Aleut - Century of Servitude: From Wage Earners to Wards, 1890-1909

Century of Servitude

Chapter 3. From Wage Earners to Wards, 1890-1909

At the beginning of the second twenty year leave, the Aleuts were wage earners. By its end they had become government wards supported by charity "hand-outs. " A drastic change, yes? — brought about by the government's efforts to maintain its Pribilof priorities in the face of a changing external environment. The seal herd was in precipitous decline due to the growing popularity of pelagic (high seas) sealing, which is very wasteful.

However, before tracing~these developments, I shall first describe the events leading to the dramatic demise of the Alaska Commercial Company in the seal islands. When it came time for the United States to grant the second lease in 1890, the Alaska Commercial Company's reputation was badly tarnished. In the early part of its lease, the company had 'faced continuous attacks by rival bidders and other San Francisco traders. In pursuit of their interests these free entrepreneurs organized the Alaska Trader's Protective Association, later renamed the Anti-Monopoly Association of the Pacific Coast. The Association vented its dissatisfactions in the Alaska Heralda newspaper published in San Francisco between 1868 and 1876. Herald articles charged the company with mistreating Pribilof Aleuts and surreptitiously exceeding its annual seal quota. They also accused accused the government of suppressing a pro-test petition from the Aleuts. Allegedly, the Aleuts had given the petiition to special Treasury agent Buynitsky in 1869, to another agent in 1870, and finally, in 1871, sent the petition directly to the Herald. The petition asserted that the Aleuts had been reduced to a state of slavery, compelled to labor, were at the mercy of the company, and were shut off from all intercourse with other portions of the public. Company spokesmen declared the petition a gross fabrication.1

These charges attracted nationwide attention. The virus of war and boom gave rise to rampant scandals involving both government and industry, and especially government corruption in relation to the great land steals. With growing 'public concern about the concentration of wealth and the alliance between the government and big business, Congress in 1876 undertook an investigation of the Alaska Commercial Company.2 The climax of the Congressional hearing was a retraction by Robert Desty, chief spokesman for the Association and journalist for the Herald. Desty confessed that he had been duped by the paper's publisher, Agapius Honcharenko.

I have been part of a conspiracy to destroy the Alaska Commercial Company by persistent libel and I have been deceived, unwittingly and without the motive which actuated those who employed me. I have found that there is no reliable evidence to sustain a single charge that I have been induced to make against the Company.
Regarding the Aleuts' petition, Desty declared:
He (Honcharenko) dictated it to me as a translation from the Russian. I corrected it for him and put in into shape for publication and affixed a list of names to it which he furnished me from a slip of paper, which names he informed me were those of residents of Alaska who intended to sign the petition, but which came.down in this shape, as they were unacquainted with the mode and form of getting up petitions. He attached the names of five Aleuts who were actually dead before the date of the petition, which I subsequently learned.
Desty concluded his a testimony with a full disavowal: "I now desire to retract all I have written against the company and this I do voluntarily without fear or compulsion of any sort." 3 No one knows what pressures were brought tobe ar to make Desty recant but we do know that he was an alien and at the hearing he announced that he was soon to return to France, his homeland. The hearing cleared the company of all charges;4 nonetheless, attacks against it continued. One of the most damaging was by Alaska's territorial Governor Swineford who expressed alarm at the growing control the company exercised through its trading stations scattered across Alaska.5

With continuing attacks and the imminent need to renew the Pribilofle ase, Congress again investigated the Alaska Commercial Company in 1888 and 1889; again it exonerated the company.6 Nevertheless, sufficient doubt must have remained in officials' minds, for despite the company's experience and success in the fur seal trade, the Treasury Department granted the lease to another firm, the North American Commercial Company. The government had not felt impelled to grant the lease to the highest bidder in 1870. That it did so twenty years later suggests that it used the higher bid of the North American Commercial Company as a welcome excuse for terminating relations with the now-disreputable Alaska Commercial Company.

The second lease was more elaborate than the first. Accustomed to the services voluntarily provided by the Alaska Commercial Company, the department now required these from the new lessee: support for widows, orphans, and infirm; medical care; and rent-free houses, as well as construction of a church building. In addition, the lease increased the annual rent from $55,000 to $60,000 and the tax per skin from $2.625 to $7.625. Further, the government, not the company, was to set the Aleuts' pay scale.7

