Tanacross, Alaska 1969
“We are placing no blame on anyone personally, but feel there have been freezes and regulations passed to protect us and we are being slowly squeezed to death….
“No one has ever come out and talked to us to see what we think or how we feel about what is going on.
“We are not a chess game. We are human beings and right now very upset and disturbed people.
“We feel our land, and what it has grown, has fed, clothed and helped us survive. Do you wonder why we are fighting to keep it?”
1884 – The first white man comes to Dot Lake, heartland of the United Crow Bands, a tribe of over 1,000 Athabascan Indians in central Alaska.
1917 – The United Crow Bands try unsuccessfully to get title to their lands from the U.S. Government.
1950 – United Crow Bands file for reservation status through the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The claim is “lost” until November 1961. Then the agency refuses it.
1962 – The United Crow Bands are notified by BLM that their individual land allotments (160 acres allowed each Indian under federal law) have been cut because that agency feels “the owner was not making sufficent use of the land.”
1964 – Chief Andrew Isaac and the village of Tanacross file a blanket claim to prevent the state of Alaska from selling vacant lots within Tanacross township. This is the largest village of the United Crow.
1965 – The State of Alaska decides to sell lots on George Lake, Crow Bands ancestral lands, at the New York World’s Fair as a tourist gimmick. The State Division of Lands employee who defends Indian rights to this land is fired but the sale is stopped.
1969 – Chief Isaac continues to besiege Washington on behalf of his people. “We are not a chess game..” he tells the Department of Interior.
1972 – Federal legislation is passed to settle native land claims in Alaska but a petition now circulates favoring Bureau of Land Management over the federal Division of Forestry for stewardship of United Crow Bands’ prime hunting ground at Forty Mile, just north of Tanacross. The Indians claim the area and wish to manage it themselves.
Dot Lake August 12, 1972
Can this be progress?
Chief Andrew Isaac, traditional leader of the United Crow Bands, has cause to wonder if his 30 year fight for a native land claims settlement was worth the trouble. His people, nearly 1,000 Athabascans living in small villages south of Fairbanks, still suffer the trespass of outsiders and the title to their hunting grounds has yet to be established.
Chief Andrew has led the United Crow Bands since 1950 and has endured in the same manner as the rugged mountains that stand sentry to Crow lands. At 74, the leader is straight and strong, quick in mind and body.
With him stands Maggie Isaac, 64, his wife of 41 years. She knows well the place of a chief’s wife, standing in Andrew’s shadow. But when she speaks she speaks well for her man and her people.
The interview began at midnight when the Isaacs with their son, Wayne, 11, returned from the movies in Tok – a 50 mile drive from their Indian village of Dot Lake – to find this reporter camped on their doorstep.
“We expected you yesterday,” the Chief apologized. They have no phone and word of the interview had come from a friend. Messages like that often get garbled but nobody gets upset about it.
Next door the neighbors had bludgeoned a porcupine for tomorrow’s meal. It revived and we all gave chase. When the animal was finally recaptured and put out of its misery, the Isaacs conducted me to their neat, three bedroom prefab house.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs housing program has worked out very well at Dot Lake, Chief Andrew reported. The central heating system kept them warm all last winter when temperatures dropped to 50° and 60° below zero and the family also enjoys running water after all these years.
They established me in a pretty bedroom which is used by their married daughter when she comes to visit. Then they moved in two kitchen chairs and settled with me. The interview could start at once. No need to wait until morning.
“So today this young generation they learn education,” Chief Andrew began. “They learn just one way. The State way. I just can’t understand that. We with the United States not too long. We are citizens of the United States yet pretty soon they start bossin us. Something that we misunderstand. Even a lot of good times goin on in Alaska, still old people goin to have a hard time. Why they goin have a hard time? Because everything change on them.
“A lot of this generation can’t understand what I talk about. They think I’m old time. And they don’t know this, their Indian life. Her and me, we raised just pretty close to hard living,” he said gesturing toward his wife who sat quietly beside him. “What they call hard times.”
They talked of the old ways until dawn began to filter through the night sky. Spoke of bone knives and arrows, of bows strung with sinew (Maggie still has hers), of snares for moose and caribou and how traditional foods were cooked with hot rocks in birch bark baskets. Then they told of the white man and how his coming changed their lives.
“Through them hard times my great, grandpeople never talk with me about white man. First white man they meet I think 1884 right here. Therefore I don’t know much problem about white people. Beginning to come up 1914 I see a lot of white people. They lookin for gold. And some white people, us young kids they like us. They friend us. They give us little jobs, put shovels in sluice boxes, $5 a day. That time we didn’t stay one place. Just happened we’d camp next to old people one week, two week.
“Use money potlatch (a ceremonial party where gifts are exchanged), buy gun, buy blanket. I’m comin up around 21 years old they beginnin to do a lotta trappin. They makin good money with furs long time. Last time I think 1947.”
But the United Crow Bands had problems long before the bottom fell out of the fur market.
