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Teacher's Guide

Regional History
Southwest Alaska
1959-1980 Joining Old And New

In this section you will learn about:

  • Government supported mining
  • Results of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act
  • Regional Native corporations

Red Devil provides year round employment

In 1959 Alaska became a state. Federal programs and federal funds continued to play a major part in the economy of SouthwestAlaska. One federally supported project was the Red Devil mercury mine on the Kuskokwim River.

Hans Halverson had located the extensive cinnabar deposits in 1933, but little mining followed. With funds from the U.S. Defense Mineral Exploration Administration in 1952 the DeCoursey Mountain Mining Company began to develop the deposits. In 1960 the mine produced more than 20,000 flasks of quicksilver. Mine workings included almost two miles of shafts, crosscuts, and tunnels on five underground levels. The cinnabar veins were worked out after four years and further exploration produced no other mineable ore.

During its years of operation, the Red Devil quicksilver mine was the only important lode metal mining operation active in Alaska. It was not the only quicksilver mine in the area, but it far outdistanced the others in production.

Tidal wave leaves Kodiak a shambles

In 1964 the tsunami generated by the earthquake that shook Southcentral Alaska left Kodiak Island a shambles. The village of Old Harbor near Three Saints Bay was almost completely destroyed. Successive waves washed over the City of Kodiak's business district. The loss of canneries and some of the king crab fleet cost the fishing industry nearly $10 million.

On Afognak Island, 178 villagers escaped into the mountains. It was three days before they could return to where their village had stood. Refugees from Afognak Island and Port Wakefield on Raspberry Island were relocated in a new community on Kodiak Island named Port Lions. At Kaguyak, across Shelikoff Strait from Afognak Island on the Alaska Peninsula, the 60 residents lost their homes. In all, the tsunami claimed 20 lives in the Kodiak vicinity. Property losses totaled more than $45 million.

Settlement act creates corporations

When Congress passed the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act in 1971, four Native regional corporations were created in Southwest Alaska. The corporations were Calista, for the Yukon Kuskokwim delta (excluding the areas around St. Michael and Unalakleet); Bristol Bay; Koniag, serving Kodiak Island and the eastern part of the Alaska Peninsula; and Aleut, including the western part of the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutian and Pribilof islands.

On Kodiak Island, some of the national wildlife refuge passed into Native ownership. On Afognak Island, where the first forest reserve in Alaska had been established in 1892 timberlands were returned to local Natives.

In the Aleutian Islands, the village corporation at Unalaska took title to the former military installations and leased the buildings.

The corporation became the first in the state to pay stockholder dividends. The Aleut Corporation invested in shipping and fishing industries. Two of Anchorage's largest hotels were owned by Southwest Alaska Native corporations, the Anchorage Westward Hilton by Bristol Bay Corporation, and the Sheraton Anchorage by Calista Corporation.

River fisheries grow

In Southwest Alaska salmon has again become a major source of income. Commercial fishing along the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers was permitted in 1955.

In 1967 and again in 1974, the salmon runs in Bristol Bay were so small that both years the region was declared a disaster area. Some fisheries experts blamed overfishing. Others blamed exceptionally cold winters that killed many of the salmon fry. Still others thought the cause was the growing number of foreign fishing vessels in offshore waters. During the 1970s the state instituted a limited entry program and established more fish hatcheries. The United States extended its jurisdiction from 12 to 200 miles offshore.

In 1979 sockeye salmon returned to Bristol Bay in record numbers. The king crab catch around Kodiak Island increased, but declined again in 1980. Shrimp processing plants were recently built, at Kodiak, Sand Point, Dutch Harbor, Squaw Harbor, and Akutan. The Aleutian Islands were also enjoying a rebirth of the cod fishery. Cod had nearly disappeared from the Aleutian Islands' waters by the 1950s.

Pribilof Islanders: Free At Last

No Aleuts were in residence when Gerassim Pribilov found the breeding grounds of the fur seals in 17$6. He took possession of the islands in the name of Russia and of his ship, the St. George. By the end of the century, the Russians had moved Aleuts to the islands to harvest the fur seals. The Natives quickly adopted Russian habits and the Russian Orthodox faith, and they were granted Russian citizenship.

