Tillie Paul Tamaree's historic act of civil disobedience remembered 100 years later

A century ago on Nov. 7, 1922, Tlingit translator and civil rights advocate Tillie Paul Tamaree helped Charlie Jones, the seventh Chief Shakes, vote in a Wrangell municipal election. Her actions led to a court case that would secure the right to vote for Alaska Natives two years before the federal Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 extended citizenship to Native people across the United States.

When she was 12 years old, Tamaree entered the Amanda McFarland Home for Girls in Wrangell to avoid an arranged marriage to a Tsimshian man over twice her age. While there, she converted to Presbyterianism. Though the church made attempts to suppress Native languages and culture in Southeast, Tamaree was both a devout Presbyterian and an advocate for the Tlingit community. She translated sermons and hymns into Tlingit, lectured on Tlingit culture and helped compile a Tlingit dictionary, according to the Presbyterian Historical Society.

She married fellow missionary Lewis Paul and had three sons: Samuel, William and Louis. Her husband died before her third son was born. Tamaree sent her sons to Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, where they were educated in Euro-American culture.

After leaving Carlisle, Samuel did not return to Alaska, but Louis became active in the Alaska Native Brotherhood and William became the first Alaska Native lawyer. Tillie and her sons were influential in transforming the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood from service organizations into active political forces that fought for Alaska Native rights and lands, according to Dave Kiffer of Ketchikan's SitNews.

In Wrangell, 1922 was a high-stakes election year. Strict new federal fishing permit requirements, combined with fish traps owned by wealthy, white absentee businessmen, were making it nearly impossible for Alaska Native fishermen to support themselves.

Widespread segregation - particularly of schools and churches - was harming the Native community. Even though most of the Wrangell population was Native, an exclusive cadre of white settlers controlled nearly every aspect of the area government, according to an episode of Ronan Rooney's "Wrangell History Unlocked" podcast, which was published online on Oct. 24, 2020.

Tamaree and her sons understood that securing the right to vote would play an essential role in ending segregation, safeguarding fishing rights and building Native political power.

Leonard Churchill, who came to Wrangell from New York during the 1887 gold rush, was a member of this group. Churchill was a city councilmember, inspector, watchman, census taker, election judge and more, wrote Rooney.

When Tlingit elder Charlie Jones approached the voting booth on Nov. 7, he was initially turned away. As he was leaving, he ran into Tamaree, who was then a 59-year-old woman. She listened to Jones' account of the situation and walked him back to the voting booth. No one knows exactly what she said to the election staff, but whatever it was, it was effective. With Tamaree's support, Jones cast his ballot.

The segregationist government, however, was not willing to give up the fight so easily. Jones was charged with illegal voting and perjury - Tamaree was charged with "inducing an Indian not entitled to vote to vote." Thankfully, her son William Paul was a gifted lawyer with "extraordinary talents as an orator" according to Alaska historian Steven Haycox.

Paul got the cases against his mother and Jones dismissed using a strategy he called "the toilet paper defense." Because of the assimilationist voting laws of the period, Paul had to prove that Jones was "civilized" and thus eligible to vote. He joked that maybe, if he could show the jury that Jones used toilet paper, they would be convinced that he lived according to the dictates of white society. Though Paul didn't actually mention toilet paper in court, he showed that Jones paid taxes, sent his children to school, and donated to the Red Cross. Jones and Tamaree were both released.

Though Alaska Native voting rights weren't officially codified until 1924, Jones's landmark win encouraged many Native people to head to the polls.

 

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