When the United States purchased Alaska in 1867, the country was still busy recovering from the ravages of the Civil War, with the Indian Wars moving westward. The tone at the time towards American Indians was assimilation, primarily through boarding schools and allotting Indian lands to individuals. Hundreds of treaties with the Indians had been produced, reservations created, major decisions about Indian tribes made by the U.S. Supreme Court, and several acts of Congress passed. Indian tribes had endured persecution through wars, disease, and removal from their homelands. When the U.S. purchased Alaska, all the land went into the ‘public domain.’ Transfer of land to private individuals and tribes and designation of land for specific public purposes required future congressional action.

At first there was a relatively small federal presence in the Alaska territory and little attention paid to potential aboriginal claims, political status of Alaska Natives, and their special relationship to the federal government. Congress terminated treaty making with Indians in 1871, therefore no treaties were made with Alaska Native people. The passage of the first Organic Act in 1884 created the District of Alaska and established a District Court. The Act provided for a judge, clerk, several commissioners, and a marshal with four deputies. This court system was to enforce the applicable laws of the State of Oregon. The Act also designated Alaska a mining District which provided that “the Indians and other persons in said district shall not be disturbed in the possession of any lands actually in their use or occupation or now claimed by them, but the terms of which such persons may acquire title to such lands is reserved for future legislation by Congress.” The Act charged the Secretary of Interior with the responsibility of educating the school age children of Alaska, regardless of race.

During these early years no legal distinction between Native and non-Native residents of the territory was made in terms of service delivery. This was about to change when Sheldon Jackson became the General Agent for Education in Alaska and Congress passed the Nelson Act in 1905, authorizing funding specifically for the “Education and support of the Eskimos, Indians and other Natives of Alaska.”

Additional Resources

The District Organic Act of 1884


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