Helen McNeil remembers sitting in her grandmother’s living room in Juneau listening to her relatives talk about some people who’d recently moved in from the villages. When these people tried to register to vote in Juneau, they were presented with a literacy test. McNeil’s grandparents were officials in the Alaska Native Sisterhood and Alaska Native Brotherhood, which advocates for Native people’s rights in southeast Alaska. “They ended up going to the ANB hall, and getting an ANB representative to go with them and it was cleared up,” she said. “So they were able to register to vote.” But in the villages, she said, where ANB and ANS presence wasn’t always as strong as it was in Juneau, literacy tests were used to keep Natives from registering to vote. It was a problem that often came up for discussion at ANB meetings, she said.
This was the 1950s. At that time, Natives were no longer required to pass the “civilized person” test in order to gain citizenship and vote. This was the test devised for Natives by the territorial legislature in 1915: five white people had to sign a document stating they’d known the Native applicant for a year, and could testify the Native person had met certain requirements, such as living in a Western style house, eating Western food, working for wages at least part of the year, and regularly attending a church.
But the “civilized person” test was a standard that still ruled people’s lives, McNeil said. She said the Bureau of Indian Affairs used it to evaluate Native families while she was growing up, although the signatures of five white witnesses were no longer required.