These requirements, however, were a minor burden to the company compared to the greatly restricted seal quotas, which reflected the decline in the seal population from an estimated 2 million in 1882 to 900,000 in 1890.8 The increasing value of the skins was attracting a growing number of pelagic sealers, and open-sea sealing was extremely wasteful. Quite aside from the taking of seals that might otherwise have been harvested on the Pribilofs, pelagic sealing involved killing many females as the sex of the animal could not be determined on the high seas, and caused high losses in seals that could not be retrieved. Elliott estimated that approximately 55 percent of the seals taken by pelagic hunters were "mother seals" which meant that their pups were also destroyed.9 A witness before the 1889 Congressional hearing testified that the average high seas hunter recovered only one in seven of the seals he killed—"the others sinking or getting away wounded.''10

In an effort to control pelagic sealing, the United States seized and confiscated a number of sealing vessels operating in the Bering Sea. It justified these acts by claiming jurisdiction over Bering Sea seals. These confiscations led to conflict with Great Britain since the majority were Canadian vessels which sailed under the British flag. International negotiations, beginning in 1891 and continuing throughout the period of the second lease, were ineffective. Piecemeal measures such as prohibiting pelagic sealing during certain periods of the year and the use of firearms and explosives in seal hunting as well as limiting the Pribilof annual harvest for a few years to 7,500 seals for Aleuts' food failed to halt the seal decline.11 Neither did a federal law prohibiting United States citizens from pelagic sealing. 12

Anxiety about survival of the seals prompted the government to set very low seal quotas every year during the second lease. In contrast to the nearly two million seals taken by the Alaska Commercial Company, the new lessee was allowed to harvest a total of only 339,180.13 The small trade in fox furs failed to compensate for this reduction.14 Yet, even with the low seal harvests, the company realized a sizable profit—over five and one-half million dollars in the twenty-year period.15 The company's favorable profit position was possible because of the increasing value of raw skins—worth $40 each in 1900—and also because it received a direct and indirect subsidy from the government in the form of management costs that were not reflected in the skin taxes, rent or the relief appropriation for the Pribilof Aleuts. Had the company been required to pay these costs, its net profit would have been reduced by more than half. 16

Unlike the company, the government's surplus funds were wiped out; in fact, the government experienced a net loss of nearly two and one-half million dollars over the twenty years. 17

There is nothing unusual about federal programs costing the government money. But in the Pribilof case, federal policy reflected a Congressional expectation that the program pay for itself at a minimum, or better yet, that it show a profit. The report of the 1876 Congressional hearings on the Alaska Commercial Company voiced this expectation.

The contract, as made, was the best disposition of the interest that could have been made, for it is certain that it has resulted in the receipt of a very large revenue to the Treasury, and in the amelioration of the physical and moral condition of the natives. 18
The report from the 1888 Congressional hearings expressed a similar expectation.
That if the law protecting seal life is enforced the preservation of the rookeries will be assured, the revenue continued and increased, and the native inhabitants of the seal islands maintained without cost to the Government. . . That the fur seal mdustry will have paid into the Treasury over $9,000,000 (sic) during the period of the present lease. . . That the chief object of the purchase was the acquisition of the valuable products of the Bering Sea. 19

In subsequent hearings, in fact, throughout the history of the Pribilof program, Congressional members and Pribilof managers repeatedly refer to its self-supporting and profitable character.

There is, of course, nothing out of the ordinary for government officials to express cost consciousness and embrace values of efficiency and economy. The point here is that *om its origin, the Pribilof program, as a government enterprise, was held to private market-place standards of profitability that became deeply entrenched into the fabric of the management system. In effect, this gave rise to norms and attitudes that distinguish the Pribilof program from most other government activities, especially in the social welfare field.

Uncertainty about the future of the seals, the impasse in international negotiations, and the reality of a revenue loss made Washington policymakers frantic. They considered such desperate measures as destroying all the Pribilof seals and removing the Aleuts from the islands. In 1896, a bill in the House of Representatives stipulated that:

if . . . the President finds himself unable to secure the cooperation of Great Britain . . . so as to protect and preserve the Alaskan seal herd for this year's sealing season, then the Secretary is authorized to take each and every fur seal on the Pribilof Islands and to sell the skins of said seals as he may elect.20
The House Committee on Foreign Relations unanimously recommended passage of the bill on the rationale of mercy, economy, and justice.
If . . . we fail in this . . . notwithstanding we have been urging Great Britain for more than a year to unite with us in measures to preserve seal life, then considerations of mercy as well as of economy and justice demand that we should stop the further cruel starvation of thousands of seal pups by taking what seals are left and disposing of their skins and covering into the Treasury the proceeds which would probably reach $5,000,000.21
The bill did not pass, probably because of opposition *om the company as well as the Senate.

