Sealaska Heritage

NEWS_SHI to sponsor lecture on Tlingit legal battle to keep slaves

<<back to news page


Event free, open to the public

Nov. 7, 2019


Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI) will sponsor a lecture next week on In re Sah Quah, the 1886 decision that prohibited Tlingit slavery in Alaska.  In re Sah Quah has also been depicted by at least one scholar as a “test case” cooked up by “Alaskan whites [who] were deeply involved in a struggle to destroy Tlingit society.”

The lecture, The Meaning of a Meaningless Case: In Re Sah Quah: The Perils of Common Law Indigenous Rights,” will be given by David S. Case, an attorney who practiced law for 38 years in Alaska where he represented Native village corporations, tribes and municipalities.  He is the author of several law review and journal articles examining the rights of Alaska Natives, but most notably he is the original author and later co-author of Alaska Natives and American Laws, now in its third edition.

In its Sah Quah decision, the Alaska Federal District Court held that Tlingits could not keep slaves as an aspect of their original sovereignty.  The Court appointed M. D. Ball, the United States Attorney, to represent the Tlingits, and Ball dutifully argued that the Tlingits had the sovereign, tribal authority to keep slaves.  Making that argument opened the way for the Court to conclude of the Tlingit:  “that their system is essentially patriarchal, and not tribal.”   

That became the set screw of Indigenous sovereignty in Alaska until the United States Supreme Court's 1918 decision in Alaska Pacific Fisheries v. United States.  There the Court noted that the Metlakatla Indians “had adopted a form of self-government suited to their needs” and prohibited Alaska Pacific Fisheries from installing a fish trap in the waters set aside for the reservation.

Both cases represent the common law analysis of inherent tribal sovereignty in Alaska. Subsequent state and federal decisions have alternatively loosened, advanced, reversed and ultimately advanced those rights, until it seems now that Indigenous sovereignty in Alaska is an established legal fact of the common law.

“This notable accomplishment will always be at risk unless and until it is recognized either as part of the United States Constitution or as a matter of the International Law of Human Rights," Case wrote.

The lecture is scheduled from noon-1 pm, Tuesday, Nov. 12, at Sealaska Heritage's Walter Soboleff Building, 105 S. Seward St. in Juneau. The lecture will be videotaped and put online shortly after the talk.

This program is provided under the Preparing Indigenous Teachers and Administrators for Alaska Schools (PITAAS) program and funded by the Alaska Native Education Program.

Sealaska Heritage Institute is a private nonprofit founded in 1980 to perpetuate and enhance Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures of Southeast Alaska. Its goal is to promote cultural diversity and cross-cultural understanding through public services and events. SHI also conducts social scientific and public policy research that promotes Alaska Native arts, cultures, history and education statewide. The institute is governed by a Board of Trustees and guided by a Council of Traditional Scholars, a Native Artist Committee and a Southeast Regional Language Committee.

CONTACT: Amy Fletcher, SHI Media and Publications Director, 907.586.9116,