- The Tanana Chiefs: Native Rights and Western Law by William Schneider
IN HIS BOOK The Tanana Chiefs: Native Rights and Western Law, historian William Schneider chronicles a little-known though vastly important meeting between Interior Alaska Athabascan leaders and representatives of the US government. Gathered in a library in Fairbanks, Alaska, in 1915, representatives from several Tanana Valley villages interrogated territorial officials about white encroachment on Indigenous lands and made requests for access to wage labor, education, and medical care. While neither side achieved their immediate goals, Schneider's book rightfully contextualizes the meeting in the long genealogy of Alaska Native assertions of sovereignty in response to US colonialism.
The book is organized into five chapters, a postscript, and four appendices. The first two chapters, authored by Schneider, examine the history of white encroachment into Native lands from the late nineteenth-century fur trade to the early twentieth-century gold rushes. Chapter 3, contributed by Alaska historian Thomas Alton, provides details about the 1915 meeting and the responses of the Tanana leaders to their choice between proposed Indian reservations or individual 160-acre allotments to prevent white settlers from completely dispossessing them of their land. Chapter 4 is a rich analysis of the transcript of the meeting by past Tanana Chiefs Conference president Will Mayo. In chapter 5 Schneider contextualizes the meeting within the long history of Alaska Native land rights activism. Appendix 1 consists of an introduction to the transcript of the meeting, and the second appendix contains the transcript in its entirety. Appendix 3, arguably the most significant part of the book, is the transcript of a 2015 interview conducted by Schneider with Will Mayo; Kevin Illingworth, associate professor with the University of Alaska Tribal Management Program; and Natasha Singh, a Koyukon Athabascan activist, lawyer, and tribal member of Stevens Village. Appendix 4 is a timeline of important events impacting tribal governments in Alaska.
This book aims to bring long-overdue attention to this historic meeting; however, the bulk of its contents dances precariously on the edge of familiar tropes that frame Indigenous people as unwilling or unable to adapt to the [End Page 206] changes wrought by US territorial expansion. While pointing out the often-derogatory attitudes of settlers and federal officials toward Alaska Natives and the hardships Native people endured under assimilative policies, Schneider's and Alton's essays fail to account for these events within the larger processes of settler colonialism and Indigenous dispossession. Rather, they argue that the United States was "caught off guard" and "unsure how to respond to the impact of … settlers on the Natives and their way of life" (27, 32) while contending that the Tanana chiefs were simply "not ready to consider the choices the white men laid before them" regarding land (74). In addition to treating white ownership of Alaska as a foregone conclusion, neither Schneider nor Alton mentions Native sovereignty as fundamental to these conflicts over land, instead deferring to the language of "use" and "occupation" as the basis for establishing Native land rights. Framing Indigenous-US relations in territorial Alaska in this way portrays settler colonialism as passive and inevitable while naturalizing Indigenous dispossession. This is perhaps reflective of Schneider's and Alton's failure to meaningfully engage contemporary Indigenous studies scholarship, which would have contributed immensely to their analysis of this meeting and its historical significance.
The most compelling component of the text is buried in the back of the book. In the third appendix, Natasha Singh offers a powerful rebuke to US claims over Alaska Native lands following the 1867 purchase, testifying to the Tanana chiefs' assertions of sovereignty at the 1915 meeting and the persistence of that sovereignty "despite any recognition from anyone" (121). Schneider's and Alton's accounts of the Tanana meeting imply that the chiefs' failure to negotiate with federal officials on land ultimately led to their dispossession. Singh argues against that framing by linking the chiefs' actions to the survival of tribal governments that "have persisted...