Century of Servitude

Chapter 7. Turning Point, 1945-1960

The Aleuts' nightmarish memories of the evacuation persisted, but the experience itself laid the groundwork for significant changes in the Pribilof management system. The evacuation not only brought the Pribilof story to the attention of others; it brought the outside world to the attention of the Aleuts, giving them a comparative basis for assessing their circumstances. In the process, they found confirmation for their life‑long suspicion that their rights and dignity were being grossly violated. This confirmation catalyzed the Aleuts' political energies; they became determined to change their conditions, to fight for equality and independence.

The political climate was favorable for reform in the Pribilofs. On the heels of the anti-fascist war, many groups in the nation and in the United Nations dedicated themselves to eliminating persisting oppression. The Indian Rights movement proliferated after the war, invigorated by the enhanced political consciousness of some Indian war veterans, the urbanization of Indians, and the development of pan-Indian organizations. National attitudes toward Alaska were also changing as the Alaska independence struggle gained strength and momentum. The defense build-up in Alaska during the war including transportation and communication developments, the emergence of a resident‑based construction industry, and major population increases set the stage for the final drive to statehood. Alaska was becoming more urbanized, its institutions more differentiated, and its growing population more demanding of the rights, privileges, and economic opportunities enjoyed by residents in other states.1

In this changing political climate, the Aleuts and their supporters found many receptive ears. Among their supporters, Fredericka Martin was the most tireless advocate. A dedicated anti‑fascist, Martin had served with the American brigade in Spain and saw the Pribilof struggle as a continuation of the fight against totalitarianism. In the first years after the war, Martin wrote articles describing the Pribilof management as feudalistic paternalism and carried the Pribilof story to one group after another‑to the National Congress of American Indians, the President's Advisory Commission on Indian Rights, the Navajo Institute, the United Nations' Ad Hoc Committee on Slavery, the International Labor Organization, and many others.2 The National Congress of American Indians took a leading role in organizing protest against inequities on the Pribilofs. In one of its first efforts in the Aleuts'behalf, the National Congress in 1947 won the interest of two prominent Washington, D.C. attorneys - Curry and Felix Cohen. Cohen, formerly a solicitor for the Department of Interior, was considered the foremost authority on Indian law in the nation and had been the major architect of the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act. 3 A third attorney, an Indian from southeastern Alaska, William Paul, joined Curry and Cohen in representing the Pribilovians. Paul had spearheaded the founding of the first native political organization in Alaska in 1912, the Alaska Native Brotherhood and its companion Sisterhood. (This was the sole Alaska native political organization until the early 1960s.) Though organized in southeastern Alaska and interested primarily in Indians of that area, the Brotherhood joined the organizations demanding change in the Pribilofs.

The interaction between these actors - the Aleuts, their attorneys, Fredericka Martin, and Indian Rights organizations - had a snowball effect as each group drew encouragement and inspiration from the support of the others; in the process, they merged themselves into a relatively cohesive force for change, a force that posed a powerful challenge to the Pribilof management bureaucracy.

In the past, the Pribilof management agencies had been largely sheltered from demands and threats from interest groups, within or outside the Pribi1ofs; they were essentially a closed system. They had minimal interchange with their larger environment except for groups interested in fur seal pro­ducts and profits and except as such interchanges were forced by the decline of the fur seal and the necessity of designing and adjusting new management regimes. None of this had much to do with the welfare of the Pribilof people except as such "welfare" responses were byproducts of the economic outputs of fur seal harvesting. The system remained closed because of the isolation of the Pribilofs and the absence of groups agitating for reform in the social aspects of the program. There is simply little or no record of any outside agencies or interests calling for such reform. For most of its history, then, the federal administration of the Pribilofs was a closed system within a bureaucratic structure that was largely insulated from its external environment. Even if the administrative system had been exposed earlier to scrutiny from outside, it may not have posed a significant challenge to the social and political aspects of the program because of the tenor of those times, times when fierce exploitation of labor in the interests of industrial development was commonly accepted practice and when national attitudes toward Alaska and especially toward its native inhabitants were colonialist in nature.

 Now, with a favorable political climate, an emboldened Aleut community, and a core group of change agents outside the community, the closed, insulated Pribilof administration faced a serious challenge. Let us trace the process of change that ensued: the interplay between change agents and the administrative bureaucracy; the pushes and pulls; the setbacks and triumphs; and how the central actors in this drama, the Pribilof Aleuts, experienced these events.

  During the evacuation, a St. Paul Aleut leader joined the Alaska Native Brotherhood, and after repatriation he managed to attend the organization's annual conventions in Juneau. Inspired by these contacts, the Aleut leader, along with his half brother and one or two others, set out to organize a local Brotherhood chapter in St. Paul. One of the organizers gave a colorful description of the first Brotherhood meeting.

I started running around gathering up young fellows. I met about 46 men for meeting. So we put up meeting and Elary told them all about this ANB - how it works, and well, we gonna start a little club here, and most of them got up and say we want to be ANB. So allright - $12 a year original donation, We put it up. And the other fellows didn't know nothing so we started talking over this here‑about how they handling us here. We started like in ourselves talking.

We put up the petition. The first petition we put up we sent to Juneau. And they have lawyers and secretary. That petition ...was recopied and bettered and sent to us to have the President sign it, seal it up, send it. And just before St. Paul here know anything about this - from Washington they get wondering what's going on on the Pribilof Islands.4

What's going on in the Pribilofs? - indeed, that question was on officials' minds. The pressure for change was felt most keenly at the Washington level; top management was the prime target. And managers had to adapt to the rising crescendo of challenge. They responded in several ways - denial and resistance at first, then small concessions, and later, larger adjustments. Vacillation between resistance, concession, and adjustment characterized manage­ment responses to reform demands in the first decade after the war.

