Edward Thomas is creating an Alaska Native Leaders hall of fame

Former President of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes Central Council works to preserve and share Southeast Alaska Native history
Edward Thomas is creating an Alaska Native Leaders hall of fame
Published: Jan. 2, 2023 at 7:25 PM AKST
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Edward Thomas, president emeritus of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, hosted a lecture with the Sealaska Heritage Institute on Dec. 20, 2022, detailing his research and findings about Alaska Native leaders.

“When I looked back a little bit into our history and some of the accomplishments of our forefathers, I find that we have not done a good job in documenting what these folks have done for us, and we don’t do enough celebrating of their accomplishments,” Thomas said.

Thomas then started creating an Alaska Native Leaders Hall of Fame with the help of Peter Metcalfe, the Sealaska Heritage Institute, and the Tlingit and Haida Central Council.

The Hall of Fame will include Alaska Native leaders such as William Paul, who was the first Alaskan Native state legislator, and Charles Demmert, who founded the first Alaskan Native-run cannery. Also included are historic events, like the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and the founding of the Sealaska Heritage Institute.

The Hall of Fame will be published in Sealaska Heritage Institute’s “Box of Knowledge” series and hopefully in a booklet once the hall of fame is complete, Thomas said.

Thomas hopes that his research and findings will be used to educate those that read what he is putting together, whether it is those who are in school or anyone who is interested in reading it.

“So that there is a sense of history that is left out of curriculum in schools or even available to other folks who really want to know about the history of Southeast Alaskans,” Thomas said.

The importance of learning one’s history was not lost on Thomas either as he detailed the rights that had been won for Alaska Natives.

“When you look back prior to 1924, our people could not even vote, could not hold property,” Thomas said. “Send that message on to your kids and grandkids, that this is something our people fought for, for years and years so that we can have a voice, and so don’t just let your voice die in the wind.”

Thomas believes that looking back on the history of one’s people naturally brings about a sense of pride that opens up doorways for people to express who they are.

“If I’m speaking to the Native community, I’d like to see our young people get some pride in what our elders did in past generations. I know for sure I did,” Thomas said.

During his lecture, Thomas also spoke on Walter Soboleff’s project with elders to lay a foundation of Tlingit and Haida values known as “Our Way of Life.” In an interview, Thomas spoke about why these values are important to Native cultures.

“The only way to relate to something like values is to keep it in front of people, to remind you,” he said. “You know it’s kind of like laws — if you violate all the laws all the time, pretty soon you have no respect for them. Same way with values — if you don’t dig down deep into your soul and have values, next thing you know you’re violating your own internal self worth ... Next thing you start violating the things that we’ve cherished for generations.”

Thomas said that the responsibility for further incorporating these values has always been put on someone else — whether it be leadership or schools — and said that it’s time people start realizing they should be doing more. Thomas said that is his goal in creating the Alaska Native Leaders Hall of Fame.