In debate on the bill, Congressmen considered removing Aleuts from the Pribilofs since without seals the Aleuts would have no means of livelihood. An amendment to the relief appropriation bill for Aleuts in 1900 made the removal a possibility: "In the discretion~of the Secretary of the Treasury any portion of this sum may be expended in transporting said native inhabitants to the mainland of Alaska." 22 This atmosphere of desperation, of dire threat to the Pribilof program, was the dominant force shaping Pribilof management policies in this period.

In the early 1890s, the Aleuts faced severe poverty. Though the government had raised their sealing rate from 40 to 50 cents a skin (75 cents in 1906), this in no way compensated for income lost from decreased seal harvests. The Aleuts worked at a piece rate and therefore sealing income declined in proportion to the reduction in harvests. The Aleuts' average annual income from all sources (including donor goods furnished by the company) in the 1890-1894 period was substantially below that of other United States production workers—one-third lower in St. Paul and 29 percent lower in St. George.23

Living side by side with the Aleuts, Treasury agents were keenly aware of their poverty and were especially concerned about it in view of their continued high death rate,24 about three times higher than that in Massachusetts.25 The St. Paul agent in 1890 noted in his daily log that "not one native was in good health."26 Depopulation of the Aleuts was just as real a threat as the extinction of the seals. Still blaming the problem on low marriage rates, the Treasury Secretary established a policy designed to bring marriageable men into the village.

The question of depopulation of the islands of St. Paul and St. George is a serious one and demands attention. . . You will therefore take into consideration the proposition to recruit the permanent inhabitants of the islands of St. Paul and St. George by placing upon them next year a small number (ten or twenty) of young men, or transferring to these islands several families in which are a number of young men.27
With this mandate, agents intensified efforts to promote marriage, using the same coercive tactics as in the preceding period: "Finally decided Neon Shabolin can marry Fecla Shane and Neon Mandregan can marry Mary Kotchootin. Alex Melividou and one or two others to go to Unalaska or St. George and find wives or they can't come back.28

Apparently agents did not perceive coercion and exile as undermining the Aleuts' welfare. Like others in that day, they judged welfare in terms of physical well-being. Consequently, while they frightfully violated the Aleuts' rights, they also tried to protect the Aleuts from impoverishment. In the absence of government intervention, agents began to issue supplies of food and clothing on credit. Increasingly, they importuned the department to provide funds for the Aleuts' relief.

The department will have to make some provision for the support and maintenance of these people, as their mode of making a living has been destroyed for the present, and the future is only what the charity of government will make it. There is utterly nothing here upon which they can depend for a livelihood until the much wished for return of seals takes place, an event too far in the future to give promise of better times to these-unfortunate people.29
Appeals such as these came at a time when top management was reeling under the impact of the threatened destruction of its own mission in the Pribilofs. Cost considerations, important from the outset of the program, now became urgent—economy, belt tightening, these were the clamorous policy motifs. The Aleuts' poverty at a time like this apparently irked managers. As if swatting a pesky fly, their first reaction to agents' pleas for remedying poverty was an instruction to distribute among the Aleuts money they had collected for the church consistory in San Francisco. The agent in charge complied.
In accordance with the instructions of May 2, the funds placed in the hands of the North American Commercial Company by the priest of the Greek church for trans mission to the consistory at San Francisco was counted in the presence of the Government officer and the company official, and the amount was found to be $3,334.10.

On June 26, a meeting of the priest and the chief men of the village was called, and they were informed that in view of the needy condition of the natives the Department deemed it wiser that these funds should be redistributed to them. The natives agreed that as the funds were to be distributed all those present in the village should be partakers of the benefits of it.30

Funds amounting to a little over $3,000—hardly a solution to a poverty problem. Moreover, this act antagonized church officials, and in response to their protests, the department returned the money several years later, although it repaid it from funds appropriated for the Aleutst relief.31

But the Aleuts' poverty and high death rate and agents' alarm about them continued; the issue could no longer be avoided. Indian poverty, of course, was not unique to the Pribilofs. Deprived of a land base and subsistence resources, poverty was widespread among Indians in the reservations in the west, and federal relief for these tribes was common. In line with this practice, the department requested and was granted a Congressional relief appropriation for the Pribilof Aleuts. Beginning in 1894, Congress appropriated $19,500 annually for all but one year in the second lease period.32

The relief appropriation, intended as a poverty reduction measure, proved be a turning point in labor relations on the Pribilofs as we shall soon see. It did, however, achieve its intended purpose. When calculated as income, the appropriation succeeded in bringing Aleuts' average annual income up to and in some years above that of the average United States production worker.St. George's income was even higher than St Paul's due to the increase in fox skin sales.33 One wonders if it were a coincidence or if the appropriation were designed to achieve parity with other workers. On a per capita basis, though, because the Aleuts' families were larger than the national average, their income was below that of other workers. But this is a risky comparison, for the United States per capita figure includes all kinds of income—property, interest, profit. A better comparison is per capita personal consumption if we assume that Aleuts spent all their income on personal consumption (most of it was in the form of consumer goods in any case). This comparison shows that per capita consumption levels were 40.2 percent lower than national levels on St. Paul and 17.8 percent power on St. George. Thus, even with a comparable annual wage, the low per capita congumption level in the Pribilofs suggests that Aleuts faced greater poverty than other Americans. 34.

