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E. W. Merrill's photograph of the 1899 "Potlatch," entered as evidence in Davis v. Sitka School Board.

E. W. Merrill’s photograph of the 1899 “Potlatch,” entered as evidence in Davis v. Sitka School Board.

by Rebecca Poulson  I wish to acknowledge the Tlingit people as the original owners of this land and whose history must be foregrounded. I take all responsibility for any errors, and will be grateful for any corrections or comments.

In May, 1906, eighteen residents of Sitka, Alaska testified in a federal school integration case called Davis et al. v. Sitka School Board.

In 1905, Congress had passed the Nelson Act, authorizing funds for public schools in Alaska for white children and children of “mixed blood who lead a civilized life.” Before the Nelson Act, federal funds went to educate Alaskan children “without regard to race,” though in segregated schools. Alaska at the time was not even a Territory, but a federally-managed District.

Cassia Patton, a 45-year-old teacher, was the secretary to her brother-in-law, Alaska Governor John G. Brady. She instigated the confrontation by encouraging certain Native families living in the Village – the Native part of town – to send their children to the “white” school, after the Native school closed at the beginning of 1906.

When some of those children actually attended the public school that January, it struck a nerve. School board members W. P. Mills and Mrs. Stowell told the teacher to turn those children away. Mrs. Stowell sent letters to the parents telling them to stop sending their children to school.

Rudolph Walton was Tlingit, the tribe whose ancestral lands include Sitka. He was the step-father of two of the children, Dora and Tillie Davis, and requested a writ of mandamus from the court in Juneau to compel the school board to admit the children. He was represented by the third member of the school board, William Kelly, who had quit the school board in disgust. Kelly also happened to be a member of the Alaska bar.

The testimony was sent to Juneau, and the case filed later that month. Federal District Judge Royal Arch Gunnison, a young appointee of President Roosevelt, did not decide the case until almost two years later, in January, 1908. This was probably because the Native school had reopened, but also because the testimony was overwhelmingly against allowing the school to be integrated. His smug racism is expressed everywhere in his decision:

The Indian in his native state has everywhere been found to be savage, an uncivilized being, when measured by the white man’s standard. The government has always regarded him as of a benighted race, in a state of pupilage, a ward of the nation, needing care, control, protection, and education.“ Education, of course, in separate schools.

Judge Gunnison decided that any association with other Natives, with any Native custom or food, or residence in the Native part of town, means that a child “of mixed blood” is not “leading a civilized life,” and thus not entitled to education in the public school. Separating Native people from whites by law means they can never be “civilized,” which seems, unfortunately, to be the point of the entire exercise.

So far it looks pretty typical for this era, when eugenics and other ideas of racial ranking were widespread. But in Sitka, nearly the entire town was “mixed race.” The fault lines and the effort it took in order to define certain people as “Natives,” in order to deny them rights, reveal the motivations behind racism in this turn-of-the-century Alaska town.

Race

Defendants in the case were school board members W. P. Mills, who was Sitka’s leading merchant and businesman, and Mrs. Stowell, wife of the chief clerk of the Sitka Surveyor office. They both come across as unpleasant people. It was probably not a coincidence that Mills’ mother and wife were both members of the Daughters of the American Revolution, as was Mrs. Stowell’s daughter (Mrs. Stowell herself had been born in Scotland). H. A. Robinson, publisher of the Sitka Cablegram newspaper, who was also a former employee of Mills, represents the defense on the second day.

William A. Kelly, representing plaintiff Rudolph Walton, was the superintendent of the Presbyterian Sitka Industrial and Training School, a boarding school for Natives. Other supporters were Governor John Brady’s wife Elizabeth, as well as her sister, Cassia Patton. All these people on the plaintiff side were linked through their association with the Presbyterian mission school, which John Brady had helped start in 1878, before leaving mission work and becoming a merchant (and eventually Governor). Rudolph Walton and his first wife, Daisy, had been educated at the mission school. Walton was one of the first students, and helped construct the first buildings, as a teen, in 1882.

In the testimony, the defendants are not on trial – the children’s parents are. The “white” fathers are attacked for their association with Natives, but also for the kind of work they did, its frequency, and the appearance of their homes, even though their work and habits were far from unusual.

