• Historian talks about push-pull politics to create better civil legislation
By Naomi Klouda
Whenever politicians face a choice between Alaska Native environmental rights and an economic project, the economic development triumphs.
Historian Steven Haycox, speaking in Homer Monday on Martin Luther King Day at the Kachemak Bay Campus, came to the crux of this dilemma that runs a common thread throughout the history of Alaska.
Haycox’s talk was on “Civil Rights in Alaska: The Historical Perspective and the Popular Perception.” The American cultural historian at the University of Alaska Anchorage specializes in the relationship of Alaska to the history of the American west. He has widely published books on Alaska Native history: Frigid Embrace: Politics, Economics and Environment in Alaska, and Alaska: An American Colony. He is the recipient of an Alaska Governor’s Humanities Award (2003), and the University of Alaska Edith R. Bullock Prize for Excellence (2002), and was named Alaskan Historian of the Year (Alaska Historical Society) in 2003.
In what Haycox calls the “Alaska Beggar’s Bills,” for example, the Alaska Legislature is trying to get producers interested in building and supplying a natural gas pipeline from the North Slope. Gov. Sean Parnell is trying to induce oil companies to fill the Trans Alaska Pipeline through tax incentives.
“In attempting to get Alaska’s Clear and Equitable Share (ACES) changed, they are begging for these resource developments,” Haycox said. “The entire Alaska economy is dependent on resource development…The problem is that Alaska is the most dependent economy in the United States:”
Plenty of historical examples abound on the intersect of civil rights and development pushes, even among historical figures who featured prominently in both sides of the fight. Gov. Ernest Gruening supported the 1943 introduction of civil rights legislation to prohibit discriminating against Alaska Natives. He backed efforts by William Paul, a Tlingit elected to the Alaska Territorial Legislature in 1924 and 1926. He sympathized with the young theatre usher in Nome who wouldn’t back down in the segregated theatre. Instead, she sit where she wished: in the front row and was prosecuted for it. And he championed efforts by Elizabeth Peratrovich and the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood advocating for an end to discrimination practices.
The bill was passed in 1945, giving Territorial Alaska one of the first civil rights legislation in the country.
Yet, when it came to a 1947 act opening logging in the Tongass National Forest, a place claimed under Tlingit and Haida possession, Gruening wanted to see the pulp mills built. A provision to grant 10 percent profits in a promissory note to the Southeast Natives was stripped from a Congressional bill, largely due to Gruening’s efforts.
“Gruening was only doing what any governor of a resource-based economy where any economic development is viewed as necessary would do, opposing anything that might inhibit economic development,” Haycox said. “He certainly supported Native rights, but not at the expense of economic development.”
After winning the rise of two pulp mills in Ketchikan, Gruening confessed relief that “Alaska had dodged bullet” by avoiding taking up Native land claim rights.
Since the Alaska choice tips in favor of economic developments, Haycox said he doesn’t believe the giant Pebble Mine project can be stopped. Revenue contributions of the massive gold, copper and molybdenum mine will be seen as taken precedence over Den’ina and Yup’ik environmental rights in the Bristol Bay region, he predicts.
Yet, Alaska has seen progress beyond the rest of the United States when it came to civil rights. For the civil rights legislation to have passed prior to U.S. landmark action in Board of Education vs Brown, in 1953, enough Alaskan legislators had to be convinced of the humanity in creating changes.
Once passed in 1945, Alaska became one of the most progressive places in the United States, along with New York State which also passed its landmark civil rights legislation the same year, on the heels of World War II. Haycox, when asked by audience member Pam Brodie, credited the Holocaust as raising consciousness about extreme persecutions of non-Caucasian races. This set the stage for consciousness raising in Alaska and New York.
As a symbol, Elizabeth Peratrovich is now synonymous with Alaska Civil Rights. “But lost in the symbol is the complexity that is human reality in any situation,” Haycox said. Gruening later said he was most motivated by teenaged Alberta Schenck’s 1944 letter from Nome describing segregated seating in the theater.
“Many other people worked to pass the 1945 measure, including, of course, a number of the people who voted for it. The point here is that Elizabeth Peratrovich did not act alone, and more salient, she probably was not the most important actor in bringing the anti-discrimination act into reality.”
It was also limited legislation: “all citizens within the jurisdiction of the Territory of Alaska shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of accommodations, advantages, facilities and privileges of public inns, restaurants, eating houses, hotels, soda fountains, soft drink parlors, taverns, roadhouses, barber shops, beauty parlors, bathrooms, resthouses, theaters, skating rinks, cafes, ice cream parlors, transportation companies…”
Any person deemed guilty of a discrimination misdemeanor conviction would be punished by imprisonment in jail for not more than thirty days or fined no more than $250, or both.
Haycox said he hasn’t seen a case of anyone prosecuted for the crime in years after the act’s passage. It would make a good research project for modern students to look for any examples of enforcement, which likely wasn’t broad enough to show up in any known text books.
“The anti-discrimination act may well be more important, more useful, today as a symbol of what Alaskans think their culture should be than it was in its own time,” Haycox concluded. “The creation, the function, of historical symbols is to manifest a contemporary view of culture, a notion of what a people think they should be.”
He takes heart that other Alaskans later did likewise in the Alaska Native Claims settlement. “Let me say in closing that I hope we all still have the courage to act similarly,” Haycox said.
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