The Alaska Native Brotherhood is celebrating its 100th birthday. The Southeast-based organization and its partner group, the Alaska Native Sisterhood, have been at the forefront of Alaska’s civil rights movements since they formed.
A number of programs this year have highlighting its history. But the main event comes this week in Sitka, at the organization’s annual Grand Camp convention.
Gerry Hope is president of the ANB’s first camp, or chapter, in Sitka. He grew up in a family deeply involved in the Brotherhood and Sisterhood.
One of his early memories is walking into his grandparent’s house when he was 5 or 6. Andrew and Tillie Hope and others were discussing business.
“They were just boiling up some fish heads, they had some potatoes that were boiling up, you could smell the sweet smell of seal oil. And you could tell that they were talking about something that had some weight to it,” Hope says.
“My earliest memories of the Alaska Native Sisterhood is playing around in the ANB Hall while my mom was holding a meeting,” says Mary Brown of Klawock, president of the Sisterhood’s regional organization, called the Grand Camp. Her mother was Ruby Watson Smith, another leader.
“I remembered sitting there as I grew older listening to the sisters talking about what needed to be done, getting ready for the convention, and knew that I wanted to be a part of it,” she says.
The Brotherhood formed in 1912, the Sisterhood a while later. (See photos of the ANB and ANS’ earlier days.)
About 150 members are back in Sitka this week for the annual Grand Camp convention.
The keynote address is by Dr. Stephen Langdon, a University of Alaska Professor of Anthropology. He’s a recognized expert in the history, livelihoods and culture of Southeast’s Tlingit and Haida people.
Delegates will also hear reports from Native health, business and tribal organizations. They’ll elect new officers and debate resolutions setting directions for the year.
Some will speak about the Brotherhood and Sisterhood’s early years and the reason it was formed.
“We didn’t have voting rights. We didn’t have land rights. We couldn’t own land. We didn’t have civil rights. And we had a very hard time getting work outside of fishing,” says Klawock’s Dennis Demmert, the ANB’s Grand Camp president.
“And those were some of the problems the ANB, our predecessors, addressed. They won those rights for us.”
ANB leaders lobbied legislators and other officials in Juneau and Washington, D.C. They fought to include Alaska Natives in a nationwide Indian rights act, pass the state’s anti-discrimination law and seek a land-claims settlement.
“ANB and ANS were parents of the corporations as well. A lot of the Alaska Native organizations owe their existence to the work of the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood,” Demmert says.
Local camps also played a social role, raising funds for families in need, hosting dinners and educational programs, and building halls that became community centers.
Brown says members still play a big part in many funerals.
“The ANS steps forward every time and prepares food for the night watch. That’s usually two or three nights. And then we prepare a dinner for after the memorial service and a dinner after the funeral service,” Brown says.
The Brotherhood and Sisterhood are not what they used to be. With so many competing organizations, membership has dropped from the thousands to the hundreds. And the number of active camps has also dwindled.
“There’s still a need for our organization,” Demmert says.
He says ANB and ANS leaders want to find new ways of working for positive change. That includes involving younger people who do not remember the battles of the past.
“We can’t win civil rights anymore or voting rights anymore. We’ve already got those. But what can we do to better the lives of the Native people?” Demmert says.
He adds that the organizations include, and fight for, non-Native members.
Camp 1 President Hope says that’s among the reasons the anniversary should be of interest to more than Southeast-based Tlingits, Haidas and Tsimshians.
“You have to reflect on the strength of those kinds of real strong leadership that not only changed and worked to improve the lives of Alaska Natives, and I would argue it improved the lives of everyone. Because if you have a minority and their level of quality of life is improved, everyone’s life is improved,” Hope says.
The 100th anniversary and Grand Camp convention also include cultural presentations, camp fundraisers and a memorial service.