No Use To Bother Us
“Back in 1916 a lot of white people say that Indians have trouble with land between white and state,” the Chief recalled. On this advice, the tribe filed for reservation status but was turned down. They tried in 1936 and again in 1952. Then the BLM lost their application and finally rejected it in 1961.
“BLM people even now they take land that we figured to build village on. This land here we file before the state yet they step on our mark like this…” his boot ground into the wooden floor of the prefab. “That’s just what they done to us…. Even now, today, I meet white man say we should have pretty good piece of land set aside. That’s just what I done. BLM people don’t agree. Even our governor he think that too much. We don’t do wrong. I don’t think so. This land here; Tanacross, Tetlin, Northway what I filed (for), we could have leased it, rent it, so many years….
“So they do it hard way. Finally put up millions of dollars to give native people (The federal land claims settlement of 1971). Some people tellin us we don’t get very much. That one problem I pretty sure believe. I don’t have much education people to help me here. I gotta have education people to go along with me and take care of this money.
“If we are goin to get so many thousand dollars each village, I got my ideas. I’ll let my boys set up some kind of business. Set up service station. Set up hotel. Set up store…all big business.
“I want my people live in just as good house like white people if they want to live like them. Today money get in my head for my Indian people. Trouble is my Indians have to have education….”
But what about the old way? Are there any young people learning to hunt and trap, I asked?
“They’re trying, that’s for sure!” he answered.
“Not much moose. Not much caribou any more,” his wife put in. “Too many sno-gos. Too many people!
“Here sheep hunting now there’s pretty close to 40 people goin up to the rocks,” Maggie Isaac said bitterly. “Look at that now, plum full of white people up in the mountains. We supposed to hunt sheep sometime, too. I don’t think that’s right. One week, two week ahead of season they wait up there. Game warden boss he should check over and try lined up white and Indian both, equal together.
“No use to bother us. We share together. We get along with white people. Why should they bother us? We need what fishin place we got, where we pickin berries, where we hunt. That land just clean open to every kind of person. If we go hunting some place, people follow us.
“Since 1942 highway open, other tribes just comin in,” Isaac agreed. “Therefore we get licenses. We want to live like Canadian Indian. No license. But we gotta have license to kill our game. We gotta have a permit to kill our fish. We gotta pay a tax, a $3 tax to shoot ducks.
“People here 1,000 years before whites live in Alaska. We never short of game. They think we kill game all time. We don’t. Certain times we have a season just like they have a season here today. Us native people, we know what time our game shapes up.
“One Indian kill one moose, this whole village here in Dot Lake…that whole moose have to pass around the village people. In my young time, Indian people live just like one family.
“The other day I see bear down by tourist camp. Just ready to shoot that bear here tourist jump up. ‘You mean you goin shoot that bear? This is government land,’ she say.
“That bear I not goin to throw away, just use hind quarter. I goin use it all. Go to game commission. Ask him. I worry for tourist. Got a bunch a kids. We know bear. He’s trouble. He probably got his picture.”
It was 3 a.m. None of the Isaacs showed any sign of fatigue but they observed their guest was worn out so, gracefully, they said good night. Early the next morning the smell of woodsmoke woke me.
“No propane,” Isaac explained as he cooked breakfast on the wood stove in the back yard. “We three months behind on rent. This O.K. till winter.”
Rent is $35 a month and their first year in the housing program (1971) propane was furnished. No one is sure how much a refill will cost. Anyway, the rent comes first.
Isaac gets Social Security (about $105 a month) and is thankful for it. He’s also a union man and works when he can.
“In job they tell me I’m old and it’s just about time for me to retirement,” he said with an embarrassed smile. “I shouldn’t believe this stuff anyway cause us Indians, we don’t have that kind law.”
I was lucky to catch him home, he added. He’d have been sheep hunting on the distant peaks if there weren’t all the outsiders.
Breakfast was ham, bacon and toast; the only white man’s food the Isaacs enjoy on a steady basis. Talk drifted to family affairs, revealing Wayne, the good-natured pride of their lives, is an adopted son. It had taken five court sessions to get legal proceedings ironed out. Five seemed to be the magic number.
Maggie Isaac had had five major operations caused, she suspected, because U.S. Public Health doctors had bungled the first by leaving a roll of bandage inside her stomach.
“Before there was no sickness,” Isaac observed. “In my young time I not even know cold. Not till 1924 flu. That time close to 40 people die inside two week.”
“Less men get accident then,” his wife noted. “I never know no kids to die. Someday if you come again I get picture from my sister-in-law down Healy. She got real good, old-time picture. No one look sad. So healthy.
“This young generation they move out of sight. They start learnin to drink.”
“Young people freeze to death out in woods. My brother, Abraham, freezing to death dressed up real warm. Drink,” Chief Andrew recounted evenly. “He got his knife. He got his matches. He was a husky fellow, too. I think he goin to be the only one, but there are a dozen after.”
I pressed them on village problems. When the young people drank there was little help from the State Police, they said. They worried that some of their school teachers were unfit. And there was a problem with anthropologists.
