Russia laid claim to Alaska beginning in the 1770s, mainly occupying the coastal areas with a primary interest in exploitation of furs. The Unungan, or Aleut, people were the first Alaska Natives to be impacted by being forced into slavery to hunt fur-bearing marine animals for the Russians.

An estimated 80% of the Aleut population died from introduced diseases against which they had no immunity, a crisis to the Aleut people and culture that is unimaginable. Russians moved onward to Kodiak, then to Southeast Alaska impacting the Tlingit and Haida, who continued to wage war on the Russians into the 1850s. The diseases carried by the Russians traveled to Alaska Native people well beyond the areas occupied by the Russians.

In 1867, U.S. Secretary of State William Seward made the deal to purchase Russia’s claim to Alaska for $7.2 million, proclaimed by the Treaty of Cession.  The Treaty classified Alaska Natives into ‘civilized groups’ which were to be regular citizens of the United States with no special relationship, and the rest were recognized as ‘uncivilized groups’ which were to be subject to federal Indian law.

This confusing classification of Alaska Natives in the Treaty of Cession fueled debate over the status of Alaska Native people in the years to come. Without a special political relationship with the federal government, Alaska Natives would have no aboriginal claim to land and resources, receive no special federal services under the trust responsibility of the federal government, nor have tribal status with the government-to-government relationship needed to operate tribal governments and justice systems.

Additional Resources

  • Alaska Treaty of Cession


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