Because of the form by which it was administered, the relief appropriation presaged a major shift in the Aleuts' economic status. At first the department conceived the appropriation as a wage supplement, as payment for labor that formerly had been unpaid. Agents opened accounts for each sealer and made them deblors for the orders given them. At the same time agents credited sealers' accounts with the amounts earned doing labor for government, at the rate of 15 cents an hour, and included in the compensation plan work for which Aleuts had not been paid in the past, such as guarding the rookeries.35

This system seems reasonable. The Aleuts worked for the government for most of the year. Nonetheless, after a few years it ceased operating and was replaced by a system in which not only the appropriation but the sealing wage were distributed as charity. The St. Paul agent, Dr. Walter Lembkey, reminiscent of Bryant's vehement advocacy for Aleut autonomy in the earlier period, adamantly protested this change. His annual reports include page after page of objections.

Heretofore the native could expend his earnings as he pleased. After the appropriation, however, the earnings were sequestered by the agents, and the natives had no voice whatever in the expenditure of the money for which they toiled. Each native was allotted articles of necessity to a certain amount each week payable from his wages and after the latter were expended the appropriation was drawn upon at the same rate until another sealing season intervened. . .

This plan of compensation . . . is highly objectionable when considered from a sociological standpoint, its weakness being that it reduces all to a common level. It prevents the progress that accrues from the cultivation of superior skill or greater selfdenial and makes a virtual almshouse of the Pribilof reservation by dealing with the inhabitants as indigents. It requires willing service of the native but takes from him his wage and expends it for his benefit without his consent. Incentive to increased individual efficiency is lacking because effort to that end is fruitless in bringing any greater benefit if it had not been made.

It is reasonable to assume that the Government, while operating on the seal islands for its own profit, at the same time desires to better the condition of the native residents upon whose efforts it must depend for successful conduct of its business. The first step in that direction is to do away with the appropriation of Congress for their support and to increase the wage earned through the taking of skins to a sum at least equal to the amount necessary for their maintenance. This would at once eliminate the objectionable element of charity in the present system and allow each man to support himself and family from his own earnings . . . it would go far toward increasing the moral tone of the native, by making him more self-reliant and self respecting. It can be taken without additional legislation, the Secretary of Commerce and Labor now having the power under existing law to fix the natives' compensation for taking skins.36

Lembkey was also indignant about the incredibly complicated system for administering the appropriation and the sealing wage.

(1) From the whole amount appropriated by Congress a sum is deducted sufficient to pay for the annual supply of coal for both islands . . .

(2) The remainder is apportioned between the two islands on a basis varying with the condition whether the natives' earnings from seal and fox skins . . . are greater or less than usual.

(3) The amount apportioned for either island is then added to the amount realized from natives' earnings on that island and the total sum is allotted as follows:

(a) An amount, say $1,000, is deducted for an "emergency fund"and the remainder is divided in 12 equal parts, representing months of the year, or for greater accuracy 52 equal parts, representing weeks. This determines the amount which may be expended each week or month . . . for the whole island.

(b) The total number of natives to be supported by the Government is then ascertained from the census — two children being considered equal to one adult — and divided into weekly or monthly allotment for the whole island, thus establishing a per capita allowance for the week or month.

(c) The number of natives in each family is then ascertained from the census, and the per capita amounts are combined to give a basis for the expenditure for each family for the week or month.

(d) It having been demonstrated that a large family can live more cheaply per capita than a small one, a rearrangement of amounts is made, deducting a certain sum from the large family allotments and adding it to those for the small families, and a final adjustment is reached, giving—as in the fiscal year 1903—from about $5.50 per week for a family of two to about $8.50 or $9 a week for a family of seven.

(e) Having thus established the amount to which each family is entitled, the issues of food and clothing are then made on Saturday of each week to the heads of families, each head being given an order for supplies . . . which is filled in the lessee's store. . .

(f) In case of sickness, death, childbirth, marriage, or other unusual conditions requiring an expenditure not contemplated in the regular allowance the emergency fund is drawn upon.

(g) No expenditure from the appropriation has been allowed until the native head of family has expended his earnings from the taking of skins.

