Century of Servitude


Chapter 10. In Sum, What Happened on the Pribilofs?

Understanding why and how a situation of hidden, internal colonialism developed in the democratic United States rests on identifying the forces associated with its emergence, its persistence despite sweeping reforms in the rest of the country , and its disintegration.

Pribilof colonialism reflected, in part, national colonialist attitudes to- wards Alaska. All the ingredients for colonial rule existed in the territory- the presence of actual and potentially valuable commercial resources; the ab- sence of local capital, certain necessary technology, and access to markets; and a small, unorganized labor force. Control of the territory became centralized in government agency-Congressional committee-private corporate al- liances built on their mutual self-interests. The Pribilof program not only mirrored this colonialist stance but assumed a much harsher form because of the remoteness of the islands and because the Pribilof people are a racial and cultural minority. In that era the general public considered Indians wholly uncivilized, as wards of the government not eligible for political, civil, and human rights.

In this atmosphere, designers of the Pribilof program focused on economic gain, not only for private industry but for the government as well. Why the emphasis on profits to government? Because officials were uncertain about the wisdom of the Alaska purchase and apprehensive that it would, as opponents of the purchase had predicted, drain the Treasury. Remember, at that time seal skins were the only viable commercial product in the territory; if the federal government failed to realize revenues from them, indeed, the costs of administering the new territory might well have taxed the treasury .Accompanying this motivation was the real opportunity to achieve a profit. Given the easy availability of the entire seal herd, profits from the industry, whether realized by private companies or the government, hinged on protection of the resource. Such protection was clearly the busi- ness of the federal government. And government involvement in the program provided Congress with justification to enact legislation not only to protect the herd, but, since seal management cost money, to also extract a certain share of the profits. Legislators perceived this opportunity as a means to underwrite both the costs of the seal management program and other admin- istrative costs in the territory .The government's major mission in the Pribilofs, then, was profits and conservation of the resource that produced them.

The Pribilof program encountered periodic and often uneasy tensions between these two main goals. When the herd was in good condition, man-agement concentrated on maximum revenues from the industry .When it wasn't, then, as a public interest institution, management focused on conservation, even if it meant a sizable revenue loss. In favorable years in the industry, Congress expected the program not only to pay for itself but to create a surplus. In lean years, Congress expected the program to cut costs to the bone. These Congressional pressures generated a marketplace standard of profitability that became deeply ingrained in the structure of the program and gave rise to attitudes and norms markedly different from those in most other federal programs, especially in the social welfare field.

The presence of a skilled labor force, of course, facilitated the govern- ment's economic goals. However, just as tension at times arose between seal conservation and profits, so it did in the government's dual role as protector of the Aleut people and as entrepreneur in a labor-management relationship. As public protector, in recognition of the Pribilof Aleuts' dependent status and in line with federal policy towards other American Indian groups, the government assumed responsibility for the Aleuts' welfare. In terms of bread and butter issues, this protector role was congruent with the entrepreneurial one in the first lease period when the industry produced a handsome profit for both the government and the private company. Thereafter, the two roles increasingly clashed as management perceived economic advantage from keeping Aleuts in a subjugated status. These tensions, between protecting seals, making profits, and looking after the Aleuts' welfare were the fount that gave heart and structure to the Pribilof program.

Wearing its entrepreneurial hat, the government sought unlimited control over the Aleuts' economic behavior. To discourage defiance and resist- ance and to enforce compliance, managers dominated the Aleuts' political and juridical institutions; they controlled the Aleuts' use of money and man- ipulated their work classifications. These actions were not strikingly out of line with certain national norms. It was a time of intense exploitation of labor in the interests of capitalist development, exploitation that was commonly accepted. Workers' rights, let alone Indians' economic rights, had gained scant public recognition. However, management advanced its domination to unconventional limits by coercing the Aleuts to work part of the year for no pay. In the post-Civil War period, such slave labor practices hardly would have won public support. Thus, national norms influenced management practices only in part. The isolation of the islands and management's insulation from interest groups that might expose and protest such actions also shaped management practices. Managers wanted unlimited control, the opportunity existed, and they took it.

