How the Alaska Native Brotherhood Changed Alaska History

The book was published by the University of Alaska Press in November and is widely available. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)
The book was published by the University of Alaska Press in November and is widely available. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

In “A Dangerous Idea,” author Peter Metcalfe explores the crucial role the Alaska Native Brotherhood played in securing Native rights and land claims before, during and after statehood. The recently published book explores an often overlooked chapter in Alaska’s story. Metcalfe suggests, without the ANB, the Alaska of today would be a very different place.

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When the Alaska Native Brotherhood formed in 1912, Alaska Natives were not U.S. citizens, couldn’t own title to land and couldn’t send their children to local schools. The aim of the group was citizenship and equality.

Peter Metcalfe says ANB was starting to make progress in the 1920s.

“They had won rights for education, voting rights, but what is consistent throughout the history of the Alaska Native Brotherhood is their demand that they be equals with the white establishment, that they have what we now call civil rights and that wasn’t even a term at that time,” Metcalfe says.

Two important leaders of the ANB in the 1920s were Peter Simpson and William Paul. Cultural expert and storyteller Ishmael Hope recounts an exchange they had during the 1925 ANB convention. Hope says Simpson “went up to William Paul who was one of the very prominent young leaders of the time and he just quietly said to him, ‘Hey Willy, who owns this land?’ And there was a little bit of a pause as William Paul thought of it and then he said, ‘Well, we do.’ ‘Then fight for it!’”

By the 1929 ANB/ANS Grand Camp convention in Haines, Paul was grand president. Metcalfe says Paul invited James Wickersham, who had served as a district judge and Alaska’s delegate to Congress.

“Judge Wickersham made a presentation to this convention in which he told the assembled delegates of the Alaska Native Brotherhood and the Alaska Native Sisterhood that they could sue the U.S. government,” Metcalfe says.

During his time in D.C., Wickersham had seen Congress pass different jurisdictional acts allowing various Native American groups to sue the government over lost lands and rights. ANB and ANS voted to do just that.

Kathy Ruddy helped Metcalfe with research for the book. She says that moment in history was the genesis of the book’s title.

“The dangerous idea is suing your own government when you’ve only been citizens for five years. Citizenship was extended to the Native people in 1924 and this is just five years after that,” Ruddy says.

Metcalfe says it was a landmark decision. At the time, the white establishment was just getting used to the idea of Native Alaskans as citizens. Racial discrimination was entrenched in society.

In the early 1930s, ANB began fighting for aboriginal land claims in D.C.

Metcalfe says members of the ANB set aside traditional ways in order to achieve their goals. Leaders spoke English and adapted to Western ways of dress and social activities.

But Hope says, despite what they wore at the time, leaders of the ANB, like his grandfather John Hope, retained their Native culture, which helped them in their fight.

“My grandpa talked about how we used parliamentary procedure, we used the English language as a tool, but not a means of identity,” Hope says. “Many of the ANB founders, you look at them and you think, the stereotype is that they’re assimilated Indians, but you actually look into the history and you see deeply retained cultural knowledge, cultural experiences.”

Hope’s father, Andrew Hope III, was the impetus for “A Dangerous Idea.” It was his idea to apply for a grant through the Alaska Humanities Forum, which funded the research. Hope passed away shortly after the grant was awarded in 2008.

One important case stemming from that 1929 decision – Tlingit and Haida Indians of Alaska v. United States – took about 40 years to resolve. In 1968, a federal court held that the land was owned by Native people from time immemorial.

Metcalfe says without the ANB and the ANS, there wouldn’t have been an Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, an Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980, or the Alaska of today.