One of the fathers “was usually called a ‘Squaw Man,’ he is married to a Native,” demands W. P. Mills, of one witness, who answers, “Yes sir.” Bernard Hirst, a storekeeper, handled remittances from another of the children’s fathers, and is questioned about the man’s “indulging in strong drink” in the past, as well as the amount of support he pays for his child.

The third of the “white” fathers is said by a witness to be living a civilized life, but his wife and children were not. “His wife is a halfbreed Indian squaw and he cannot make her anything else.”

(Another unsettling thing in reading this testimony is that everyone, whether or not they are sympathetic to school integration, uses terms like “halfbreed” or “mixed breed” in referring to their fellow Sitkans.)

And here is the twist: all three of these witnesses were themselves “of mixed blood” or married to women who were. Even more striking, it turns out that all but one of the 29 children enrolled at the public “white” school are “of mixed blood.” They include Native orphans living at the Russian orphanage, and the child of a Chinese father and Native mother. Most of these children, though, are part Native because a parent is “Russian.” All the children at the “white” school are just as Native as the children the school board wishes to exclude.

The “Russians” were the descendants of Russian fathers and Alaska Native women, and were called “Creoles” by the Russian authorities. In the American era, they called themselves Russians, but had to defend their status between the incoming “whites,” and the “Indians,” or “natives.” In the 1900 Census, their race is even listed as Russian, a category distinct from White or Indian.

Everyone acknowledges that Russians and their children are “of mixed blood,” but at one point Robinson, for the defense, asks Kelly, representing the plaintiffs, “Do you consider Russians white people.” Kelly replied: “I consider Russians white.”

In Sitka in 1906, race can’t be defined simply by one’s ethnic heritage, which makes this case interesting. How to define “Natives” in such a way that they can be excluded from the “white” school, where the “white” students are as “Native” as the “Natives?” Which begs the question: why bother? Why was this so important?

In 1906 Sitka’s population of about 1200 included around 800 residents classed as “Indian,” most of them living in the Village or “ranche” part of town, to the northwest of the old Russian stockade line. Other Native people, graduates of the Presbyterian mission school, lived at the Cottages, a model Native community on the mission grounds, east of town. Nearly half of the 400 or so remaining residents were Russian. Other residents were from Europe, and several were from China. U.S.-born European-Americans were a small minority, with a handful of those – primarily white federal employees – comprising Sitka’s elite.

H. A. Robinson, representing the defense on the second day, was married to a Russian woman, and his children were among those “of mixed blood” attending the public school.

Another example of the complexity of race is the family of English-born storekeeper Bernard Hirst, a witness in the case. He had married a Tlingit woman, whose sisters lived at the Cottages, the Presbyterian Native community. His family lived downtown, and his sons attended the public or white schools, while their first cousins went to Native schools.

Adding to the complexity is that the Russians in white Sitka and the Natives or “Indians” living in the Village worshiped together, and married one another, in the Russian Orthodox Church; many of the “Indians” were as European as the Russians. It was not easy to make distinctions, especially without offending church officials.

In 1906, Americans like Mills and Judge Gunnison certainly believed in the superiority of the white race, but racial purity was less than useful in defining who was or was not Native in Sitka in 1906. So, the testimony revolves around proving the “civilization” of the families.

Civilization

W. P. Mills tries to define eating Native foods as a sign of a lack of civilization. He demands of Cassia Patton, in regard to the deceased father of the Davis girls, “did he eat seal oil?”

She says she doesn’t know but that “I suppose he ate fish eggs, I have done that myself, in fact I think a great many people would be benefited by eating them.” I must admit, I love Cassia Patton.

Her sister, Mrs. Brady, also has a sympathetic attitude toward the plaintiffs. She says that she finds Mrs. Walton (the former Mrs. Davis) “to be of very nice appearance and manner and very much of a lady.” Mrs. Brady offers many “signs of civilization” by Walton and his family.

The father of Rudolph Walton’s step-children, Fred Davis, who was also Tlingit, was dead, but that does not prevent both prosecution and defense from making him a central figure in the testimony. William Kelly, representing the plaintiff side, tries to establish the “civilization” of the parents by showing that they are educated, and live in their own separate homes, and not in clan houses, with their clan relatives. He elicits from one witness that the Davis family had a carpet on the floor and nice things, and that Fred and Mary Davis had been educated. But other witnesses testify that Davis took part in traditional Tlingit “potlatches” in 1899 and in 1904.