The periods of tension between economic imperatives and the Aleuts' welfare gave birth to other forms of oppression. During the second private lease when the seal population precipitously declined and the government suffered a revenue loss, management introduced wage payments in kind rather than cash. A response to an economic depression, yes? , apparently conceived as an emergency measure. Yet, this practice became stubbornly entrenched into the fabric of the program, undoubtedly because managers discovered unanticipated benefits. Initially, they introduced in kind payments to reduce labor costs. When paid in cash, Aleuts could and did use some of it for purchases by mail or at Unalaska. Payments in kind eliminated this practice. Furthermore, in kind payments enabled managers to effectively decrease wages by reducing the quantity and quality of supplies. The prac- tice also provided a flexible device for manipulating wages in response to economic ups and downs without an outright reduction in the Aleuts' wage rate. Managers found this practice increasingly appealing after the 1910 Fur Seal Act which stipulated fair compensation for Aleuts' labor and after the 1911 International Fur Seal Treaty under which the program was expected to provide a sufficient surplus to meet international obligations.

Another more implicit motivation appears to have increased the attraction of in kind wages. Top managers were certainly aware of the consequen- ces of in kind payments to Aleuts' pride and morale. Lembkey, among other agents, repeatedly pointed to its demoralizing effects. That top managers instituted this practice during an economically depressed period is one thing. That they perpetrated it after the seal herd was restored and the treasury was again receiving substantial revenues is another matter, strongly suggesting that this practice produced other benefits for management. Since they knew of its demoralizing effects and since the original economic motivation for in- stituting in kind payments no longer applied, it seems logical to conclude that managers wanted this outcome, that at some level of awareness they considered it useful to render Aleuts sufficiently abject to submit to the oppressive conditions imposed.

The establishment of in kind wages presaged a profound change in the Aleuts' economic status--first from wage earners to wards, then to colonial subjects as the system became entrenched. The labor-management system on the islands assumed all the earmarks of a typical colonial relationship. The federal government controlled the natural resources, paid the Aleuts increasingly low wages in relation to other comparable United States workers, undermined them psychologically, and dominated their political life to assure control of their labor.

By the time of the reforms in the 1920s and 1930s, this colonial system had developed a life of its own, one which made it self-generating, resistant to changes in national mood and attitudes, even in national laws. Wages and hours legislation, collective bargaining rights, the Social Security Act, welfare reform, and an enlightened Indian policy failed to dent the system. While the situation of other workers dramatically improved, that of the Pribilof Aleuts deteriorated.

Most social organizations begin as entities designed to fulfill certain functions and goals. To survive they must take into account and adapt to the demands of the interest groups that surround them. But the Pribilof system was uniquely isolated and insulated from such demands. Its functions were highly specialized and did not attract general interest. Its operation took place in a remote part of the country, unseen by others. Management maintained a policy of secrecy about the program and required special permits for all visits. Through staff selection policies, centralized control, and attractive rewards in status and prestige, top management succeeded in neutralizing middle and lower-Ievel managers. And the Russian Orthodox Church, the only outside organization with knowledge about conditions on the islands, remained silent in its avoidance of secular involvements. All of these factors protected management from having to respond to interest-group pressures and from having to update its practices to conform to changes in national laws and attitudes.

That was the situation at the time of the World War II evacuation of the Pribilof Aleuts, a time when management, in its most execrable acts to date, exposed the Aleuts to subhuman conditions in camps. In an incredible denial of the evidence of their senses, managers believed that they were as immune from public scrutiny and criticism in a populated area immersed in the war effort as they had been on the isolated Pribilof Islands, and tried to keep the Aleuts virtually imprisoned in the camps. Believing that other institutions would support their peculiar relationship with the Aleuts, managers asked the draft board to exempt Aleuts from military service; when that failed, they tried to prevent the Aleuts from taking jobs outside the camps; when that failed, they importuned the United States Employment Service to place the Aleuts in groups isolated from other workers and to pay their wages in a lump sum to the federal agents; when that failed, managers kept tabs on the Aleuts who left the camps and threatened them with permanent loss of Pribilof residency rights if they hesitated to return to the islands when manage- mentcommanded.

With these pressures, the Aleut sealers returned to the islands for the 1943 sealing season despite the presence of the Japanese in the Aleutians, and nearly all the Aleuts returned for good in 1944. Once back on the islands, still with its head in the sand, management assumed that it could restore the former colonial relationship.