(h) Ledger accounts both of his earnings and the expenditures from the appropriation, are kept on the islands with each head of family, which is credited with his weekly allowance and debited with the amount of his weekly order.37

A bureaucratic labyrinth such as this doesn't spring spontaneously to life; its design must have taken considerable thought and planning. And what was behind the design? Cost considerations—plainly and simply. For one reason, Aleuts could and did use part of their cash earnings for purchases at Unalaska. Paying them in supplies eliminated this practice. For another reason, the government could, through manipulation of the quantity and quality of supplies, keep the costs of in kind payments at a bare minimum. Listen to the 1906 instructions to agents.
Articles of strict necessity only should be issued. No expensive dress goods, boots, or other articles are to be provided. The native should be restricted to one pair of shoes each year and the women to one good dress. Ginghams, calicoes, muslins, and similar inexpensive dress goods may be issued in reasonable quantities.38
Agents' logs repeatedly reveal the inadequacy of government-issued supplies.
Pribilof Islands Daily Log, St. George, August 27, 1898. Also informed the natives that I will have to reduce orders because of reduced money.

Pribilof Islands Daily Log, St. Paul, January 25,1896. It seems that neither milk nor lard is issued these people—which is not right.

Pribilof Islands Daily Log, St. Paul, February 20,1896. Owing to continued cold weather and scarcity of coal some of the widows agreed to double up temporarily.

Pribilof Islands Daily Log, St. Paul, June 11,1910. The natives came in this morning for their orders as usual but there was no such thing as filling their orders even though they are on short allowance.

Though the shortage of supplies in the above instance was due to the delayed arrival of the supply ship, agent Lembkey, a tireless champion of the Aleuts' welfare, argued that the supplies regularly furnished did not cover all necessities, such as candles, matches, stove repairs, cooking utensils, tableware, and furniture. He estimated the average annual costs of these other necessaries at $99.03 per family and showed that all men on St. George and thirteen men on St. Paul earned substantially less than that amount. 39

Clearly, it was easier for managers to reduce costs by manipulating supplies than cash wages, and to accomplish this they instituted a system of payments in kind based on need rather than labor, a system that deprived Aleuts of their status as wage earners. If not wage earners, what was the Aleuts' economic status? They were not relief recipients; relief recipients are unemployed and the Aleuts labored. The Aleuts were wards of the government, a status that grew out of the protectorate relationship established in the 1870 Act. In our search of records, the first application of the term 'ward' to Pribilof Aleuts appeared in the Department's 1891 instructions to agents.40 Thereafter, the Department routinely referred to the Aleuts as wards.

Precedents for the idea of wardship are embedded in the history of Indian policy in the United States, most of which concerned control over land. Early government policies toward Indians, based on recognition of their equal status, resulted in treaties that respected Indian property. But immigration and the demands of industrial development wrought profound changes in the relationship. Economic development and western expansion created a continuous demand for land, and Indians owned much of it. In 1830 Congress passed the Indian Removal Act which moved Indians from their land in the east to reservations in the west. This appeased but did not sate the land hunger. As western migration gathered momentum in the 1880s, there was a growing demand for access to the rest of the Indian lands. In 1887 Congress enacted the Indian Allotment Act (Dawes Act) which required Indians to divide their common lands into individual tracts. Ultimately, two-thirds of this land was sold to settlers.41

Removing Indians from their natural habitats and then breaking up their common lands which were the base of the economies, indeed, rendered Indians dependent on the government. In recognition of this dependency, Congress and the courts defined Indians as "domestic dependent nations" who were wards of the government. As used in common law, wardship refers to a relationship in which a guardian (a) has custody of the ward's person and can decide where the ward is to live, (b) is required to educate and maintain the ward out of the ward's estate, (c) is authorized to manage the ward's property for the benefit of the ward, (d) is precluded from profiting at the expense of the ward's estate, and (e) is accountable to the wards and the courts for its conduct toward the wards. Cohen, Ickes, and Margold, in a comprehensive review of federal Indian laws, asserted that the common law usage of wardship does not strictly characterize the relationship between the United States and Indians, but that there are enough similarities and paralells to account for its application in this country.42

One of the most salient features of wardship is the very broad and vaguely defined Congressional power exercised over Indians. By virtue of this broad power, legislation that would have been unconstitutional if applied to non-Indians was held to be constitutional when applied to Indians.43 Inequality inheres in the exercise of such broad powers; in fact, court decisions gave official recognition to this inequality.