In 1947 the attorneys applied to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs for approval to represent the Pribilovians. The Indian Reorganization Act, for the first time, established the right of Indians to have legal council of their own choosing though it was conditional on Interior Department ap­proval. The attorneys encountered repeated delays in their application. One resulted from top management questioning the Pribilovians' eligibility for benefits of the Act, presumably on the basis of the old 'wardship' concept. 5 After eligibility was established, Secretary of Interior Warne refused to recognize this particular group of attorneys, claiming that he had no proof they were lawyers of the Aleuts' choosing. What would constitute proof?‑a formal legal contract designating retainer fees. 6 The attorneys' agreement with the Aleuts had been informal until then; they had never raised the question of fees, knowing full well that Aleuts had little money. Obviously, their interest in this case was not generated by the promise of wealth; it was to fight injustice, as Cohen indicated in a letter to the Aleuts: "I was first led to accept your invitation to serve as attorney ... because of my feeling that your people have suffered great injustices, and my hope that I could help to remedy the ,vorst of these injustices. 7

To comply with Warne's demand, the attorneys sent a formal contract Istipulating fees to the St. Paul people. The Aleuts were distressed, they knew not how to interpret this business of fees. Was this another instance where whites wanted to take advantage of them? Where would they get the money to pay the fees? Was it worth it? One of the leaders raised these questions with Martin who responded with convincing explanations, at least they convinced the Aleuts.

To revert to the latest attempts to prevent the sealers from bettering their lives, one of the first is Mr. Warne's demand that your attorneys produce a formal, legal contract proving that the attorneys are the lawyers of your choice. This is an important thing to remember when discussing the fee with your associates: that the lawyers asked for no fee or contract when they began working in your behalf and only did so when Mr. Warne demanded it - knowing full well that it would take a long time because of the distance and poor mails for a regular contract to be completed. During this time perhaps Interior or Fish and Wildlife could either discourage the people or frighten them or persuade them to accept some other, less valuable plans ... When Mr. Warne demanded a contract, the lawyers then had to follow the legal rules for such but you now have their letter ascertaining that they will leave it up to the leaders to decide whether to pay from time to time or some each month, etc. In other words, your lawyers will not push you for money and would not, despite the work they have already done, have asked for money at this time. This is a victory for the Fish and Wildlife Service, a small one if it only causes a delay but a very large one if the sealers let the matter of fees make them distrust the lawyers or stop fighting along the lines we have started.8

Reassured, the St. Paul Aleuts consummated their legal contract, although final approval from Interior took nearly two years from the time it was first initiated.

 One of the main reasons Aleuts wanted legal counsel was to secure their right to local self-government. This was one of the St. Paul Aleuts'top priorities.

We are considering our independence and self-governing. The community and Alaska Native Brotherhood council had a meeting and we talked about this matter. We were nine in all and everyone of us agreed that we should have our independence and self‑governing community, that we should make our own constitution.9

A fearsome undertaking for the Aleuts, given their political inexperience and history of political intimidation. Where would it lead? What unexpected consequences might they encounter? One of the organizers confided these apprehensions to Martin.

If and after we do get independent I am afraid some people or organization may take advantage of us. Don't think I'm afraid for myself, it's the people of the island I am thinking about. You know there are some people, government or private, that do take advantage of the natives.10

Martin succeeded in quelling these fears and the leaders moved on with plans to incorporate for self-government.

Managers were not happy with this development. The proposed constitution for tribal government included provisions that threatened administrative priorities and the old system for controlling Aleuts. The charter called for possessory rights to land and the power to hold, manage, and dispose of all community property; to borrow money from the revolving Indian credit fund; to enter into business, and, most importantly, to sue (and be sued). Managers resisted incorporation, though in a different form than in the past. Too many eyes were now watching, too many ears listening to use direct retaliations; instead they used indirect, covert means to discourage the Aleuts' interest. One of the attorneys gave a revealing account of the use of this tactic.

We talked about incorporating the village under the Wheeler-Howard Act (Indian Reorganization Act). Mr. Johnston (General Manager) said that the people can do anything they want... Most of the rest of the conversation, however, concerned reasons why they should not or did not have to incorporate. First of all, he saw no way to run their own businesses since there is no transportation to or from the is­lands except by government boat and government boats will not bring goods to a native-owned store. Second, he said that since these people live on a reservation they could own no property. . . He said that these people have been dependent for generations - first (upon) the officials of the Russian government and now upon the officials of the federal government.11

  An Aleut sealer gave a similar report of officials' covert resistance to tribal incorporation.

We had a meeting by the community club with Mr. Olson (Assistant General Manager), Mr. Benson (Agent), and Father Baranoff. Subjects were about self-government answered by Mr. Benson and were as follows: The island is government property - that we did not have anything if we did have self-government under incorporation. We would not be able to pay for counsel because we wouldn't have enough tax payments; and Mr. Olson asked just what kind of self government (will) we be able to have, to install water line and street or what we had in mind and I told him we had in mind the Act of June 18, 1934... Then Mr. Olson asked why? I said so we could negotiate with the federal or territorial government. Olson didn't have anything to say to this.12

 These tactics seemed to have an effect opposite from that intended, for Aleut leaders' determination became stronger as a result of such resistance.

