Sealaska Heritage


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Oct. 15, 2014

The archives facility at the new Walter Soboleff building will be named for Tlingit Native rights hero William L. Paul, Sr., who was a major force in Alaska history and is recognized as the father of the Alaska Native land claims.

The William L. Paul, Sr., Archives houses 3,100 linear feet of archival and historical manuscripts and papers, photographs, and audio and visual recordings, including historical documents, manuscripts, and papers of individuals of importance to both the indigenous people of the region and Alaska history, and over 60,000 historic photographs. The Archives currently houses more than 5,000 historical and contemporary audio and audiovisual recordings documenting the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian language, culture and history. Most of these recordings are wholly unique and cannot be found in other libraries, archives, or repositories. 

William L. Paul was a gifted orator, Alaska’s first Native attorney, the state’s first Native legislator and a formidable warrior who fought on the front line of many legal and political battles of his time. Yet his achievements are not as well known outside of Alaska Native circles, said SHI President Rosita Worl. SHI’s Board of Trustees named the archives after him to honor his accomplishments and to publicly recognize him for his life’s work, she said.

“William L. Paul, Sr., set the course for the resolution of Alaska Native aboriginal land claims and worked tirelessly throughout his lifetime to protect the ownership of Haa Aaní (Our Land),” Worl said. “He is a hero to past, present and future Alaska Natives, and we are forever indebted to him,” Worl said.

William L. Paul, Sr., was born on May 7, 1885, at Tongass Village. His Tlingit name was Shgwíndee and he was Raven of the Teeyhíttaan Clan. He earned a baccalaureate from Whitworth College and a law degree through La Salle University before returning to Alaska.

He helped build the Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB), which holds the distinction of being the nation’s first Native American civil rights organization, into a potent political voice, and in 1923, he launched the newspaper Alaska Fisherman to advance the ANB agenda.

William L. Paul, Sr., attacked school segregation, won citizenship rights for Natives, secured the right to vote and fought to protect salmon fishing—victories that were accomplished before the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act and during a period in American history when Native Americans openly were subjugated and their basic aboriginal and civil rights denied.

He also lobbied for the 1936 amendment to extend the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) to Alaska under which most Alaska tribal governments are organized today and in which he also introduced the idea of regional corporations and advocated for their incorporation under the IRA.

In 1923, he was elected to the territorial legislature as the first Alaskan Native legislator. He first introduced the resolution of land claims at the 1920 ANB Convention in Wrangell. During the 1930s he successfully lobbied for the enactment of the 1935 Jurisdictional Act authorizing land claims litigation in the Court of Claims to secure compensation for the taking of aboriginal lands.
He adamantly and consistently asserted that clans are the owners of land under Tlingit law and filed cases in which he asserted that clans were the rightful entities to litigate land rights.

He achieved a stunning but short-termed legal victory in 1947 in Miller v. United States in which the Ninth Circuit affirmed the existence of congressionally-recognized aboriginal land and ruled that it cannot be seized by the government against the consent of the Tlingit landowners without paying just compensation.

With the Forest Service selling billions of feet of timber, burning and destroying subsistence camps and driving the Tlingit from their lands, William L. Paul, Sr., resisted the confiscation of Tlingit property through legal action, which ultimately led to the timber escrow funds. Under the direction of William L. Paul, Sr., his sons filed the Tee-Hit-Ton v. United States caseto test the extent of Tlingit land rights in Alaska, arguing that Tlingit property may not be taken against their will without just compensation, and thus the sale of timber from Tlingit land was an unconstitutional taking. The United States Supreme Court ruled against the Pauls and upheld that the confiscation of Tlingit property was legal, but despite the loss of the Tee-Hit-Ton v. United States case before the United States Supreme Court, William L. Paul, Sr., set the course for the resolution of Alaska Native aboriginal land claims and worked tirelessly throughout his lifetime to protect the ownership of Haa Áani.

Because William Paul was one of the first to initiate formal legal and political action to resolve Native land claims in the early 1900s, and because of his extensive work on land claims from Southeast Alaska to the North Slope, he is considered the father of Alaska Native land claims. William Paul worked closely with his brother, Louis Paul, and his sons William L. Paul, Jr., and Fred Paul, who were also attorneys. William L. Paul, Sr., died in 1977.

Sealaska Heritage Institute was founded in 1980 to promote cultural diversity and cross-cultural understanding. The institute is governed by a Board of Trustees and guided by a Council of Traditional Scholars. Its mission is to perpetuate and enhance Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian cultures of Southeast Alaska. The mission of SHI's Library, Collections and Archives Program is to collect and preserve materials that document the history, culture, heritage, and languages of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian people and to make these materials available to the public for educational purposes.

CONTACT: Rosita Worl, SHI President, 907.463.4844