The recognized relationship between the parties to this controuersy, therefore, is that between a superior and inferior, whereby the latter is placed under the care and control of the former and which, while it authorized the adoption on the part of the United States of such policy as their own public interests may dictate, recognizes, on the other hand, such an interpretation of their acts and promises as justice and reason demand in all cases where power is exerted by the strong over those to whom they owe care and protection.44
These broad powers and the inequality embedded in them inevitably deprived Indians of the rights and privileges accorded other Americans. Even the citizenship rights of Indians were abrogated. Occasionally the courts confused the term 'wardship' with Indian noncitizenship. But Congressional acts and court decisions repeatedly show that the extent of Congressional power over Indians did not diminish when citizenship was granted. It remained in full force even after the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924. In the Pribilofs the wardship definition was established by a Treasury Secretary who himself believed Aleuts to be citizens.

1891 Instructions to Agents.

You will endeavor to secure the good will and confidence of the native inhabitants of the islands and advise them, whenever practicable, of their rights and duties as American citizens.45

Wardship laws distinguish between Congressional and administrative powers, limiting the latter to enforcing Congressional mandates; administrative agencies cannot issue and enforce their own regulations. But this distinction did not apply in the Pribilofs where the law gave the Secretary of the Treasury carte blanche in making rules and regulations related to the comfort, maintenance, education, and protection of the Aleuts. Incredibly broad administrative powers, these—they must represent a unique case in United States history.

While the Secretary of the Treasury was appointed protector of the Pribilof Aleuts, the Aleuts themselves were not legally defined as wards. Rather,they became wards by administrative fiat. In 1929 the governor of Alaska asked the United States Department of Justice to clarify the political status of Alaska Indians—Indians was the generic term used for all Alaska natives. "In the opinion of this Department, Alaska Indians are not wards of government within the meaning of court cases applying to Indians in other parts of the United States," replied the United States attorney.46 In recognition of the questionable legality or outright illegality of defining Pribilof Aleuts as wards, a high-ranking official in 1942 tried to cover the government's tracks.

In correspondence and reports, we often have referred to the Pribilof natives as "virtual wards of the Government." This shows that technically or legally, we have not considered them as wards of the Government though in effect they have been in that status.47

Curious, isn't it?—that after a practical, "dollars and cents" reason for denying Aleuts' status as wage earners arose, managers called on the ideology of wardship to explain it. In this case, certainly, ideology did not initiate policy, as scholars sometimes claim; it was brought into play to justify the policy. In any event, although managers probably considered the payment in kind an emergency measure during a period of economic depression in the islands, it came to be the defining feature of labor-management relations in the Pribilofs until quite recently.

The economic depression in the Pribilofs, although the dominant issue in this period, was not the sole management consideration. The Pribilof program was affected by a general trend toward greater elaboration of federal bureaucracies. In 1903, the government created a new department—Commerce and Labor to which it assigned administrative responsibility for the Pribilofs; in 1909, it established within the Department of Commerce and Labor, the Bureau of Fisheries which managed the Pribilofs thereafter. At the same time, the Pribilof program had to organize a more complex set of responsibilities than before due to expanded lease requirements, intensification of seal herd management, and administration of the Aleuts' relief appropriation. Relying on past experience in the Pribilofs, the new Department routinized its operation, and issued regular, detailed instructions which codified a number of practices that agents had informally established in the past. Obligatory labor was now official policy.

You are directed to utilize their (the Aleuts') services when not required by the company, in repairing roads, guarding the rookeries, and performing such other duties as seem desirable.
Interference in the Aleuts' political system was now officially sanctioned.
No interference should be permitted in the selection of their chiefs by the native inhabitants of the islands. If it should transpire, however, that persons manifestly unsuitable for the position are chosen, it will be your duty to interpose in the interests of good government and require the selection of proper persons, but such action should be taken only in extreme cases.
The ban on sugar was now officially authorized.
Should intoxication become so general among the people as to interfere with good government and jeopardize the peace, you are authorized to discontinue altogether the sale of sugar and of other articles entering into the manufacture of intoxicants for such length of time as may appear wise.
Exile was now officially condoned.
Should natives or other persons become so unruly or immoral in conduct as to danger the peace and good government of the people, they should be remoued from the islands and the Revenue Cutter Service will be instructed to render such assistance as may be necessary for that purpose.
Secrecy about the Pribilof operation was now official policy.
No information regarding the seals or as to any other matter pertaining to the seal islands is to be given out by you or by any of the assistant agents. All applications for such information should be referred to the department.48

These instruction remained in effect until after World War II

And so the government, responsible for protecting Aleuts from potential abuse by a private company, itself created a system of political and economic domination and abuse, justified in terms that the Aleuts were wards of the government. And we see the forces that led the government to set up such a totalitarian system on the Pribilofs. The system grew from a set of priorities that placed economic incentives and market place standards first and the Aleuts' welfare last. Because Aleut labor was essential to its economic goals, the government assured the Aleuts' physical survival. But Aleut autonomy and freedom were not necessary to achieve its mission; in fact, officials saw them as a deterrent.