In the past, the Pribilovians' demands had been limited to small concessions‑to increases in supplies or the seal bonus. Now they were asking for some basic changes, not only in the area of self-government, but in economic and educational areas as well. In a petition by the local Brotherhood chapter in 1947 addressed to President Truman, Congress, and the Secretary of Interior, the Aleuts called not only for substantial increases in the seal bonus (from 90 cents on St. Paul and $1.20 on St. George to $1.50 on both islands) and additional supplies, but for a share of the profits from the seal industry, less government control, and transfer of schools from the supervision of the Fish and Wildlife Service to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. 13 They wanted the schools transferred because of the Bureau of Indian Affairs policy to advance Indian opportunities and educate Indians for posts in government.

The Aleuts and their supporters made one demand after another, but no significant action was forthcoming throughout the late 1940s. Thwarted by repeated stalls, petty excuses, silences, and inaction, the Aleuts considered more militant approaches. In early 1949, the sealers announced a strike, the first in many decades. And unlike those strikes in the past that were quietly enacted on the Islands and were readily suppressed by retaliation, this one made the national press.14 The strike was averted by managers' promise of a new wage system which was in fact introduced.

This degree of assertiveness was certainly novel behavior for the Aleuts. Their political passivity of the past was due not only to intimidation by management but to their long tradition of compliance with the benevolent decisions of chiefs and elders. By their very natures, Aleuts tended to avoid rather than confront conflicts. Harmony within villages was a supreme value and Aleuts had developed sophisticated means for maintaining it through the use of third-party intermediaries; norms that discouraged complaining, arguing, and confronting; and sanctions that involved ostracizing persons who violated these norms. Like Eskimos, Aleuts are noted for their finely tuned indirect styles of communication. I remember with poignancy the time an Aleut woman guest responded to an argument between my husband and myself with these words: "If it weren't between husband and wife I would say something." Did she or didn't she say something? However one interprets her remark, it effectively stopped the exchange on the spot with no hard feelings toward her.

This cultural style prevailed among Pribilof Aleuts after World War II. An Aleut leader tenderly described the pattern.

You asked me what I meant by sensitivity of the people... What I mean is ...they are kind and forgiving no matter how they have been abused. You can abuse them now and next day be kind and do something very satisfying that they will forgive and forget and be friendly again which is a good thing if we don't let it get us down.15

Given the Aleuts' long history of conflict avoidance, reinforced by the Pribilof management agencies' authoritarian control, how do we explain this growing assertiveness? Cultural styles persist when they are reinforced by contemporary realities, and the social and political realities of the Aleuts' lives were changing. Though consistently thwarted by management, the Aleuts were also beginning to see chinks in its armor as the forces for change grew and became more clamorous. They were sensing their own potential forcracking that armor. And they believed the realization of that potential would require new leadership styles, more aggressive and militant, styles very different from those of the chiefs of the past whose primary job had been to preserve harmony and avoid rocking the boat.

 Yet, with the Aleuts' history of compliance, one might ask how these new leaders acquired traits of assertiveness? In the first place, culture groups that emphasize conflict avoidance do not produce this orientation in every member; there are always deviations from the norm. Cultures produce a range of personalities so that when the need arises for a different type of leader there are usually some, albeit a minority, with the necessary traits. But there are additional reasons for the boldness of the two main leaders in St. Paul, the brothers. Both had spent considerable time living and working away from the islands, during which they gained a new perspective, a new basis for evaluating life at home. And with this perspective came a determination to protect their offspring from living under the same conditions theyhad  known. This determination was buttressed by a reduced fear of management, especially in one of the brothers who had been exiled from the islands; experiencing the worst and surviving undoubtedly emboldened him.

Stalwart and determined they were, nonetheless, an enormous burden fell on the brothers, as one of them movingly described:

This is why I hesitate sometimes. It is too much of a responsibility for one man. Now that Elary is at the Alaska Native Brotherhood convention, I have the local ANB and the community club to look after and do all the paperwork for both. All I do now is read and review different books and magazines and newspapers for reference ...they are the only confident advice I have up here...Sometimes I feel like you once told me, 'all alone.' Sometimes I feel like giving up everything if it wasn't for my son and wife. As long as I have those two I love so much I'll keep on fighting until we succeed.16

 The courage and perseverance of these leaders galvanized their supporters to an ever‑deepening commitment to their cause. Martin gave eloquent testimony to this effect.

But what comes out of all those struggles is the phenomenal event that a group of men, thrown back into isolation, harrassed in countless petty ways continually and threatened with worse, had the courage to stand firm and feed ammunition to people many of whom they never saw but to whom they gave their trust... It was a bond of friendship, each side gaining strength from the others. When I felt dis­couraged at the slowness of being held up by petty matters I would think of what St. Paul suffered and how brave Gabe and Elary were, how much harder it was for them‑how easy it was for me even when I was stopped a few times ...It was the bond between Aleut and white friends that the government couldn't break.17

 Indeed, the Aleuts' supporters conducted an unflagging struggle for reform on the Pribilofs. Managers responded with efforts to frighten and discredit them. Martin says that she was put under surveillance and her telephone was tapped. 18 Aleuts recount instances when agents told them Martin was a communist agitator and should be avoided. In an effort to deny the legitimacy of the reform movement, Clarence Olson the general manager (this position replaced that of superintendent) charged Martin in official communications with suspect motives, using propaganda, arousing the natives  to discontent, and the ultimate sin of passing information to them that she had gleaned from conversations with Washington officials. 19 Olson also tried to discredit the Aleuts' demands with similar McCarthy‑type invective.

