Here is my proposal and reasons for building a true, independent tribal nation in Tlingit Country. Eventually, I would like every tribe across the North American continent to have a similar strategy in place.
What would a Tlingit Nation look like? To answer that question we might look to our past. At the time of contact with Russian explorers, and even in the days when the US Navy first began peering into southeast Alaska, the Tlingit Nation (if it could even be called that) was a decentralized network of clans and houses.
In the Tlingit world, clans are everything. Clans defined individuals; who they were related to, where they were from. Houses (a sub clan) were also the basic economic unit of the Tlingit. Clans and houses owned property, natural resources, hunting and fishing territory, and physical houses through a system of exclusionary collectivism and clan property. Clans also provided legal protection, both from war and from personal injury or loss. They were the institution that settled compensatory payments for crimes. The binding feature of the Tlingit was this common culture of clans, language, and history. The entire system was so useful for creating order in society that it dominated and defined Pacific Northwest Coast tribes from Yakutat on down to the Puget Sound. This same system of clan controlled territory can be found throughout the region. I speculate that this entire bio region was so resource rich that it supported a large, semi-sedentary population of the sort and size that demands a complex social order to maintain peace and prosperity.
Why did we develop a clan based system? The dominate resource and source of food of southeast Alaska and all of the Pacific Northwest Coast from the Columbia River on up to the Copper River in Alaska has always been salmon. Salmon, of course, are nearly impossible to control or privatize, unlike productive farm lands or domesticated animals such as cattle. Allowing for individual fisherman to have full access to catch as many fish as he can would lead to the tragedy of the commons. So rather than privatize the resource, access to it was tightly controlled through clan based fishing rights over various stretches of territory. If you belonged to a clan, you had a right to fish that clan’s fishing territory. Over fishing was prevented by restricting access to clan members only, and through social norms that emphasized resource preservation rather than over extraction. Clans that did poorly at this likely starved, their territory taken over by clans that could sustain yields over the long run.
My proposal is simple; make clans economically, politically and legally relevant again through a decentralized system of clan resource control, clan and tribal law, and clan alliances to protect Tlingit wide interests in the political realm. Where this isn’t possible, make at least the spirit of clan property, political organization, and clan and tribal law relevant. What does that mean? Make our political organizations, economic arrangements and system of justice work for us again rather than against us. The coming of the white man to Tlingit Country has brought many changes to our lives. While the white man is here to stay (I firmly DO NOT support any sort of ethnic cleansing or ethnic conflict in our region) we should be free to order our Tlingit communities as we see fit.
My proposed strategy to achieve this is thus:
- Yakutat vs. Geohedral LLC – Use existing, town and village level governments to protect Tlingit interests across the Tlingit Nation. I think this is already happening, but we need to step things up a notch. For example, southeast Alaska, to put it crudely, is basically one enormous salmon factory. This salmon, of course, directly supports our people. Our village, town and city governments should be unified in protecting our salmon runs from mining and logging interests in the region, activities that pollute and ruin salmon runs under current extraction practices.
- ANCSA Corporations – shift the focus of our village corporations from resource extraction (such as logging) to building resilient villages. This means growing a food and fuel forest instead of a pulp forest. It may even mean micro loans for small scale, decentralized manufacturing. It means building a village economy instead of exporting logs, an activity that provides only sporadic employment and sporadic dividend checks. The low hanging fruit that we should be focusing on is energy. Our villages pay up to five times the national average for electricity. In this price range, biomass electricity generation, and wind and water power become economically viable. A diversified energy source beyond diesel would go a long way. And that’s just the beginning.
- Tribal Law – Next time you have a dispute with another Tlingit in your community, go to your clan or house leader for his wisdom and guidance. Maybe even ask him to talk to the offender’s clan or house leader about settling the dispute. Start with little things. Maybe your neighbor’s teenager is a little out of control and being a nuisance. Maybe he’s dating your daughter…. you get the idea. As our clan leaders build their capacity to be more than just cultural leaders, they will be able to handle bigger and bigger issues. Also, tell your clan leader that you are at his disposal if he needs you. Maybe a young member of your clan needs a little bit of guidance and you can reach out to him or her. Your clan leader can start to take care of connecting those sorts of dots for people.
If we began to build in these three realms: the political, economic and social, we will in effect be building a de facto Tlingit Nation. We will start to bypass anglo institutions and instead utilize and build Tlingit institutions. In effect, we will build a shadow Tlingit government. Eventually, we may even have the capacity to seize control of our old fishing and hunting territories. I view this as necessary for the survival of our people. The US is in troubling times. Promises once made to Indian people will ultimately go unanswered, and we will be left to our own devices for survival again. It is time not for the US to undo the wrongs against us, instead it is time for us to take control of our own destiny. That is the Tlingit way of old.
The seizure of our most important resource, salmon, by the US and State of Alaska has been disastrous to our people. The bombardment of our villages to subdue us, the diseases that weakened us, the boarding schools to change us, and the ordering of our lives under the white system of private property under ANCSA has all been our undoing. We exhibit high levels of poverty in a region that has one of the highest costs of living in the country. Anglo style social service agencies, mostly through CCTHITA and other federal and state agencies have supplanted the family functions and the safety net that clans once provided. Our way forward is to embrace our past. It is to reorder our lives around these institutions in order of most important to least: family, house, clan, and ultimately tribe. We need a true tribal nation. We need to resurrect the Tlingit Nation.