Early American missionaries were so impressed with the work ethic, abilities and independent nature of the indigenous people of Southeast they decided "Alaska Native" was a more appropriate label than "Indian" - this at a time when the last tribal remnants of Native Americans in the "Lower 48" were being herded into "Indian reservations."
The founders of the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Alaska Native Sisterhood, two of the oldest Native American organizations in the United States, ardently believed that to improve the condition of their people they had to cast aside the old ways and become "civilized" Christians. That lasted about a decade.
In the 1920s, again adapting to realities, the organizations quietly dropped their assimilationist orientation and welcomed the traditional leadership, many of whom had little command of English.
In 1945 it won equal rights for all Alaska Natives, nearly two decades ahead of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Marching onward, the ANB/ANS initiated the Alaska Native claims movement, leading to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. It sued the U.S. government for lost lands and resources, organizing the Central Council for this purpose, then created community associations to take advantage of New Deal legislation (the Indian Reorganization Act), which quickly laid claim to almost all the available federal funds under that legislation.
Today, the ANB/ANS provide a unifying center for all Alaska Natives of the region, counter-balancing the sometimes discordant goals of their progeny.
The ANCSA corporations are modern business organizations, while the tribal entities, increasingly empowered by developments on the federal level, are assuming the cultural mantle and traditions of their people within a democratic, majority-ruled framework.
On some issues, like subsistence, all these organizations share similar goals. With other issues, conflicts arise.
Two well-known leaders - Richard George and Bertha Cavanaugh - personify the characteristic that set apart these organizations - self-determination.
Richard George of Angoon wears several hats these days. He is one of the longest serving directors of Angoon's ANCSA corporation, Kootznoowoo, Inc. He is a member of the Angoon Tlingit and Haida Community Council. And for decades has represented that organization as a delegate to the annual meeting of the Tlingit-Haida Central Council.
George is also one of the longest serving directors of Inside Passage Electric Cooperative, formerly Tlingit-Haida Regional Electrical Association. He remains an active member of the Alaska Native Brotherhood Camp #7. If he listed all former roles, his resume would include stints as mayor of the City of Angoon, school board member, past elder of his church and involvement in a long list of local, regional and statewide programs, committees, task forces and commissions.
Like George, Bertha Cavanaugh of Kake has served in numerous capacities for many different organizations. Now devoted to her family and the health of her husband, Gold Medal legend Archie Cavanaugh Sr., Cavanaugh limits her activities to service on the board of the ANCSA Kake Tribal Corporation, of which she is acting president.
Previously, she has held leadership positions in just about every organization in Kake, including the T&H Community Council, the Alaska Native Sisterhood Camp #10, the Johnson O'Malley program, and the Kake School Board. In addition Cavanaugh has served as a commissioner of the Tlingit-Haida Regional Housing Authority, and as a member of the Central Council Executive Committee.
George and Cavanaugh represent cultural strains that infuse all Alaska Native organizations in the region.
The son of Cyril George, patriarch of an important Angoon clan, the Basket Bay People, George carries on an ancient tradition of leadership. His relatives and friends "hold him up" - support him - in his efforts to represent an interconnected group of people within his community.
Cavanaugh carries on the tradition of women leaders, a tradition recorded in the journals of the earliest Euro-American traders, who noted that women played key roles in village leadership, often deciding exchange rates and concluding trade arrangements.