Government to Ahtna in 1898: Assimilate or be removed

Published January 2017

By Bill Simeone
Editor’s Note: This is the next in a series of historical sketches by Bill Simeone. You can contact Bill at wesimeone2@gmail.com.

Hoping to use an all-American route to the Klondike goldfields, thousands of prospectors swarmed into the Copper Basin in the spring and summer of 1898.  Like an invading army, they burned and cleared land, and went hunting and fishing.

Settlement soon followed – roads, towns and schools were built and the Kennecott Copper Mine began operation.  The Ahtna protested that game was scarce, white man’s food made them ill and they could not make a living if tied to one place while their children attended school.  In response, the government told the Ahtna they could either assimilate and give up their traditional way of life – or be removed.

Up until World War II, most Ahtna families remained on the land, but the government continued to demand assimilation by insisting Ahtna children attend school and enforcing hunting and fishing regulations. World War II not only increased the pace of change, but revealed the Ahtna had become strangers in their own land. Two incidents exposed the indiscriminate power of the American government: the forced removal of Ahtna from their village at Dry Creek so the U.S. Army could build an airfield and the destruction of Gulkana Village when the government decided to realign the Richardson Highway.

Years later, Ahtna Elders recalled no one said anything when the army came and destroyed their homes “…the Indians just let it go, just like they thought they were on somebody else’s land.”

In the 1950s, many young Ahtna became politicized through association with the Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB).  The first meeting of ANB Camp No. 36 was held on April 10, 1954, at the Copper Center Hall. Harry Johns was president, Fred Ewan vice president, Walter Charley secretary and Oscar Craig treasurer. Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, the ANB led the fight to reassert Ahtna presence on their land and to protect their traditional way of life.

Following World War II, roads built to facilitate the war effort drew thousands of Anchorage and Fairbanks residents to hunt and to fish for salmon in Ahtna territory.  The large numbers so concerned the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) that it restricted fishing in the upper Copper River in 1964 without consulting the Ahtna.  The state argued that the salmon fishery had become largely recreational as few people actually needed the salmon to survive.

The Ahtna disagreed, pointing out that the new regulation restricted their ability to harvest salmon.  In a letter to ADF&G, Markle F. Ewan Sr. wrote that the majority of Ahtna did not have freezers and needed to dry their salmon, and that many Elders still depended on the salmon to survive.  Nevertheless, the regulations remained in place.

ADF&G restrict fishing

In 1966, ADF&G again restricted the subsistence fishery without consulting the Ahtna.  ANB President Harry Johns wrote that the Ahtna were concerned that the state had acted arbitrarily and as a protest they would fish despite the new regulations. Following a statewide outcry, ADF&G backed down and opened the fishery.  The state again limited the fishery in 1978 without consulting the Ahtna, and again the Ahtna protested.  Robert Marshall, president of the Copper River Native Association, wrote that the Ahtna needed the fish and he protested the way the state had chained and padlocked the fish wheels of Ahtna Elders. Again the state backed down and opened the fishery.

The Ahtna have never given up our claims to our traditional territory or the right to our traditional way of life.  Led today by Elders like Eleanor Dementi, Roy Ewan and Nick Jackson, the Ahtna continue to demand an equal right to making decisions about our traditional way of life.

As Bacille Jackson wrote for the Copper River Advisory Committee in 1978,  “At no time since our fathers completely owned this land have they or we given up our right to live a subsistence lifestyle. We have not traded off the right to catch fish for our families from our river. We are not about to give this right to the State of Alaska or the federal government today or at any future time at any price.”

Bacille Jackson wrote this statement for the Copper River Advisory Committee in 1978:

When our fathers and grandfathers met the first white people to come up the Copper River, there was no question in anyone’s mind that they owned all the land and resources in the area.  This included the big  game in the hills as well as the fish in the river.

History shows that we we’re not greedy with our resources, but shared them first with the Russians, later with the gold miners of 1898, and until this day, with the white people who are our neighbors.  Furs, big game, timber, minerals and fish that originally belonged to us have been taken continuously by others with seldom a complaint on our part.

Losing control of land

Today we all know times have changed, statehood and the Native Land Claims Bill [ANCSA] seem to bear this out that much of the land doesn’t belong to us anymore.  In the few short years since the turn of the century (which many of our old folks can remember), we have come from complete ownership of land and all its riches to what often seems to us at most as trespassers on anothers [sic] land.  Now we are told much of the land belongs to others, we are told when to hunt, where to hunt, where to mine, where to cut timbers, when to fish, where to fish, when to trap, where to trap, and on and on and on.

At no time since our fathers completely owned this land have they or we given up our right to live a subsistence life style.  We have not traded off the right to catch fish for our families from our river.  We are not about to give this right to the State of Alaska or the federal government today or at any future time at any price.

Protest great injustice

Today we are here to protest what we believe is a great injustice to our people.  We are being told that the fish of the Copper River no longer belong to us and, that we no longer have the right to take them when and how we want for our own needs. Great emphasis seems to be given to the use of the fish by the commercial fishermen in the Cordova area and by the dip-netters from the Fairbanks and Anchorage areas.  We seem to be the last people whose need and desires are being met.

A history of our people show that when fish runs are good, our fathers did well; when fish runs were poor, our people starved. Truly the fish of the Copper River have been the basic necessity for the existence of our people throughout time.

Many of us here today grew up in the 1920s and 1930s when a subsistence life style was necessary.  We still hang on to some of that life-style. Certainly we would not be too intelligent to give up our right to the life-line of our people throughout history, on the chance that Alaska and America will never again face depression or wars, and we won’t ever again have to depend on the salmon of the Copper River for our livelihood.  We believe that the State of Alaska doesn’t have the right to lock up our fishwheels or our people for fishing.  We further believe the state does not have the right to keep our people from subsistence fishing!

Minutes of the Copper River Advisory Committee on file, ADF&G, Glennallen