the Tlingit and Haida Jurisdictional Act of 1935, which authorized the Tlingit and Haida people to pursue their lands claims in the U.S. Court of Claims.
In Tee-Hit-Ton, Paul (a Teeyhittaan clan member from Wrangell) sought compensation for the timber and tribal lands taken by Congress to create the Tongass National Forest and for authorizing pulp mills and timber leases on their lands. Both the Court of Claims and the Supreme Court ruled against the Teehittaans. The Supreme Court found that Congress had not extinguished the Teehittaans’ aboriginal title through the actions it had taken. The Court’s opinion left the door open to the notion that Congress could later recognize the aboriginal title of the Teeyhittaans, and thus all Alaska Natives to their lands. This notion, paired with the provisions of the Tlingit and Haida Jurisdictional Act, became the basis of Native land claims cases, and ultimately, ANCSA.
William Paul continued to play a role as a resource and mentor to those who worked on the passage of ANCSA. He is credited with providing the legal and other knowledge needed to fashion the legislation and with proposing the establishment of regional Native corporations. Under ANCSA, Alaska Native corporations received $1 billion and 44 million acres as compensation for the extinguishment of aboriginal title to their remaining lands. The regional and village corporations have provided their shareholders with dividends, scholarships and employment opportunities and are stewards for the Native lands they hold.
As an enrolled member of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska (I am of the Eagle moiety and Killer Whale clan from Angoon, Alaska; my Tlingit name is Yax yeidi) and as a shareholder of Sealaska Corporation, I take great pride in being a part of the legacy that Paul and others worked so hard, and struggled so long to win for their people, after experiencing devastating injustice. Over the years, I have traveled with my dad, a Sealaska director (and a federal prosecutor and tribal liaison), for meetings with shareholders. I have learned a lot about the affairs of the corporation, how difficult life is in the Native villages, and how important Sealaska is in providing economic, cultural and social benefits to its shareholders. My Latseen experience, and my exposure to Sealaska and the legal profession, have me dreaming of one day becoming a business lawyer and working for the benefit of Sealaska or another Native organization.
William Paul is an example of how education, commitment to one’s community and hard work can bring about change. Like William Paul, I believe strongly that we all have an obligation to give something back and make positive contributions to our Native communities. One of the ways that I give back is through my active participation in the Eastside Native American Education Program. Last November, we held our first annual Pow wow honoring U.S. military veterans. I cannot stress enough how important and meaningful it was to help put on this Pow wow in our urban community. We spent a year planning this student run celebration. It was well received by those who attended and was the subject of a Seattle Times article and editorial applauding our efforts. Through the Pow wow and other activities, we help raise awareness of Native culture, while strengthening our own cultural roots.
I am passionate about my culture and preserving what is important to Tlingit people. I am active in the Washington state chapter of Tlingit and Haida and have volunteered at our Elizabeth Peratrovich Day Celebration and our Culture Fair. Still, Latseen remains my most enriching, memorable and unique experience. It immersed me in Tlingit culture and language. By engaging in traditional activities, I gained a greater appreciation for my Tlingit heritage. As young Tlingit woman, I will continue to look to my ancestors including William L. Paul Sr. for strength and inspiration. Thank you. Gunalcheesh.
Haycox, Stephen (Nov. 2003) Then Fight for it, University of Alaska Anchorage http://www.law.uvic.ca/calder/Papers/Haycox.pdf.
Haycox, Stephen (1994) Biography of William Lewis Paul in: Haa Kusteeyí, Our Culture: Tlingit Life Stories, ed. by Nora Marks Dauenhauer and Richard Dauenhauer, pp. 503-524. (Classics of Tlingit Oral Literature, vol. 3.) Seattle: University of Washington Press.