The Tlingit potlatch, or koo.eek, is at the center of Tlingit culture and society. Clans invite their opposite clans (all Tlingit clans are one of two moieties), honor and feast them and distribute property, as a way of establishing and reinforcing social and political relationships, as well as ancient traditions of reciporcity. Highly symbolic objects, regalia, dance, and elevated speech are key. American and British authorities understood the importance of the potlatch and worked tirelessly to eradicate the practice.

Photographer E. W. Merrill was called as a witness, because his photograph, of Fred Davis taking part in an 1899 potlatch, is an exhibit for the defense.

Merrill is known today for his great skill and artistry, and for his respectful and realistic portraits of Native people and art. We would expect him to be sympathetic to the Native culture. We would be wrong.

Perhaps Merrill had some personal reason to keep Village children from school, or maybe he had some reason to fear for his own social status, due to his “association” with the Natives; but, he is probably just displaying the prejudices shared by most people at the time.

Merrill distances himself from the Village, saying that he goes there “because my business leads me there.” He says that Fred Davis took part in the 1899 as well as the 1904 potlatch.

When Kelly questions him as to the nature of the dances, and whether they involved “immorality,” Merrill responds that “I should judge there must have been from the arrests made at the time.”

Then, Kelly asks him if he’s familiar with the “masquerades” or holiday balls by the “Russians and whites,” and Merrill says he has never attended one, and knows nothing of them. This is hard to believe, judging from the later testimony by the marshal, that makes it sound like they were hard to miss. He refuses to acknowledge that dressing up in a “masquerade” might be just as much a sign of uncivilization as dressing up for a Native dance.

Rudolph Walton, the stepfather of the Davis girls, had attended the Sitka mission school, and was a jeweler and carver and businessman, built and owned his own business and home, and was an elder in the Presbyterian church.

Merrill is asked, “do you consider him a peaceful and industrious man.” Merrill’s response: “As far as Indians are concerned yes.”

Don’t you consider that Walton’s being educated at the Training School would entitle him to be classed with civilized people.”

Merrill responds, “It depends upon one’s view regarding a civilized person.”

Economics

Sitka in 1906 had lost the seat of government to Juneau, where the gold mines were booming. Commercial fishing had not yet become an economic force. Most of the buildings along the dirt main street, including the federal offices where the testimony was taken, were old Russian log buildings a half century or more old, picturesque but decaying. Mills and the other white merchants, such as witness Bernard Hirst and U. S. Commissioner Edward deGroff, made their living supplying the small local mines and other local ventures, by buying furs, and by dealing in Native handicrafts for the steamship tourist trade.

Walton’s small store would have been a direct competitor of Mills, if he purchased furs, and Walton was a seal hunter himself. Walton also produced and sold artwork directly to the tourists, which might have had something to do with W. P. Mills’ hostility in the case. It could be that Walton’s actual “civilization” – which surpassed that of a majority of “white” Sitkans – may have been a reason Mills and the others felt the need to put him down, by refusing to let his children attend school with theirs.

William Kelly, representing Walton, questions him about his education, business and taxes, and how his step children attended the public school before he was notified they would not be allowed to attend any more.

Then Mills takes his turn at Walton, and demands, “somebody suggested that you take them to the white school,” to which Walton replies “No sir, I thought of it myself, I try to do something without advising me.”

Mills asks Walton whether the children’s mother speaks English. He says she does, but Mills repeatedly contradicts him, insisting that she does not, even after Walton says that of course she would not speak to Mills.

Mills questions Walton about the amount of business he does at his store, then mocks him for having an expensive cash register when he has no clerk.

Mills: “How much did you pay for your cash register.”

Walton: “$385.00 laid down here. I have fine things. I don’t see what that has to do with the school.” Which provokes laughter in the room.

Mills: “Perhaps not, I do; you will let me judge.”

When Walton is called again, H. A. Robinson, representing the defense, insinuates that Walton could not have written his complaint that went to Juneau. “Who dictated the letter, who told you what to say.”

Walton: “Nobody told me what to say, I know, I have words.”

