Three years before the 1915 Tanana Chiefs Conference, another significant event in Alaska Native history occurred, the birth of the Alaska Native Brotherhood in Southeast Alaska.
Indians in SE Alaska felt the effects of the 1867 U.S. purchase of Alaska rather quickly: land appropriated for canneries, mines, and settlements; fishing grounds wrestled from Native control; rampant exploitation and discrimination.
Peter Metcalfe, in his book, Dangerous Idea: the Alaska Native Brotherhood and the Struggle for Indigenous Rights, states that in the early 1900s “Natives could not own title to property, stake mineral claims, legally operate commercial boats, or be educated in locally-administered schools. Natives were not citizens, nor were they wards of the government; they could not vote in elections, but they could be sued in court; in rights, Natives were treated as foreigners, but they were punished as citizens.”
Into this milieu, 13 SE Alaska Indians (the majority Tlingit) stepped forward to form the Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB) in 1912. According to Phillip Drucker’s 1958 paper about the ANB, most of the founders were orderly Presbyterians, and the ANB was modeled, at least in part, after social groups organized at Presbyterian missions, which in turn, were modeled on white lodges and civic groups. He also posits that the ANB’s founders may have been inspired by the non-Native fraternal Arctic Brotherhood.
Three years later the Alaska Native Sisterhood (ANS) was formed. Within a few years the ANB and the ANS had chapters, called Camps, in most SE Alaska communities. They championed causes such as suffrage for Alaska Natives, aboriginal land claims, the right for Native children to attend local schools, and anti-discrimination.
They achieved significant successes, such as influencing legislation and administrative decisions related to voting rights, discrimination against minorities, and the legal existence of tribes in Alaska and their ability to sue the federal government. They also created a potent Native voting block in SE Alaska. Not all of their efforts came to fruition, but they planted the seeds for future accomplishments such as the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
Sitka was the site of ANB Camp No. 1, and the group’s first meeting hall. In Metcalfe’s book, the daughter of one of the ANB’s founders relates that the land on which the hall sits was donated by a Tlingit elder with the last name of Katlian. The initial phase of the hall was built in 1914 with local Tlingit labor.
The hall is located in the old Tlingit section of Sitka, just north of present-day downtown. This is where, two decades after being routed by the Russians from their fortifications just south of Sitka, the Tlingit returned — to a village segregated from the Russian settlement by a wooden stockade.
A 44-foot by 100-foot gable-roofed, two-story structure, the ANB hall is located between Katlian Street and the waters of Sitka harbor. Its front portion sits on solid ground, but most of the building projects out over the harbor, resting on pilings. The drawing shows this iteration.
The front portion contains a central ground-floor entrance. A meeting room and a kitchen flank the entrance, with another large room upstairs. A two-story auditorium occupies the rest of the building, with a stage at the far end, and a narrow second-floor balcony around the auditorium’s other three sides.
It was built in the Craftsman style. Wood shingles cover the gable ends and first floor of the building, and the second floor is sheathed in wooden clapboards. The building has corrugated metal roofing. Although extensively modified during its early years, it has changed little since then.
In 1972 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. In recognition of the ANB’s importance in Alaska history, it was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1975. The hall is still owned by the ANB, which is still active.