Our Oldest “Minority”
To the Editor:
I have read with much interest, satisfaction, and enjoyment the article entitled “Alaska’s Nuremberg Laws” by Felix S. Cohen in the August issue of COMMENTARY. It is Dr. Cohen’s usually scholarly and readable presentation of facts which escape many of our thinking people because the Indians are for the most part a localized and not-too-vocal minority.
When the National Congress of American Indians, an organization composed of persons of Indian blood, for which I serve as President, presented the facts on discrimination against Indians to the President’s Civil Rights Committee, the Chairman of the Committee brushed aside most of our complaints with the remark that we are in a different category from other citizens. Dr. Cohen’s article deals with that myth. If the general public will begin to realize that the government cannot play the dictator with Indian rights without learning the tricks of dictatorship to practice on other citizens, perhaps it will not continue to ignore us.
Senators and representatives from the Western states will be first to deny that Indian rights are being ignored. They will say, as they have told me, that Congress is burdened with legislation concerning the Indian and that much time is spent listening to Indian witnesses. An examination of most of this legislation and the transcripts of testimony will reveal, however, that it is for the purpose of “emancipating” the Indian from his property and that the witnesses speak only to the record. Such was the legislation about which Dr. Cohen speaks so forcefully—the Tongass Act which became law last August.
Given a valid dispute as to land boundaries, the proponents of the bill offered the argument that it was necessary to ignore the claim of the Indians in order to save the newsprint industry. They argued that to determine the rights first would take too much time. The most tragic thing about it was that people like Senator Watkins who “doubted the constitutionality of the Act” were influenced by such an argument to withhold objections. . . .
I have passed my copy of COMMENTARY containing Dr. Cohen’s article around to all my friends and have recommended it to those whom my copy would not reach. These people, however, are already convinced of the injustice of Congress’ present treatment of the Alaskan natives and have been actively working to secure for those natives a square deal. Passage of the Tongass Bill, and the near passage of S. J. Res. 162, the anti-reservation bill, indicates clearly, I fear, that our voices are not strong enough. We are grateful to you and to Dr. Cohen for presenting this obscured problem to your wide audience of people who think on these things—and act accordingly. . . .
N. B. Johnson
National Congress of American Indians