Sitka’s Commissioner, merchant Edward deGroff, who is the referee for the testimony, never raises any objection to this treatment of Walton, and we’ll never know whether it is because he is sympathetic to the defense, or because he does not know better.

Traditions

Rudolph Walton, whose Tlingit name was Kawootk’, Fred Davis, and Fred Bean (likely Augustus Bean), who was called as a witness, were all important in Sitka Tlingit society, as well as members of the Presbyterian church. It could be that their stature in Tlingit society was another thorn in Mills’ side, because he was dependent on Native handicraft and furs for his business.

Rudolph Walton was one of the first students at the mission school, one of several boys from prominent lineages. It could be that at the time a mission education looked like an advantage to a young leader; Tlingit people were soon to learn that affiliating with the Presbyterians came at the cost of giving up Native culture and tradition and status. Walton built a home at the Cottages, the model Native community on the mission grounds. His English name was given by the family who sponsored him at the school, after a prominent Presbyterian educator in Philadelphia. This epitomizes the dramatic drop in status, from a master of property and leader-in-training, to a person with so little status he is renamed by his missionary sponsors. And these are the “pro-Native” people.

But not long before this 1906 trial, Walton left his home at the Cottages and built his store and home to the edge of the Village. His wife had died, and he married his second wife, the former Mrs. Davis, in 1905 in a traditional way that the Presbyterians did not approve. Like his first wife, she was of the Kaagwaantaan clan, of an appropriate lineage for a person of Walton’s lineage, and 14 years younger than he was.

Rudolph Walton probably had to give up some of the perogatives of his birth, when he joined the Presbyterian church, but he was still an important member of his Kik.sadi clan. In 1901, Walton had taken part in a traditional Tlingit peace ceremony, to resolve a serious dispute between two clans, one of them his own. This act helped quell conflict, which you would think the Presbyterians would appreciate, but instead he was nearly kicked out of the church for it.

The 1904 “Last Potlatch” had been sanctioned by Governor Brady, as the “last” potlatch, because he recognized that Tlingit clans in Sitka had incurred obligations they had to to discharge. Instead, the “last” potlatch was a reminder of the strength the Tlingit clan system retained, even after decades of repression. It would have been obvious to the entire town, white and Native alike, in the richly dressed guests in their large canoes, the elaborate welcoming ceremony, the strong and finely crafted symbolic regalia and precious objects, the large commissioned carvings, the days of feasting and dancing and oratory, that this was something more impressive and bigger than any ceremony the white town could put on. Merrill’s photos of the event preserve the visual display of wealth. The merchants would have been well aware of the expenditures for food and drink and gifts for the guests. I’m guessing that this display of power and wealth contributed to the urge to restrain Native people into a lower social category. It was probably frightening, as well as fascinating, to many whites.

Walton had not publicly participated, but did create two carvings, commissioned by one of the hosts.

Walton says that the poles are for ornament; that yes he has a totem pole of his own – for sale in his store. Kelly breaks in to ask whether he had an order for a totem from a man in San Francisco, in an attempt to frame Walton’s participation as purely commercial. But it’s likely they all knew it was more than that, and that Walton, Davis, and witness Fred Bean were key participants in Tlingit society.

Witness Fred Bean says that he was allowed to remain a member of the Presbyterian church in spite of taking part in the 1904 potlatch, though the church “did not like it.”

At this time, the Russian Orthodox church and the Presbyterian were in competition with each other for Native members. Both were also engaged in the struggle against traditional spirituality and the clan system, which created a dilemma for both churches, in that being too strict about traditions put them at a disadvantage. Thus the Presbyterians allowed participation in both church, and in tradition, but “did not like it.” This balance was the source of conflict and dispute within both churches.

Old Quarrels

The most striking thing, to me, is how long-standing grudges by merchant W. P. Mills against Governor Brady and the mission crowd, and “old quarrels” regarding the school played such a large part in this case. Petty disagreements play more of a part than the fact that they are deciding the future lives of innocent children.