There we have the formula for apparent discontent similar to what is happening throughout the nation. The pattern is about the same. Our St. Paul workmen are controlled by a small local group under the domination of outsiders who are well schooled in stirring unrest, A continuous flow of advice is pouring in through the mail warning these people that the FWS cannot be trusted. It would be comparatively simple to deal with these people if it were not for the unfair and dishonest influences exerted upon them by outsiders.20

  Again, these tactics failed to accomplish their intent. Each instance of resistance, each setback by management seemed to increase the reformers' motivation; they were now struggling on many fronts, raising one area of inequity after another, Of all their demands, the most clamorous and insistent was for economic reform. The Aleuts' economic status was still highly ambiguous. The new Fur Seal Act of 1944, similar to its 1910 predecessor, charged the Secretary of Interior with responsibility for paying the Aleuts fair compensation for labor performed as well as for furnishing food, shelter, clothing, fuel, and other necessities of life. The Fish and Wildlife Service had never clarified whether the supplies were wage supplements or gratuities, and if the latter, whether that meant the sealing and foxing bonuses - the Aleuts' only cash income was compensation for year-round work. Even in response to Secretary Warne's request for clarification of this issue, Director Day of the Fish and Wildlife Service gave contradictory interpretations. In the first part of a memo to Warne, he wrote:

I do not feel that the free issues of supplies to the resident natives of the Pribilof Is­lands should be viewed as charitable handouts as Miss Martin has suggested. In ef­fect, such supplies supplement the cash compensation received by these people. .

Later in the same memo, he contradicted this interpretation:

Under the provision of this legislation, the free issues of supplies to the natives ... cannot be considered specifically as payment for services rendered. They are available alike to workmen and unemployed widows. The Bureau of Internal Revenue has ruled that the value of such issues ... is not subject to federal income tax.21

In the same year as the above memorandum was written, the administrative officer of the Fish and Wildlife Service baldly stated that "the sealing and foxing division represents cash compensation not only for the taking of skins but for services of a related nature throughout the year. "22

If the bonuses were compensation for year‑round labor, then by any standards management was in violation of the fair‑compensation clause. In 1946, for example, the sealing and foxing divisions produced an average annual income per Pribilof worker of $502, 80 percent below the average annual income of other industrial workers. Even if the value of the supplies, estimated at $68,000 in 1946, had been included, Aleuts' average annual income would have been nearly 60 percent less than that for other industrial workers.23 And such comparisons do not take into account the re­cently established fringe benefits and social programs available to other workers but not to the Pribilovians.

In an effort to clear up the confusion about their wage status, Aleuts repeatedly asked for a wage-board hearing, but Warne refused.24

In addition to wage-board hearings, the Aleuts' program for economic reform included substantial wage increases, a straight cash wage to replace supplies, elimination of agents' disciplinary authority, and social security benefits.25 Apparently, by the end of the 1940s, the Aleuts thought better of pressing their earlier demand for a share of the profits from the seal industry, and focused instead on more realizable objectives. 

This reform program found support among an ever-expanding group; it now included public as well as private officials. The Alaska Commissioner of Labor, alerted to the situation on the Pribilofs by the Aleuts' attorneys, described labor-management relations there as peonage.

The terms and conditions of employment, the method of paying wages, provisions for workmen's compensation, disability insurance, old-age assistance and pensions are at such extreme opposites to the generally accepted practices that we must come to the conclusion that the economic status of these workers can only be classed as peonage. These conditions contradict the policies of the United States government as demonstrated in our participation in the International Labor Organization and the several activities of the United Nations organizations. 26

This letter, written to the St. Paul Community Club, came to the attention of the United States Commissioner of Labor, Maurice Tobin. His interest sparked, Tobin asked the Secretary of Interior for an explanation of these charges. 27 International organizations were also having an impact. Investigations by the International Labor Organization and the Committee of Inquiry into Forced Labor culminated later in a United Nations' charge of slavery on the Pribilofs.28

Secretary Warne responded to these pressures with a proposal for a new wage plan which the Aleuts rejected out of hand. For one reason, while the new plan included a straight cash wage, Warne set the rate of pay so low that it would have entailed an actual reduction in Aleuts' total income. For another reason, the Secretary still retained dominant power to determine wages, though the form was changed. Warne proposed a four-member wage board composed of two Aleuts and two Fish and Wildlife representatives. The hitch was that deadlocks in wage negotiations were to be resolved by the appointment of a third Fish and Wildlife employee, in effect perpetuating the Secretary's power to determine wage rates.29

The Aleuts' attorneys were irate about the plan, asserting that it was indefensible by any standards. Citing 1948 Department of Labor estimates of $3,111 a year for an average family at a level of adequate living, they pointed out that Warne's proposed wage rate would mean less than half that amount for the most skilled Pribilof workers and a small fraction of that amount for the least skilled. 30

Warne defended these proposed low wage rates on the basis of budgetary constraints imposed by Congress. "What can be done," he told Martin, "will depend entirely upon the action taken by Congress." 31 It was true that program funds were determined by annual Congressional appropriation. It was also true that though the times had changed, Congress in the late 1940s applied the same criteria to the Pribilof program as it had in the past - seals and profits, not the welfare of the people. The Congressional Appropriations Hearings for 1949 illustrated the operation of these standards. The chairman asked repeated questions about the net surplus from the seal industry, the size and health of the seal herd, and the expenditures for the program, but not a single question about the economic status or well-being of the Pribilovians. Yet, surplus funds were available for the program. Every year since 1943 the seal industry brought more revenues into the Treasury than the costs of the Pribilof program. The difference between revenues and pro­gram costs was striking in 1947; the net surplus from the industry was more than 2.5 million dollars while the appropriation for the program was only $850,000.32

Yes, Congress did impose budgetary constraints, but that is only part of the picture. Decisions made in appropriations hearings also reflect the nature and strength of the applicant's appeal, In the 1949 hearings, Director Day of the Fish and Wildlife Service made no mention of wage increases or any other economic demands. He was mute about the movement for economic reform on the Pribilofs. Day asked only for funds to cover physical improvements on the islands, scientific investigations, and additional supplies for Aleuts. Even in discussions of how to use the surplus funds from the seal industry, those over and above the costs of the program, Day made no refer­ence to Aleuts' welfare. Rather, he proposed using these surplus funds to b~lster other wildlife refuges.33

Thus, while Warne justified the low pay rates proposed for Aleuts in terms of Congressional constraints, he failed to instruct his representative, Day, to alert Congress to the need for wage increases and other economic change. Interior, like Congress, clung to the same market‑place criteria for the Pribilof program. It was this orientation that posed the most serious obstacle to meaningful economic change.

