From Stewards to Shareholders

Eyaks Face Extinction

An interview with Dune Lankard and Marie Smith Jones

In September 1992, Dune Lankard and Marie Smith Jones, along with the environmental law firm Trustees for Alaska, brought an unsuccessful lawsuit against the Eyak Corporation to stop the corporation from clearcutting on lands sacred to the Eyak people. Both Lankard and Jones are shareholders in the corporation. Dune Lankard is part-Eyak and has served on the board of the Eyak Corporation. Marie Smith Jones is the chief of the traditional elders council established to protect the remaining heritage of the Eyaks. She is 74 years old and the last full-blooded Eyak Indian alive.

MM: What factors have led to the extinction of the Eyak people?

 Dune Lankard: From 1889 to about 1915, a couple of events took place that were very destructive to our way of life and our people. In the late 1890s, five canneries were built in the Copper River Delta area. The Eyaks' livelihood and subsistence lifestyle was drastically changed because the cannery workers placed nets five miles off-shore, funneled the fish into the canneries and blocked off the traditional salmon runs. So the Eyaks became dependent on the canneries for survival. And at the same time that they were taking the entire run, they were dynamiting streams. They basically wiped out our way of life.

When whites moved into the area and built the canneries, they brought alcohol. The canneries brought in a cheap Chinese labor force and the Chinese brought in opium. Just think about the destruction, about what can happen when the alcohol is mixed with the drugs: there is rape, there is violence, there is the abuse of Indian women.

Shortly after that, the railroad was built, right over the top of the last Eyak village site in Cordova. Then the government schools came in, the public schools that allowed only white children. Some of the Eyak children were shipped away to boarding schools in Oregon, some never to return.

The population of our people prior to the canneries being built was over 300; we were diminished to 50 by about 1920. The final event that wiped out many of our people was the 1918 flu.

Now, Marie is the last full-blooded Eyak Indian on the face of the earth. If Marie were white, this would not be happening. It would be a whole different ballgame then. People would be really concerned that a race of people is being destroyed. But we are just another Indian clan to a lot of people, so they are not taking this seriously. I believe that when Marie does pass on, there will probably be books written about her, maybe even a movie, like "The Last of the Mohicans" - "The Last of the Eyaks." By then it will already be a done deal. And it is so sad.

We were the last "founded," or rediscovered, tribe in North America and we are the first language and race of Alaskan Indians that will be wiped off the face of the earth when Marie dies. We were recognized as a tribe by anthropologists in 1933 and now, 60 years later, we are facing extinction. So more than anything, we want people to learn from this sad story and grasp its meaning so it never happens again.

MM: What were the impacts of statehood on Alaskan Natives?

 Lankard: When Alaska became the 49th state in 1959, it took away the rights of the people. The land was incorporated into the U.S. system; the way governments have successfully taken the land away from the Alaska Natives or indigenous people all over the world is by incorporating the land. A nation is allowed to bring in its own military, supposedly to protect us, but actually to govern us. For example, when they built the railroad in the 1900s, they said it would help our people because it would provide greater access to the area. What it really allowed was our resources to be extracted much faster.

 Marie Smith Jones: Even in the 1940s, during the war, the area was recognized as Native land. The railroad gave my father the right to live on any spot along that railroad. The tracks were just 50 yards or so from my father's house. At that time, the railroad company recognized that it was Indian land and they honored that. I think after Alaska became a state, it started going downhill.

MM: In 1971, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) extinguished all tribal claims of aboriginal title and placed 44 million acres of land in the hands of Native corporations, rather than in tribal ownership. What is your assessment of ANCSA?

Lankard: ANCSA took away the land rights of the people and gave them rights as shareholders. They are basically incorporated out of control of their own lives. They are not able to defend their ancestral lands, because they cannot go beyond the framework of the U.S. legal system. If we had retained our tribal government laws in 1971, we would now have 220 village tribal governments making laws that would not pertain to U.S. laws. When a number of Native leaders got together and incorporated the Alaska Federation of Natives in 1971, they had a choice right then to either retain tribal government status or to incorporate into the U.S. law system. When they chose the incorporation, the people lost their land claims. The claims went instead to these new Native corporations, which are multinational corporations wearing Native masks, in the sense that multinational corporations are interested in "development" and "progress."

Incorporating the land and its people made us all shareholders of the land. You look out over the horizon and you see all this wonderful land that we have lived on and made our living on for thousands of generations. But when you become a shareholder, which means that you have ownership in the land, it changes your perspective on how you look at that land. Instead of seeing beautiful forests, you see acres and acres of timber. Instead of seeing beautiful mountains, you see mines. You look at everything as a valuable resource rather than as a valuable way of life.

MM: How have the Eyaks come to be a minority on the board of their own corporation?

 Lankard: The Eyak Corporation was fighting for its land claims along with the other Indian tribes in the region. It had come into view that the Eyaks were an extinct people - that we were pretty much assimilated into other tribes - so the federal and state governments considered the Cordova area or the Copper River Delta area a melting pot for a bunch of different Native groups. There were Aleuts there, as well as Klinkits, Chugach Eskimos (who are pretty much Aleuts), the Eyaks and a few Upiks and some Athabascans. You'll find that type of mix anywhere in Alaska unless you're in really remote villages.