Presbyterian missionary Sheldon Jackson had originally sent John Brady to Sitka in 1878, and raised funds for the mission school. The site for the school, a large, prime piece of property with waterfront and river access, was claimed by John Brady and donated for the school, in spite of there not being a strictly legal way to do this. Sheldon Jackson helped steer Alaska’s Organic Act through Congress in 1884, which included a provision giving “established missions” up to 640 acres, which legitimized the claim. That land grab was extremely unpopular in Sitka; one of the Russian families had loaned money for a brewery to be built there, with the property as collateral. Sheldon Jackson was appointed Alaska’s General Agent for Education, a post he held from 1885 to 1908, and continued to lobby from his office in Washington, D. C.

Probably helped by Sheldon Jackson’s influence, Brady was appointed Governor in 1897, and reappointed twice more, but he was not popular in Alaska. Most of the white population believed that Natives and their interests were a hindrance to exploitation of Alaska’s resources. He was not popular with many Native people, either, because of the Presbyterian attitude toward Native culture and society, and because he had “homesteaded” a second large tract, of Tlingit land behind the Village. Then, just a few weeks before this testimony was taken, barely into his third term as Governor, he was forced to resign because of his naive promotion of a development scam.

His quarrel with W. P. Mills, who came to Sitka in 1887, was partly political, because of his advocacy of Native education, but also as a competitor as a merchant and sawmill owner, and the two had a legal dispute in 1901 over water rights. W. P. Mills was a much better businessman, but couldn’t do anything about the missionaries’ political influence. Maybe this was his opportunity to settle an old grudge, at a moment when his opponent was down. It could be, too, that Mills, who did not get the chance to finish college, had a chip on his shoulder when it came to the more-educated mission crowd and the various government employees, who comprised the rest of Sitka’s elite.

Brady’s sister-in-law Cassia Patton, who had encouraged the Native children to attend the public school, first came to Sitka in 1889. She taught school, then owned the Alaskan newspaper (funded by Brady), and worked as Governor Brady’s secretary.

Kelly had also been a Sitkan for decades – he had first arrived in 1885, when he ran the mission school as a federal employee.

In 1906 Sitka’s economy was contracting, with government offices, steamship stops, population and business migrating to Juneau. And yet, Mills funded his former employee H. A. Robinson in starting an anti-Brady (anti-mission) newspaper, the Sitka Cablegram, in early 1905: each side in the conflict had their own newspaper.

Most of the defense and plaintiffs, including Mills, Mrs. Stowell, the Bradys, Kelly, and the Native men Walton and Davis were members of the Presbyterian church. In 1906 there were two Presbyterian churches: the white church was next to the parade grounds (now the Sitka Pioneer Home) and the Native church was at the mission.

W. P. Mills and Governor Brady both had school-age children, who for some reason are not on the list of students attending the public school.

Most of the petty quarrels behind the school board decision come out when Kelly questions the school teacher and Mrs. Stowell, the school board member who had sent notice to the parents that they could not send their children to school any more. She claims she does not know Rudolph Walton and that she does not know that he was educated at the mission school, and refuses to state her objection to the Davis children going to school.

Kelly, who had been a member of the school board before resigning over this case, asks: “Was there any enmity back of ruling these children out of school.”

Mrs. Stowell: “I beg pardon.”

Kelly: “I asked whether there was any enmity in deciding that these children could not attend the public school.
Mrs. Stowell: “No sir.”

She then says that she does not know whether there are any “half or mixed breeds” attending the school.

Kelly: Did you not tell us on the School Board that some of the halfbreeds were attending from (the Russian Orphanage).

Mrs. Stowell: “I think not, I don’t know that they are.”

Kelly: “You consider Rudolph Walton and William Allard civilized men.”

Mrs. Stowell: “I don’t know enough about that.”

Kelly: “You don’t, you don’t know much about that.”

Mrs. Stowell: “No.”

Kelly asks, ”Do you know these Walton children.”

Mrs. Stowell: “No.”

Kelly: “Then you were hardly acting as a school director in these matters.”

Mrs. Stowell: “I was acting entirely on my own judgment.”

Kelly: “Then you do not know why you ruled these children out.”

Mrs. Stowell: “I refuse to answer.”

Kelly: “Was the bans put upon children of any other families besides those in the native village.”

Mrs. Stowell: “Not that I know of.”

Kelly: “Some little trouble about Mr. George’s family.”

Mrs. Stowell: “Not that I know of.”

Kelly: “Some little trouble about the Governor’s family.”