Meanwhile, with pressures for Pribilof reform mounting, Interior took a more offensive stance. In an effort to clear its name, the Secretary of Interior in 1949 appointed a special survey group to investigate charges of peonage and slavery. Two of the four members of the group were Department of Interior officials - Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service and Commissioner of Indian Affairs. The other two were the head of the Home Mission Council and the director of a University of Alaska department. 34 The group whitewashed the Fish and Wildlife Service and concluded that Pribilovians were better off economically than most other native groups in the territory.

The group can find absolutely no basis for the charge that the native Aleuts of the Pribilof Islands are held in "slavery," "bondage," or "peonage". . .We are forced to the conclusion that much of the criticism of the administration of the Pribilof Islands by the Fish and Wildlife Service is unjust, unwarranted, and without foundation in fact. Some of it may have been valid in the past, but it is not so at present. The bald fact remains that there are not now and never have been any destitute families, any neglected welfare cases, any crime or liquor problem (with the exception of home brew).. .

On the mainland, the Aleutian Chain, Nunivak Island, Nome and Kotzebue, poverty, disease and want are evident in striking contrast to the conditions on St. Paul and St. George islands.35

 The Aleuts and their supporters were keenly distressed by the report, believing the investigators overlooked and misrepresented some of the major inequities on the islands. Cohen wrote an impassioned critique of the report to Martin.

The indignant denial of peonage does not show any particular awareness of the nature of peonage. So far as appears from the report, a government official (the Secretary of the Interior) claims the following rights and powers over each inhabitant: (a) ownership of all land and buildings on the island including the homes of natives; (b) on the basis of such ownership, the right to determine what churches may be built in the native community and who may trade, visit, or meet with the natives; (c) the right to determine what attorneys, if any, the native communities may employ; (d) the right to determine what kind of local government the natives may establish; (e) the right to decide what wages each native shall receive so long as he remains on the island; (f) the right to confiscate his home if he leaves the island. I think that if any white community were thus subject to the decisions of an individual, whether a private person or a public official, who was not himself a member of the group thus controlled, "peonage" would be among the mildest of terms that would be used to describe the facts above listed.36

Martin challenged the assumption underlying the economic assessment, asserting that it made no sense to judge the Aleuts' economic well-being by comparing them with native communities that had no steady work or source of income. She believed that Interior sent the group to impoverished native communities to so shock them that anything they saw on the Pribilofs would be acceptable by comparison.37

Yes, the Aleuts and their friends were perturbed by the report, but in their distress they may have overlooked positive results stemming from the reports' recommendations for reform, recommendations that denied in part the exoneration of the Fish and Wildlife Service. In its recommendations, the group acknowledged the existence of serious problems and inequities by calling for approval of a corporate charter for St. Paul, higher education for Aleuts, improved race relations, employment of Aleuts in staff positions held by whites, and improved community facilities and services.38 Furthermore, because two members of the group were Department of Interior officials and one was the Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, the recommendations, endorsed by all members, had the stamp of a policy declaration. Surely, the Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service was no longer in a position to resist or oppose changes he himself had called for.

And, indeed, he and other Interior Department officials supported these recommendations. In 1950 the corporate charter was approved, albeit with the elimination of possessory rights to land and property; permanent consulting arrangements with the Alaska Departments of Education and Health were established; additional teachers were hired to improve the caliber of education on the islands; plans for a two-year high school for St. Paul were underway; supplies were increased; and most important of all, a new wage plan was put into effect. Top management's strategy was shifting. Resistance and small concessions were giving way to meeting some of the Aleuts' demands, although management still tried to shape these changes to fit the old structure of priorities and control. Yet, as we shall see in the next chapter, these reforms held the seeds for more far-reaching structural change.

One of the first significant acts of the newly established tribal council of St. Paul was a land claims suit against the United States, initiated in 1951. Since first engaging their attorneys, and on the advice of the attorneys, Aleuts had asked for ownership of their land, but the Secretary of Interior made sure that the tribal charter did not open the door for land negotia­tions: "Since neither Aleut residents nor any other person may acquire land on the Pribilof reservation, references in the charter and Constitution to such transactions have been modified accordingly. "39 With that recourse closed, the Aleuts then filed a legal suit against the United States claiming (1) aboriginal title to lands and adjacent waters, (2) fee title to lands and adjacent waters under Russian law, (3) fishing and hunting rights, and (4) lack of fair and honorable dealings. Three years later the Indian Claims Commission extinguished the claim on grounds that it was lawful for the United States to set aside the Pribilof Islands as a special reservation and lease grounds for commercial purposes.40 This decision concerned land claims only; it did not address the charge of violation of fair and honorable dealings. The attorneys reopened the case on the basis of the latter charge. In appeals during the next twenty-four years the attorneys traversed a web of legal contortions  which finally, in 1978, brought forth a favorable ruling, granting the Aleuts 11.2 million dollars in damages for violation of fair and honorable dealings by government.41 (To avoid an appeal by the government in 1979, the Aleuts settled for $8.5 million).