More germane to bringing revenues into the treasury was forced labor, emasculation of the Aleuts' political authority, and punishments, including exile, for Aleut defiance. Nonetheless, in the economically prosperous years of the first lease, the government was satisfled that the Aleuts earned a reasonable wage and were paid in cash as were other American workers. In the years of the second lease, with the threatened extermination of the seals, a severe economic downturn, and an actual loss in federal revenues, cost considerations became the dominant concern. With a tradition of ignoring and even trampling on the Aleuts' rights, it was a simple short step to denying them their right to cash wages and to payment for labor performed. And given the times in which they lived, when the Indian wars were still in progress and when Indians were defined as wards with no civil rights, it was a simple step to justify any treatment of the Pribilof Aleuts in terms of Indian wardship status. When government agencies in general and the Pribilot management agency in particular became more beaucratically sophisticated, the Pribilof program routinized its operations and codified abusive practices that agents had informally introduced in the past and that Washington officials had implicitly blessed. Economic and political domination of the Pribilof Aleuts became official federal policy.

People considerations aside, by the end of the second lease, Pribilof managers still faced enormous anxiety about the future of the seals and of international negotiations to control pelagic sealing. Furthermore, there was talk that the North American Commercial Company was itself engaging in pelagic sealing. The department faced some hard decisions when it came time to consider a new lease.


1. U.S. Congress, House, Seal Fisheries of Alaska, H. Exec. Doc. No. 83, 44th Cong., 1st sees., 1876, pp. 152-171.

2. Conducted by the House Committee on Ways and Means.

3. U.S. Congress, House, The Alaska Commercial Company, H. Rpt. No. 623, 44th Cong., 1st sees., 1876, p. 143.

4. Ibid., p.13.

5. U.S. Congress, House, Fur Seal Fisheries of Alaska, H. Rpt. No. 3883, 50th Cong., 2nd sees., 1889, p. xxviii.

6. Conducted by the House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries. Fur Seal Fisheries, H. Rpt. No. 3883, p. vii.

7. U.S. Congress, Senate, Message from the President of the United States, S. Exec. Doc. No.67, 53rd Cong., 3rd sees., 1895, pp. 34-36.

8. U.S. Treasury Department, Special Agents Division, Seal and Salmon Fisheries and General Resources of Alaska, 4 vol. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1898), Vol. 1: Reports on the Conditions of Seal Life on the Pribilof Islands by Special Treasury Agents in Charge, and Others, from 1865 to 1898 Both Inclusive, p. 188; Edwin W. Sims, Report on the Alaskan Fur-Seal Industry of Alaska, H. Rpt. No. 251, 59th Cong., 2nd sees., 1906, p. 41.

9. U.S. Congress, House, Hearings Before the Committee on Expenditures in the Department of Commerce and Labor, House of Representatives, on House Resolution No. 73, to Investigate the Fur-Seal Industry of Aaska, No 14,62nd Cong., 1st sees., 1911-1912, p. 967.

10. Fur Seal Fisheries, H. Rpt. No. 3883, p.109.

11. In June 1891 the United States and Great Britain agreed upon a modus vivendi by which Great Britain was to prohibit seal killing until the following May in the Bering Sea eastward of the line of demarcation described in the Treaty of Cession, and the United States was to prohibit seal killing in the Pribilofs in excess of 7,500 seals to be taken for the subsistence of Aleuts. While the modus vivendi was to be effective for only one year, it was renewed in 1892 and 1893.

At the same time, the United States and Great Britain agreed to consign the seal controversy to a tribunal of arbitration. Meeting in Paris in 1894, the tribunal rejected the closed sea concept, required the United States to pay damages for seizing Canadian vessels, and agreed upon certain conservation measures—prohibitions against the use of firearms, nets, and explosives in hunting, and a closed season between May and September; however, it opened the season under certain restrictions in August, a time when the entire seal herd was in the Bering Sea. The above summarizes the negotiations contained in Message from the President, S. Exec. Doc. No. 67. 12. 30 Stat 226 (December 29, 1897).

13. U.S. Congress, Senate, Fur Seal Skin Sales, S. Doc. No. 213, 67th Cong., 2nd sees., 1922, p. 1.

14. Gross revenues from the blue fox trade on the Pribilofs were only $235,258 over the twenty years of the lease. George Rogers, An Economic Analysis of the Pribilof Islands, 1870-1946. Prepared for the Indian Claims Commission, Docket Nos. 352 and 369 (Fairbanks: University of Alaska, Institute of Social, Economic and Government Research, 1976), p. 77.