“They still ruin land. And they don’t fix up after they do it,” Mrs. Isaac charged. “They say they fix it up but it’s still not fixed.
Their old grave sites have been threatened both by anthropologists and government agencies. They resent the fact that the highway department took 25 feet of right-of-way on their Indian allotment vvithout paying or even asking. They worry that they’ll be hit with property tax.
“It’s not right against Indian head white to bump,” Maggie Issac philosophized. “All my niece, all my great grandchildren married to white people. I got too many white children. Great Grandchildren I got. I got no way against white people. I got no way to face other way. I got a share together.”
If You Don’t Sign, You Can’t Hunt
The major problem, however, remains the establishment of land ownership. It’s as if the federal land claims settlement had decided nothing.
A few days earlier, a friend had reported to Isaac that a paper was circulating in Tok and he’d been told, “If you don’t sign it, you won’t be able to hunt at Forty Mile (a few miles north of the village).”
Isaac located the petition and signed, thinking the Department of Fish and Game was simply changing regulations again. Now he had second thoughts. Perhaps he’d been wrong to sign. Would I go with him to Tok and have a look at the paper?
We climbed into the Isaac’s new yellow pickup truck. Payments were pretty well up, he said. When worse really came to worse, Maggie sold moccasins and bead work to raise funds, although she hadn’t been feeling well enough to sew much lately.
There was a well-worn Bible on top of the dashboard along with mosquito repellent, the current Fish and Game regulations and a bottle of Vicks nasal spray.
The ride to Tok proved a lively tour of Indian territory, with the family pointing out an incredible number of trails that are not visible to the untrained eye.
The Indian road to sheep country was cleverly concealed from the main road with scrub brush.
“White people look for it but they don’t find it,” Mrs. Isaac said with satisfaction. “We don’t tell. It goes to salt lake Indian use for 1,000 years.”
“Caribou used to cross here,” Isaac pointed out a few miles on. “No more. Too many people. This whole road just sit right on top real native use land.”
“Did you protest when they built it?” I asked. It is the main highway between Fairbanks and central and southern Alaska.
Isaac shook his head.
“War going on. Second World War. I talk to Chief Walter Isaac, my uncle. He said, ‘We belong to United States. If we protest it, then we help enemy so enemy can catch um up.’ So then we don’t do nothing.
Coming into Tok they pointed out the neat Bureau of Land Management station.
“On real main Indian trail,” Mrs. Isaac explained. “Road to Mentasta, Tetlin, all Canada for 100 years. State they take it.”
In town Chief Andrew studied the sample ballot for the coming primary. Maggie bought some popsicles for us and a fishing license which she tucked in the family Bible with an “Amen.” I concentrated on the petition which read:
“We the undersigned oppose creation of the 6.6 million acre Forty Mile National Forest. We feel this area could best be managed if it remained under the Bureau of Land Management….
“Multiple land use management can be practiced without a national forest. The U.S. Forest Service has a history of being more restrictive than the Bureau of Land Management.
There was no mention that the Indians might have a claim on this country which the United Bands regard as prime hunting area. However Chief Andrew thought his regional native organization might have bid on this territory under the Land Claims Act (he was correct) and decided on the spot that we should make the trip to their office in Fairbanks (over 200 miles distant) to inquire.
Back into the yellow truck. We hurried past the Indian trails, the brook that once was the Indian’s main source of drinking water but is now soured by an oil spill from a military pipeline, past Moon Lake and a misty river that the Indians know by a name other than the English one that appears on the road sign.
In the distance, layers of shadowy blue-grey hills appeared and disappeared with the twists of the highway. Closer at hand we studied greener hills and the Isaacs watched wildlife my eyes could not pick out.
On to Fairbanks, Wayne laughing in the back with a grateful hitchhiker from California who wore his long red hair in a pony tail and played his harmonica in the rain.
Driving did not tire the 74-year-old Chief. We went straight through, stopping only for gas and to check out a field that looked like it might have good blueberries. On the way they entertained me with old legends, happy momories from the days when there were no BLM land lines cut through their country.
They talked of the hitchhikers they pick up. Worried about the freaky children of the white man.
“Some good people. Some bad,” Maggie Isaac declare. And, as two long hairs sped past us on motorcycles, she added softly, “They get killed, just like birds on the road.”
“Do you get paid for being chief?” I asked Isaac.
He shook his head, shocked at the idea.
“Not Indian law,” he said firmly. In fact, he has had to pay his own way to thirty years worth of meetings, hearings and investigations.
“Thirty years. This long I fight for this claim,” he pondered. “I gettin tired arguin and pleadin for my own land. We native people in Alaska just foolishness we let go our things.
“I make mistake. I should never have left old Indian way.”
Then, resolutely, he headed the yellow truck down the turn off for Fairbanks and another battle in the continuing war.
Received in New York on August 24, 1972
©1972 Lael Morgan
Lael Morgan is an Alicia Patterson Fund Award winner on leave from the Tundra Times in Fairbanks, Alaska. This article may be published with credit to Lael Morgan, the Tundra Times and the Alicia Patterson Fund.