The new wage plan, initiated in January 1950, was shaped by negotiations that had been in progress since the end of the war, and that received the strongest impetus by a comprehensive wage plan submitted by Martin in 1949 to the Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Secretaries of Labor and Interior. The Martin plan, embodying the major reforms the Aleuts wanted, caused a hubbub of deliberations in Washington, within and between agencies,42 as management came to grips with the reality of the changing structure of interest groups to which it had to adapt. Meaningful economic reform could no longer be forestalled. Martin's proposal was the basis for the 1950 wage plan and subsequent revisions to it.

  The new pay plan was a mixture of old and new elements and contained many contradictions and provisions difficult to implement. In relation to the Aleuts' former economic situation, the new plan was a significant breakthrough. In comparison to the economic status of other American workers and federal employees, the Aleuts still lagged very far behind. In essence, the new plan reflected a combination of management strategies of resistance to basic structural change and of appeasement by partial concessions.

The stated philosophy underlying the plan was to encourage the Pribilovians to exercise their full rights and responsibilities as American citizens,while recognizing the complications this caused, given the Aleuts' status as virtual wards of government. The plan called for a small annual wage with a gradual transition to a full one. Its main features were these: The seal bonus continued, but at a reduced rate. In addition, the Aleuts received a small wage subject to annual wage rate reviews (based on wage rates on the Alaska Peninsula and the consumer price index for a moderate income family in Seattle). The payment of this wage as well as the bonus, however, was contingent on the availability of funds from the sale of seal skins. The supply issues were to be gradually replaced by cash, but at the outset, supplies, except fuel, continued. Indigents were given in kind support as in the past. The Aleuts were recognized as civil servants with federal benefits including retirement. And finally, agents were prohibited from using work demotions and lengthy work suspensions as punishment.43

While in the past, the Aleuts' income had often remained stationary or actually decreased,  the new plan contained a mechanism that tied their wage levels to those in the larger economy. As a result, the Aleuts' income rose every year after inauguration of the new plan. In St. Paul, for example, estimated average annual income (from all sources) per Aleut worker rose from $1,447 in 1951 to $2,236 in 1955 to $2,979 in 1960. Still it was 32 percent lower than that of the average worker (all industries) in 1960, but the gap was narrowing. 44

With increasing incomes and civil service status, what was wrong with the plan? What were its inequities? For one thing, the seal bonus, though considered part of Aleuts' wages, was not subject to annual wage rate review, Furthermore, the sealing rate was substantially reduced, from $1.20 and 90 cents on St. George and St. Paul, respectively, to 35 cents in each community. The reduction in seal rates was an apparent effort to offset the costs of the small annual wage. For instance, the 1950 total wage payment in St. Paul was $81,619 while the savings from the decrease in the sealing rate amounted to $52,092, 63 percent of the new wage payment. 45

A major inequity inhered in making wage payments (bonus and wage) contingent on the availability of funds from the sale of seal skins. No other federal workers were subject to such a condition. Secretary of Labor Tobin was baffled by this contingency.

 I am advised by the Department of Interior that with the adoption of this plan ...these workers became full-time employees of the United States. It appears rather anomalous, therefore, unless this is required by some interpretation of the Fur Seal Act . . . that the payment of accrued wages should be made dependent upon the availability of funds derived solely from this source.46

This letter was written to Martin, but Tobin also asked the Fish and Wildlife Service director for clarification. The director invoked a commonly used rationalization: "Since the government first assumed direct control over sealing and foxing operations on the Pribilofs in 1910, cash compensation to the resident native workmen have been made from this source,"47 as if the existence of inequity in the past justified its continuance in the present.

  Though the Aleuts were accorded civil service status, it was fundament­ally unequal to that of other federal workers. It was an unclassified status that is, Aleuts were not graded in the categories of other federal workers but into classes similar to those used in the past: skilled, semi-skilled, and un skilled. Furthermore, they were classified not by the civil service board, but by agents. Also, unlike other federal employees who consistently received overtime pay, Aleuts received none during sealing season, the time of year when they worked the longest hours. Most important, Aleuts were not eligible for federal retirement benefits for years worked before 1950. Management had made no retirement contributions for those years, but that could have been remedied by a lump‑sum payment to the Civil Service Commission, an action that was later taken. The absence of retirement benefits for those years produced serious hardship for older workers, some of  whom had been employed in the seal industry for half a century.

Other inequities arose in implementing the plan. Work classifications were to be based strictly on skill and experience, but in actual practice they were based on the needs of management. "There is a limit to the number of skilled carpenters, plumbers, electricians, etc. that can be utilized in our operation . . . and the total number of qualified workmen employed in this category should, in each case, be restricted accordingly "--these were the in­structions top management gave to the general manager.48 As a result of this policy, some skilled workers were classified as unskilled and paid at that rate. Though this system of classification violated pay-plan regulations, a top manager saw nothing wrong with it, justifying it on the basis that it wasn't unique.

Mr. Anderson mentions dissatisfaction among the workmen arising from the fact that an unskilled workman may ...be performing the same duties as a skilled workman who receives a substantially higher wage. The existing pay plan for resident Aleut workmen is not unique in this respect...I am sure that many parallel situations could be cited for Federal employees in widely separated wage categories. 49

Discipline of Aleut workers posed one of the thorniest implementation problems. Agents chafed at the loss of former disciplinary authority and asked for it to be restored. Olson concurred even though he recognized it violated pay‑plan regulations.

Pay-plan regulations cannot be followed for fear of allowing drinking and failure to report for work to get entirely out of hand... The control and handling of these Aleuts is the number one headache of management and the only reason there has been some measure of success is because management has taken upon itself the re­sponsibility of direct and immediate action.50

Olson recommended expanding work suspensions beyond the limits set by the new plan.