Mrs. Stowell: “I don’t know.”

Kelly: “Oh! You don’t.”
Mrs. Stowell: “No.”

Again you would think that Commissioner deGroff would have intervened, to remind Mrs. Stowell that she should answer truthfully, but again, he does not.

Kelly then asks how children were promoted; it seems that Kelly had wanted students to take a test to move up in school, but he was outvoted by the other two on the school board, who let the teacher decide who should advance. We are left to wonder whether someone – perhaps W. P. Mills, or his former employee, H. A. Robinson – might have preferred to have his chidren promoted at the teacher’s judgment, rather than on the basis of an exam.

Kelly: “Do you consider any of the natives civilized.”

Mrs. Stowell: “I decline to answer.”

Kelly: “We will excuse the witness as being utterly useless for our purpose. We rest our side of the case.”

Miss McCaleb, the school’s teacher, affirms that the Davis girls were well-behaved and nicely dressed, and that Peter Allard and Lizzie Allard were “fairly good scholars.” She also affirms that the School Board told her that no children from the Village were allowed to attend the school, but says, “Not that I know of” as to whether there was any “feeling or enmity back of the native children coming.”

Kelly: “Was there not some feeling about Miss Patton. You went to Mrs. Stowell and talked this matter over with her.”

Miss McCaleb: “No sir.”

Kelly: “You felt some little resentment in this matter, you thought Miss Patton was sending these children. You need not answer this question if you do not wish to.”

No answer.

In spite of this court case, all of the non-Native principals socialized and did business together. A photograph from around this time shows Mrs. W. P. Mills, the wife of the defendant, seated next to Cassia Patton, at a picnic. Next to Mrs. Mills is R. W. DeArmond, the father of Alaska historian Robert DeArmond, who had come to Sitka to work for the Department of Agriculture in 1903. At the time of this testimony, he shared a house with Merrill, and was elected to the School Board himself in 1907. His position on the case can be inferred from Bob DeArmond’s column on Rudolph Walton:

Walton attempted to enter his two step-children as well as several others he claimed to have adopted, in the white school where the teachers refused to accept them.

(The) three-member school board . . . split on the question. The loser was William A. Kelly, superintendent of the Sitka Industrial Training School, and he resigned from the school board. Walton’s effort was supported by the Presbyterian Church, . . . Kelly, a member of the bar, took the matter to court and lost. That ended Walton’s effort but did not erase a great deal of bitterness.” The implication I get here is that the bitterness was caused by Walton’s effort, not by the injustice of barring his children from going to school.

The majority of Sitkans believe it is wrong for Native children to go to school with “white” children.

There was no practical reason to exclude Village children from the school. Only four of the six children had even attended the public school before being told not to come any more. The teacher and others testify that the three girls who did are well-behaved. In 1906, there does not seem to be any threat of hordes of Native children overwhelming the schools, as most parents do not seem to have been eager for their children to go to school. The grandmother of one of the girls was opposed to her attending. And it turns out that these children were even included in the enumeration made to get the school, and, the school board had received funding for them, so it was not a money issue.

The arbitrary definition of “civilization,” which came down to living in the Village and “consorting” with other Natives, creates, rather than follows, any real differences amongst Sitkans.

Judge Gunnison wrote:“Civilization, though of course the term must be considered relative, includes, I apprehend, more than a prosperous business, a trade, a house, white man’s clothes and membership in a church. The burden of establishing that the plaintiffs live the civilized life is upon them, and I fail to find in the testimony evidence of a condition that inclines me to the opinion that the Davis children have that requisite.”

Thus Judge Gunnison weasels out of even bothering to define “civilization.” The only hard criteria they can come up with are living among and “consorting with” other Natives, which, of course, is a result of, and reinforced by, the racial bias on display in this testimony. By preventing Native children from “consorting with” white children at school, they are making it even less possible for them to meet their arbitrary criteria.

Bob DeArmond tells in his column on Rudolph Walton that he operated his store in two locations downtown, and owned property and put up buildings, on Lincoln Street, before building his shop in the Village. Was there pressure from Mills or others to give those up? From the effort Mills and others make to exclude Walton’s children from school, it seems very likely he would have exerted his influence to exclude him from Sitka’s main street commercial life, as well.