The Eyaks' ancestral claim to the land was proven. But some important terminology was instituted in the Land Claims Act itself that said membership in a village roll was to be determined by residency in a village: if you were considered a resident of the Eyak village area, and if you had a quarter Indian blood or more, then you were able to enroll as a member of the Eyak village. Three hundred Aleuts, Klinkits, Upiks and Athabascans then became a part of our village council - so right off the bat we became a minority in our own village council. They took over our council and passed laws that were not traditional to us. As soon as the Eyaks' land claim was accepted, the board incorporated 148,000 acres of land. The Aleuts then took all the positions on the board of directors of the Eyak Corporation. So we have been a minority at the corporation since day one.

MM: What is your current dispute with the board?

 Lankard: The board is making a move on our ancestral lands on the Eyak River. For the last three years, prior to June 1992, I sat on the board of directors of the Eyak Corporation. I tried to institute policies that protected our ancestral lands from being destroyed. I met with the board on many occasions to try to prevent clearcutting. We had a verbal agreement with the loggers and with the Eyak Corporation that the area right along the Eyak River would not be cut.

When I was out commercial fishing this summer, I heard on the radio that the loggers had made a move on the River. The area right along the River was cut. This section was called Eyak River East, but the corporate management and the board of directors called it the Curren Slough clearcut. They said there was a technicality in our verbal agreement stipulating that Eyak River East was not part of Eyak River. But the clearcut is adjacent to the Eyak River - it is the Eyak River. So I went to the board of directors and I pleaded with them not to cut the area until a cultural survey had been done to remove or excavate artifacts or burial sites or anything that was of significance to us before it was totally destroyed. They chose not to.

Jones: In the 1960s, I got a letter asking if I would sell the last Eyak village. I fought for the land for seven years. But just a few months ago, I was told that I sold that place. If there are any papers saying that I sold it, they have to be forgeries. Because I did not sell anything. I will not sell any of our people's land. It is sacred to me. I would never be able to face myself, my family, my people or God if I had ever done such a thing. There isn't enough money in this world. My land means more to me than all the money in this world.

 Lankard: In response to the lawsuit, the corporate management alleged that Marie sold the village. In fact, that was not true, but they used it to discredit us and our claim to the land.

MM: Can't you use your power as an Eyak Corporation shareholder to influence corporate decisions?

Lankard: As shareholders we have zero rights. All of the traditionalists are called "dissidents." The dissidents do not have the education, they do not have the money, they do not have the power to go against these corporate Indians. Twenty years after the passage of ANCSA, on December 18, 1992, the moratorium on the sale of our stock was supposed to be lifted. All of the Native corporations got together and changed the law a couple days before the moratorium was lifted, and added another year-and-a-half moratorium on the sale of our stock. The moratorium was instituted to protect Native corporations from hostile takeovers by outside interests, but one of its negative effects is that it shields Native board members from accountability. By taking away the right to sell our stock, they left us with no leverage to influence corporate decisions. Board members do not have to fear outside corporations coming in and taking over the board so they are free to act as they wish.

The corporate Indian position is that they feel that they have to give the Natives dividends because the Natives' skin is brown - their attitude is basically, "We are Natives so we have to give our people dividends." They are buying into the welfare system that says they have to give us money.

Well, we don't want the money. We want our land. With the land comes the resources and then in turn comes the money. We feel that there is more money in governing and managing our land than in developing its resources, because once the resources are gone the money is gone.

MM: How should the Native Corporation system be reformed? How should Native lands be managed?

 Lankard: There needs to be a new vision and spirit put back into the hearts of the people who are silent right now. The change that needs to take place is to prove to the Natives that they do have power and that their voices do count. Because right now you have intimidated people who are afraid to talk and afraid to come forward. So their voice is deadened. I would say that our spirit has been broken in the last hundred years. What we are trying to do right now is revive the spirit of the people and put pride back in their hearts.

Then we need to begin to work in a new direction to preserve the lands the same way we have for thousands of generations. If one of the main concerns is to create dividends for Native people, we need to develop resources in an unobtrusive way.

By developing non-obtrusive tourism in Alaska, for example, you can create a number of jobs. We are running out of places like this in the world. [Responsible tourism] will also teach people to respect the land again. If you pack it in, you pack it out. No one is going to want to come visit Alaska after our lands have been clearcut and strip mined - they can see that in the Lower 48, they can see that from their own homes.

The important thing is to get people back on the land. When you live in the United States, your feet never touch the ground - you're on pavement constantly, you're in cars, you're in homes. When you go out into a wilderness area and you are out in the woods and near a stream and your feet are solidly on the ground - you feel a sense of balance, you feel like you have come in touch with the earth. That is what the Native people have always had, that is why they have always been relaxed and wise. We have a saying now that with the corporate Indians, the wisdom has left their chiefs. In other words, they've lost touch with reality, they've lost their balance. They are caught up in a world that they are not familiar with.

We need to be able to go out to those woods, near those streams, out to those areas that are sacred to us. The last thing that we want is to walk into a clearcut, because there your heart is filled with pain. Or if you go to a favorite mountaintop and it is strip- mined, how are you going to feel about that mountain? It takes away the sacredness of the area.

This is what we are trying to protect. So people can enjoy what we have enjoyed for thousands of generations. The only way that anything is going to be left in this world is to make people hear what we are saying and understand the importance of why the land has to be left alone.