Ownership of property rights to foxes became a hotly debated issue early in the second lease period. The company claimed that it had inherited property rights to foxes from the Alaska Commercial Company. The government agent in charge of the islands believed that the Treasury Department owned the foxes since they were on the islands m the Russian period. And *ee traders put in their bid to participate in the Pribilof fox trade. The department resolved these conflicting claims in Pavor of the company, giving it an exclusive lease to the Pribilof fox trade, although unlike the seal contract, the government received no revenues *om it. This development, in essence, meant that the company had a monopoly of trade on the islands for fox and seal production and were the only industries. Seal and Salmon Fisheries, (Vol. 1), p. 281.

15. Rogers, An Economic Analysis, pp. 82-83.

16. Ibid, p. 78.

17. Ibid., p. 75.

18. The Alaska Commercial Company, H. Rpt. No. 623, p. 12.

19. Fur Seal Fisheries, H. Rpt. No. 3883, p. xxiii.

20. U.S. Congress, House, H. Rpt. No. 451, 54th Cong., 1st sees., 1896, p. 1.

21. Ibid., p. 2. 22. 30 Stat 1093 (March 3, 1899).

23. Rogers, An Economic Analysis, p. 96.

24. Pribilof Aleuts crude death rates exceeded birth rates nearly every year. In the 1890 to 1894 period, the average crude death rate was 61.2 in St. Paul and 49.2 in St. George compared to 18.2 for Massachusetts. Dorothy M. Jones, A History of United States Administration in the Pribilof Islands,1867-1946/i>. Prepared for the Indian Claims Commission, Dockets Nos. 352 and 369 (Fairbanks: University of Alaska, Institute of Social and Economic Research, 1976), p. 87.

25. U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Statistical History of the United States, Colonial Times to the Present, 1965, Series B-163.

26. Pribilof Islands Daily Log, St. Paul, October 10, 1890.

27. Seal and Salmon Fisheries (Vol. 1), pp. 269-270.

28. Pribilof Islands Daily Log, St. Paul, August 2, 1892, September 1, 1892.

29. Seal and Salmon Fisheries (Vol. 1), p. 236.

30. Ibid., p. 331.

31. 28 Stat 391 (August 18, 1894). The appropriation for 1894 is stated as follows:

To enable the Secretary of the Treasury to furnish food, fuel, and clothing to the native inhabitants on the islands of St. Paul and St. George, Alaska, nineteen thousand five hundred dollars shall be appropriated and of the portion of said sum to be distributed to the inhabitants of St. Paul, three thousand three hundred and twenty-five dollars shall be paid to the bishop of the Greek Church, San Francisco, California, in full satisfaction of the amount contributed by members of said church of said island and placed in the hands of the agent of the North American Commercial Company for delivery to the bishop of said church, and afterwards, under instructions of the Treasury Department, expended in furnishing the natives of said island necessary supplies to prevent suffering and starvation, a prorate amount being allowed each of the families on the island.

32. The relief appropriation was dropped to $15,000 for the year 1904, 32 Stat 1111 (March 3, 1903).

33. Rogers, An Economic Analysis, p. 96.

34. Ibid., pp. 101, 102.

35. Seal and Salmon Fisheries (Vol. 1), p. 360.

36. U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor, Appendix A, to Hearings on House Resolution No. 73, 62nd Cong., 1st sees., 1911, pp. 1039-1041.

37. Ibid., pp. 22-23.

38. Ibid., p. 148.

39. Ibid., p. 216.

40. Seal and Salmon Fisheries (Vol. 1), p. 308. Agent Williams in 1891 referred to the department's definition of Pribilof Aleuts as wards of the government.

41. Theodore Haas, "The Legal Aspects of Indian Affairs from 1887-1957," The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science: American Indians and Indian Life, May 1957, p. 15.

42. Felix S. Cohen, et. al., Handbook of Federal Indian Law (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1942), p. 169.

43. Ibid., p.170.

44. The Supreme Court of the United States in the case of Choctaw Nation versus United States, 1886.

45. Seal and Salmon Fisheries (Vol. 1), p. 270.

46. R.F. Roth, United States Attorney, to Governor Thomas Riggs (Alaska), May 13, 1921. Bureau of Fisheries Records, Federal Archives and Records Center, Seattle.

47. Ward T. Bower, Chief, Division of Alaska Fisheries, to Fredericka Martin, September 29, 1942. Fredericka Martin Records.

48. Appendix A to Hearings, 1911, pp. 41-42.

Chapter 4 - Sole Federal Jurisdiction, 1910 to 1981

Table of Contents

ArcticCircle Home Page