When the United States acquired the islands, the Alaska Commercial Company contracted to manage the fur seal harvest. The managers agreed to maintain and protect the herd, and to maintain and protect the Aleuts as well. They deplored the terrible living conditions" that had existed under Russian rule, but overlooked the fact that the Aleuts were about to lose most of the privileges and freedom they had enjoyed. Not until 1966 would families in the Pribilof Islands have the opportunity to own their own homes and businesses and so gain control over their lives.

Harvesting seats was almost the only employment available to the Aleuts when the Alaska Commercial Company took over the islands. The hunters were paid for the number of seals they killed with credit at the Alaska Commercial Company Store. They received no cash wages. They had no cash to buy things anywhere else. Besides credit at the company store, the hunters were supplied with 25,000 dried salmon, 60 cords of firewood, and salt and barrels for preserving seal meat. Their situation was verb close to a master slave relationship.

After 1910, the federal government, instead of the Alaska Commercial Company, was responsible for the islanders' health and welfare. The Aleuts were granted citizenship in 1924 along with all Alaska Natives, but they stilt had little control over their lives. Even when a limited amount of self-government was allowed under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, they were totally dependent upon their employers.

When World War II broke out, the Pribilof Aleuts lost even the semblance of freedom. A military transport ship arrived unannounced and anchored off St. Paul. The islanders were told they must leave immediately. They could take only what they could hurriedly pack in one bag. For the next two years the St. Paul families lived in salmon cannery dormitories at Funter Bay in Southeast Alaska. St. George families occupied an abandoned gold mine across the bay. When the Aleuts were finally allowed to return to their islands, they were more than ever aware of their lack of freedom. The federal government continued to control all aspects of their lives, even inspecting their homes to make sure they were clean.

In the 20 years following the end of the war, the Pribilof Aleuts gradually acquired a measure of independence. First the islands were made a voting precinct. Then the Aleuts began earning annual cash wages. Finally, in 1966, a new Fur Seal Act allowed them to obtain title to land for homes and businesses.

Passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971 was the final step on the road to freedom. The Tanaq Village Corporation was established on St. George. The Tanadgusix Village Corporation, the largest in the Aleut region, selected all of St. Paul (except for the federally owned seat rookeries), as well as property in other parts of the Aleutian Islands, for its land allotment. Today, both village corporations are looking far new job opportunities in such industries as ground-fishing and crabbing, so that island residents will be less dependent upon seals for their livelihood. At last, the Pribilof Islanders are free to choose and act for themselves.

Pribilof Islands controversy

By 1980 the fur seal population of the Pribilof Islands had stabilized at about 1.7 million. The four nation fur seal treaty, however, was due to expire in 1981. Conservation groups pushed to ban all fur seal killing. Scientists argued for a controlled harvest. For the 750 Aleuts on the Pribilof Islands, the fur seals were central to their economy. New markets had opened up for the seal carcasses for use as dog food and crab bait.

Land issues also decided far away

Like disposition of the Pribilof Islands fur seals, land issues in Southwest Alaska were also decided far away at the beginning of the 1980s. In 1980 Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. For Southwest Alaska, this meant designation of most of insular Southwest Alaska as part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. In riverine Southwest Alaska, many other wildlife refuges were created or expanded as were some national parks and preserves. This was good in many ways. These designations, however, once again illustrated the use of Southwest Alaska to satisfy national or global needs, the theme you have been tracing throughout this unit.

Summary questions

  1. What reasons were given for small salmon runs in 1967 and 1974?
  2. What was the result of the Alaska National Interest Lands Act in Southwest Alaska?

The Sea, A Common Bond
1743-1867 Era of Russian Violence
1867-1912 The Era of American Exploitation
1912 1924 Lessons From The Land
1924-1959 The Recent Years
1959-1980 Joining Old And New
Suggested Readings

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1924-1959 The Recent Years Suggested Readings

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