Early Education and Effects of the Nelson Act (1905)

Missionary-educator Sheldon Jackson was appointed as the first general agent for education in Alaska in 1885. Under Jackson’s leadership, the Interior Department made contracts with various missionary associations, giving them jurisdiction over education in Alaska. These associations developed a network of Native village schools, which were notorious for prohibiting the speaking of Native languages. It was primarily under the influence of the missionaries and teachers that the village council style of tribal governance was organized. 

In 1905 Congress passed the Nelson Act which established a separate system of education for Alaska Natives, giving the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) nearly exclusive control over Alaska Native education until well after Alaska Statehood. The effects these schools had on Alaska Native culture is well described in Willie Hensley’s book Fifty Miles from Tomorrow, published in 2008.

In addition to the BIA schools, the Interior Department established the Native reindeer industry, extended medical care specifically for Alaska Native people, and established village cooperative stores, sawmills, and salmon canneries. Some 150 Indian reserves were created for education, economic development, community development, and health. This was the political relationship that was needed for the future settlement of aboriginal claims and the existence of federally recognized tribes in Alaska.