One might ask: Why the problem? Why couldn't agents treat Aleuts the same as other federal employees and simply terminate them for incompetence or irresponsibility? Why the attention to special disciplinary measures? Because management was under pressure to keep Aleuts employed. The 1944 Fur Seal Act required Interior to provide for Aleuts' welfare, which meant supporting the unemployed. Consequently, management had a vested interest in keeping Aleuts on the job, an objective which they believed re­quired the use of oppressive authority. So we see that even in this regime of reform, when a progressive change, in this case eliminating the use of oppressive authority, connected with management's economic objectives, the latter still took precedence.

Despite the persistence of many features of the old priorities and control system, the new pay plan made a significant change in Aleuts' economic welfare. In addition to wage increases and partial civil service status, supplies were being replaced by wages. In 1951 clothing supplies and in 1954 food supplies were eliminated. This is not to say that the old system of gratuities ended. Aleuts still received in kind payments in the form of free housing and transportation, gasoline for outboard engines, and loans of government vehicles, but it was on its way out. Beyond these changes, the new plan introduced concepts that gained a life of their own. By the very establishment of the plan and statement of its philosophy, management committed itself to a regime of reform and to the concept of equal rights for Aleuts, concepts that were a springboard for more basic changes in the future.

The initiation of these economic changes were accompanied by reforms in other areas. Though reluctant at first, management liberalized restrictions on the right to occupancy of the islands for both Pribilof emigrants and other Aleuts who wanted to make their home on the islands. Permission for occupancy, however, was still required and was still denied in many in­stances.51 On the education front, management began to encourage high school attendance outside the islands and introduced a ninth grade in St. Paul. The emphasis on higher education may have reflected management's recognition of the imminence of Alaska's statehood and the probable transfer of Pribilof services to state and local management.

These reforms further catalyzed the Aleuts' energies and initiative. They were now starting small businesses‑an ice cream parlor, two coffee shops, and a movie theater, With education, business, local self‑government and civil service status, the Aleuts' circumstances were certainly changing.

 In sum, the Aleuts' awakening political consciousness, the changing political climate after the war, the change in national attitudes toward Alaska and its native inhabitants, and the proliferation of Indian Rights groups‑these developments were the springboard for significant changes in the Pribilof management system. Management, trying to maintain its stability, resisted these developments by denying legitimacy to the reform movement, stalling, and using scare tactics. Finally it tried appeasing the Aleuts, at first with small concessions, later more meaningful ones, all within the context of retaining as much of the old system of priorities and control as possible. In so adapting, however, it enunciated principles that kept the wheels of future change ineluctably in motion.


1.For elaboration of the Alaska struggle for statehood, see Ernest Gruening,  The State of Alaska (New York: Random House, 1954).

2. See, for example, Fredericka Martin, "Pribilof Sealers‑Serfs of the North," Newsletter of the Institute of Ethnic Affairs, Inc. 3 (May‑June 1948): pp. 1-4; Fredericka Martin, "Three Years of Pribilof Progress," The American Indians (Spring 1950): pp. 17‑26; R.A. Bartlett, Alaska Congressional Delegate, to Fredericka Martin, March 2, 1948; Francis Lopinsky imember of Washington, D.C. legal firm) to Fredericka Martin, November 13. 1952; Maurice J. Tobin, U.S. Secretary of Labor, to Fredericka Martin, March 22, 1949; Fredericka Martin to James Curry and Felix Cohen, November 13, 1949; Fredericka Martin to Editor, Jensen's Weekly, November 22, 1949; Fredericka Martin to Oliver La Farge, December 16, 1949; Fredericka Martin to Ruth Bronson, National Congress of American Indians, November 11, 1947. Fredericka Martin Records.

3. New York Times, October 20, 1953, p. 29; Nation, December 19,1953, p. 538.

4. Cited in Barbara B. Torrey, Slaves of the Harvest: The Story of the Pribilof Aleuts (St. Paul Island: Tanadgusix CorporaGo'n, ib78), p. 136.

5. Francis Lopinsky, attorney in James Curry's firm, to Commissioner of Indian Affairs, February 3, 1949. Fredericka Martin Records.

6. Fredericka Martin to President, St. Paul Community Club, August 6, 1948. Fredericka Martin Records.

7. Felix S. Cohen to President, St. Paul Community Club, May 1, 1951. Fredericka Martin Records.

8. Fredericka Martin to President, St. Paul Community Club, August 6, 1948. Fredericka Martin Records.

9. Excerpts from a letter from a St. Paul sealer, June 22, 1947. Fredericka Martin Records.

10. Ibid.

11. Memorandum to file, January 27, 1948. Sent to Fredericka Martin, signed F.L. (Undoubtedly F.L. is Frances Lopinsky who was in frequent cor­respondence with Martin at that time.), Fredericka Martin Records.

12. St. Paul Aleut to Fredericka Martin, November 9, 1947. Fredericka Mar­tin Records.

13. Resolution by Camp No. 28, St. Paul Island, Alaska. Alaska Native Bro­therhood, August 13, 1947. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Commercial Fisheries Records, Federal Archives and Records Center, Seattle.

14. Women's Wear Daily, March 14, 1949, p. 34; March 18, 1949, p. 38.

15. St. Paul Aleut to Fredericka Martin, November 9, 1947. Fredericka Martin Records.


17. Fredericka Martin to Dorothy Jones, January 12, 1979.

18. Ibid.

19. Assistant General Manager to General Manager, September 15, 1947. Bureau  of Commercial Fisheries Records, Federal Archives.