But the tide had ineluctibly turned. Visitors to the evacuation camps threatened to expose the anachronistic Pribilof management system. Fredericka Martin, who during her stay on the islands in 1941 made a pervasive commitment to reform the Pribilof system, wrote articles decrying condi- tions on the islands and sought and won support from an ever-growing number of sympathizers. The Indian Rights movement took up the banner of the Aleuts' cause and attracted the interest of prominent attorneys, including Felix Cohen, the foremost authority on Indian law in the nation. And the Aleuts themselves, emboldened by their experiences and contacts in Juneau during the evacuation, resolved to emancipate themselves from federal government control. These forces combined to shake Pribilof management from its lethargy , to awaken it to the reality of a new interest group environment. At first, managers resisted change, attempting to discredit the Aleut activists and their supporters. But reform pressure mounted until they were forced to adapt to some of the demands. They introduced a wage reform in1950 and a more meaningful one in 1962 that gave Aleuts nearly equal status to that of other federal workers.

At the same time, other developments influenced the federal government to fundamentally alter its Pribilof mission. Although the same economic imperatives operated as in the past, they now dictated a change in course, from tenaciously holding on to the Pribilof enterprise to getting out of the business as quickly as possible. The Pribilof program now threatened to burden rather than relieve the federal treasury. The Statehood Act of 1958 accorded Alaska 70 percent of the net proceeds from the seal industry , which meant a powerful reduction in treasury revenues. Furthermore, the federal government could no longer anticipate the same level of productivity in seals due to an unexplained and persisting decline in the seal survival rate. And labor costs threatened to continually rise not only because of economic reforms but because the Aleut population continued to grow. From the 1950s on, the labor supply exceeded the demand, and management believed itself responsible for supporting the entire population.

Management proposed converting to a seasonal sealing operation and abandoning the islands for the rest of the year. This plan involved relocating Aleuts to other places, but when most of the Aleuts refused to be relocated, the abandonment idea was discarded. It was replaced by a plan to transfer responsibilities for island management, excluding the seals, to the Aleut people. Beginning in 1960, management policy emphasized emancipating the Aleuts in order to equip them for management responsibilities. Aleut inde- pendence, Aleut training, Aleut political autonomy-these became the policy motifs of the 1960s and 1970s. What the reformers left undone, management completed in response to the unfavorable economic outlook in the seal industry .

But Aleut emancipation and federal government withdrawal from island management introduced a new set of problems. Before the 1962 pay plan reform, the government provided full-time permanent jobs for virtually every able-bodied Pribilof man. After that it provided such employment only for those workers actually needed, an ever-shrinking number over the years, now representing a small proportion of the labor force. Unemployment and underemployment now assail the Aleuts; it constitutes their major contemporary problem.

As the Pribilof economy is based on a single industry, and that industry absorbs only a small part of the labor force on a fulll-time basis, most people concerned with the plight of the Aleuts call for the establishment of an alter- native fishing industry .But that offers no easy resolution. The costs of devel- oping other fisheries on the Pribilofs would far exceed anything that the Aleuts could underwrite or that the government currently supports. True, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 provides some funds, and the Pribilof Aleuts' receipt of 8.5 million dollars in damages from their suit against the federal government provides additional resources. But all their funds combined are insufficient to build even a boat harbor at St. Paul, let alone purchase boats and processing facilities.

To compound their economic problem, even the Aleuts' meager income from the seal industry is now threatened by humane societies demanding an end to all seal killing on the Pribilofs and the United States' withdrawal from the International Fur Seal Treaty. If the latter transpires, pelagic sealing will undoubtedly resume and the entire fur seal herd may well face extinction.

This 110-year history of the Pribilof Islands has depicted the evolution of a colonialist system sponsored and promoted by the federal government, the persistence of that system when it frightfully violated national norms and laws, and the destruction of the system when individuals and groups exerted pressure for change and when the unfavorable condition of the seal in- dustry convinced management that it was in its economic interest to emancipate the Aleuts. I wish the story could end there, with all problems solved and the Aleuts living happily thereafter. Instead, we conclude with a note of deep concern for the Aleuts' economic future and a plea to the government who profited from the Aleuts' labor for a century to help them establish a viable economic alternative.


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