At the start of the testimony, W. P. Mills asks Walton: “You did not care whether they went to white school or not.”

Walton replies: “As long as they have good schooling, that is all I want.”

The following year federal funding was restored, and Sitka’s Native school reopened. The two schools were not integrated until 1949.

Dora and Tillie Walton went to Sheldon Jackson School, and were members of the first high school class, graduating in 1921. Tillie died in 1922.

Cassia Patton had been Governor Brady’s secretary, and went back to teaching after his resignation. In 1912 she and missionary Douglas Craig McTavish married in Calgary, Alberta, when she was 51 and he was 50, and went on to found the first school in Fort McMurray, Alberta. They successfully used the Canadian legal system to conduct a tax sale of property owned by speculators, who would not pay their taxes to support the school. In 2011 the Ecole McTavish opened in Fort McMurray, named in their honor. (The school fortunately survived the wildfires in the spring of 2016).

Like today, on the surface Sitka appeared integrated and race relations seem to be good, but in pursuing this cause, W. P. Mills exposed strong anti-Native feeling. What is surprising is not the vehement racism of Mills, but that this seems to be the view of most of the people of the town.

From this testimony, we begin to understand that society was permeated with the conviction that Native culture was not only inferior, but had to be suppressed, ranging from the explicit statements of Mills and Judge Gunnison, to the more passive acceptance by Merrill and so many others in this record, that Native children and “whites” must be separated.

From the time of U.S. Occupation of Alaska in 1867, Americans systematically excluded Native people from economic, political, or social integration. This case is an example of defining Native people just to deny them rights enjoyed by others.

There was also a horrific death rate among Native people in this period: Rudolph Walton lost his first wife, and eleven of his children as infants or young children, and thiswas not at all unusual for Native families at the time. The European-American death rate had been this high, but had come down dramatically since the 1870s. The trauma of losing so many family members, on top of being treated as naturally inferior despite one’s personal qualities and achievements, has had an impact on Native society to this day.

We are not so distant from those Sitkans from a century ago, which after all is only a few generations – these are our great-grandparents. Could the way we define Natives today be a continuation of these arbitrary criteria – and how much of what we accept as intrincally “Native” has actually been created by that artificial definition, and over a century of discrimination based on it?

Can we learn from this case and the way we see race was defined explicitly to create differences, and to justify discrimination? What would happen – if we don’t assume that Native culture is inferior to European-American culture? What if we consider the possibility that Native culture and language are compatible with, and even beneficial to, public education?

Selected sources:

Davis et al. v. Sitka School Board, 3 Alaska 481 (District Court, District of Alaska, First Division, 1908). Case file photographed by author at Alaska State Archives, Juneau Alaska, October 28, 2015.

Twelfth Census of the United States, Census of Alaska, Southern District, Sitka, Alaska 1900, accessed at family search.org.

Thirteenth Census of the United States, Population – Alaska, 1st District, Sitka, Alaska 1910, accessed at findmypast.com.

Bob DeArmond, “From Sitka’s Past” series of newspaper columns in the Daily Stka Sentinel, 1985-1992, and “Around and About Alaska,” 1992-2002.

Ted C. Hinckley, Alaskan John G. Brady, Missionary, Businessman, Judge, and Governor, 1878-1918 (Miami, Ohio: Miami University, 1982)

Virtual Museums Canada, Community Memories, Heritage Park, Fort McMurray, Alberta: Fort McMurray’s School Stories, “Cassia McTavish (nee Patton) – McMurray’s First Teacher” http://www.virtualmuseum.ca/sgc-cms/histoires_de_chez_nous-community_memories/pm_v2.php?id=story_line&lg=English&fl=0&ex=773&sl=7836&pos=1 Accessed July 1, 2016.

Joyce Walton Shales, “Rudolph Walton: One Tlingit Man’s Journey Through Stormy Seas, Sitka, Alaska, 1867-1951” (Ph. D. diss., The University of British Columbia, 1998)

Sergei Kan, Memory Eternal: Tlingit Culture and Russian Orthodox Christianity through Two Centuries (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1999)

Willis Osbakken, interview, Raven Radio, Sitka Alaska, November 2012, available at http://www.kcaw.org/2013/06/17/historic-sitka-in-stories/

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