20. General Manager to Chief, Branch of Alaska Fisheries, May 23, 1950. Bureau of Commercial Fisheries Records, Federal Archives.

21. Director, Fish and Wildlife Service, to Assistant Secretary of Interior, undated. Martin indicated it was written in 1949 or 1950. Fredericka Martin Records.

22. Chief Administrative Officer, Fish and Wildlife Service, to St. George agent, August 8, 1948. Bureau of Commercial Fisheries Records, Federal Archives.

23. U.S Production Workers

                  Date                  Aleuts                  (male nonfarm)

                  1943                  1,294                  2,553

                  1944                  835                  2,733

                  1945                  1,112                  2,674

                  1946                  1,066                  2,536

                  1947                  1,144                  2,889

                  1948                  1,216                  3,049


Sources: Computed from 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. 159; U.S. Department of Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, Alaska Fishery and Fur-Seal Industries, 1947, p. 60; 1948, p. 50; U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1957, 1960, Series D-659.

24. Martin, "Three Years of Pribilof Progress " 5 (Spring 1950): p. 21.

25. Felix S. Cohen and James E. Curry to President, St. Paul Community Club, November 1, 1948; James Curry to President, St. Paul Alaska Native Brotherhood, September 21, 1949. Fredericka Martin Records.

26. Cited in "News Notes," Newsletter of the Institute of Ethnic Affairs, Inc.  4 (March-April 1949): p. 7.

27. Ibid.

28. New York Times, March 3, 1950, pp. 1 and 16.

29. Felix S. Cohen and James E. Curry to President, St. Paul Community Club, November 1, 1948. Fredericka Martin Records.

30. Ibid.

31. Assistant Secretary of Interior to Fredericka Martin, February 27, 1948. Fredericka Martin Records.

32. Net Surplus from Seal Industry and Annual Appropriations for Pribilof



                                 Annual                                                                                    (Revenues over

Date    Appropriations       Net Revenues Appropriations)

1943                        464,500                                  523,257                                        58,757

1944                        536,000                                  701,800                                       165,800

1945                        624,700                 673,766                                        49,066

1946                        819,307                 1,372,425                                   553,118

1947                        850,000                 2,530,773                                1,683,773

1948                     1,228,000                          1,353,000                                     125,000


Sources: 'Alaska Fishery and Fur-Seal Industries, 1947, p. 63; 1948, p. 55. Hearings Before the Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations, House of Representatives, Part 1, 80th Cong., 2nd sess. on the Interior Department Appropriations Bill for 1949, (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1948), p. 871.

33. Hearings Before the Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations, Part I., pp. 872-875.

3. Committee members were Dr. Mark Dawber, Home Mission Council; Dr. Loren Oldroyd, University of Alaska; Albert E. Day. Fish and Wildlife Service; and Dr. John R. Nichols, Commissioner, Bureau of Indian Affairs.

35. "Pribilof Islands Survey Reports. Observations and Recommendations." October 28, 1949, pp. 5, 7. Mimeo. Bureau of Commercial Fisheries Records. Federal Archives.

36. Felix S. Cohen to Fredericka Martin, November 2, 1949. Fredericka Martin Records.

37. Fredericka Martin to President, St. Paul Community Club, January 16, 1950. Fredericka Martin Records.

38. "Pribilof Islands Survey Report," pp. 9-11.

39. Secretary of Interior to President, St. Paul Community Club, September 14, 1949. Fredericka Martin Records.

40. Aleut Community of St. Paul v. the United States, Docket No. 350 (1954).

41. The Aleut Community of St. Paul Island v. the United States, Docket Nos. 352 and 369 (1978).

42. Director, Fish and Wildlife Service to Assistant Secretary of Interior, May 22, 1950; U.S. Secretary of Labor to Fredericka Martin, April 26, 1950; Director, Fish and Wildlife Service to General Manager, June 8, 1950; Assist­ant Secretary of Interior to Assistant to Undersecretary of Labor, February 24, 1950. Fredericka Martin Records.

43. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,, "Annual Cash Compensation Plan for Resident Aleut Workmen of the Pribilof Islands," 1950, mimeo; Secretary of Interior to Director, Fish and Wildlife Service, May 24, 1951. Bureau of Commercial Fisheries Records, Federal Archives.

44. The average annual income for U.S. workers (all industries) in 1960 was$4,822. U.S. Bureau of the Census. Statistical Abstract of the United85th Annual Edition, 1964, p* 343.

45. Computed by subtracting the total St. Paul sealing bonus paid in 1950 from the amount that would have been paid had the decrease in rate not ocurred. Alaska Fishery and Fur‑Seal Industries, 1950, p. 58.                     

46. U.S. Secretary of Labor to Federicka Martin, April 26, 1950. Fredericka Martin Records.                                 

47. Director, Fish and Wildlife Service, to Assistant Secretary of Interior, May 22, 1950. Subject: Letter from Labor Department to Fredericka Marin. Fredericka Martin Records.

48. Chief, Division of Administration, Fish and Wildlife Service, to General Manager, August 8, 1950. Bureau of Commercial Fisheries Records, Federal Archives.

49. Chief, Branch of Alaska Fisheries, to General Manager, October 28, 1953. Bureau of Commercial Fisheries Records, Federal Archives.

50. General Manager to Chief, Branch of Alaska Fisheries, September 20, 1953. Bureau of Commercial Fisheries Records, Federal Archives.

51. General Manager to St. Paul Manager, October 28, 1955; General Manager to Attorney McLean, January 25, 1955. Bureau of Commercial Fisheries Records, Federal Archives.


Chapter 8. The Abandonment Policy, 1961-1970

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