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'Village Journey' - testimonies of assimilation by legislation

posted 9 Aug 2013, 21:18 by Fiona Cram   [ updated 9 Aug 2013, 23:44 ]

I've begun reading Thomas R. Berger's 1985 Report of the Alaska Native Review Commission, 'Village Journey'. The jacket describes Berger as a Professor of Law who is "one of Canada's foremost advocates of Native rights." In his role as head of the Commission he visited and met with Eskimos, Indians and Aleuts in 62 villages and towns throughout Alaska to hear people's testimony about the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA).

"ANCSA was hailed as a new departure for the resolution of aboriginal claims... By its terms, Alaska Natives would receive title to forty-four million acres of land and $962.5 million in compensation. By its terms, Alaska Natives were obliged to set up corporations to serve as vehicles for the ownership and management of this land and the money, which became corporate assets... Congress wanted to bring the Alaska Natives into the mainstream of American life" (Berger, 1985, p.20).

My reasons for reading this book are two-fold: first, to learn more about the very recent colonial history of Alaska, and second to explore how Berger incorporated people's testimony into the Commission's report. The introduction to the book signalled that both these goals would be realised (so many thanks to my good friend Victoria Hykes Steere who recommended this book to me).

It is clear from the introduction that ANCSA, and its assimilatory agenda, does not sit well with Alaska Natives. Legislation they thought would protect their lands for future generations had turned out to be the very instrument by which they could lose all claim to their territories. As Berger (1985, p. 6) writes, "At Tununak, I find anger and disbelief. In fact, as I later learned, discontent with ANCSA simmers everywhere in the state. Alaska Natives believe they have been cheated."

"This act was done for our future benefit, but it has hurt us, our children and grandchildren, and those that are not yet born. If we do not do anything about this, that is exactly our future." (Mike Albert, Tununak)

Berger's use of first person in his description of his travels to a selection of different villages and towns gives his introductory narrative a personal tone. He describes the places he visited, the people who live there, and some of their history. He introduces their concerns and includes a portion of personal testimony to give weight to the issues they raised. For example, he describes his visit to Huslia "an Athabascan village of about two hundred residents on the Koyukuk River" (p. 12) where people bring their children to the Commission's hearing. "Under ANCSA, that child is excluded from the settlement. The parent is a shareholder, but every Native child born since December 18, 1971, the date of ANCSA's passage is excluded" (p. 12).

"The way I see things now...[I have] concern about the kids that was born after '71, 1971. I could see now that, if we don't do anything or try to help them, they'll be the people that will be cut off from their land...a thing that we cannot live without..." (Katherine Attla, Huslia)

In his preface to the book Berger (1984, p. vii) writes, "It has not been easy for the people of village Alaska to be heard. For many years, they have been caught up in the cultural uncertainties of assimilationist policies. Yet I am convinced that in the villages of Alaska I have heard the authentic voice of the Native peoples. I have tried to capture it in this book." After a promising introduction I am motivated to keep reading, to find out more about how these voices have been represented, what recommendations have been drawn from their testimonies, and then whether anything happened as a result.

Reference

Berger, T.R. (1985). Village journey. The report of the Alaska Native Review Commission. New York: Hill and Wang.

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