This post is part of our series on the Bill of Rights. We’re highlighting primary sources selected to help students explore core concepts found within the Bill of Rights, and how they’ve impacted American history. This year marks the 225th anniversary of the ratification of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights. The National Archives is commemorating the occasion with exhibits, educational resources, and national conversations that examine the amendment process and struggles for rights in the United States.
The right of the people to “petition for redress of grievances” is guaranteed by the Bill of Rights and is part of the rather complex first amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Several essential questions might accompany an investigation into the process of petitioning the Government.
- What does an historic petition look like?
- What happens after a petition is submitted?
- How does one petition a governmental body today?
A petition created by a group of Alaska Native women for themselves and their children on October 10, 1942 during World War II can, in part, answer these and other questions.
Prior to June 13–16, 1942, these families had lived for many generations on St. George and St. Paul Islands of Alaska, in the Bering Sea north of the Aleutian Chain as well as in the Pribilof Islands themselves. However, as World War II heated up in the Pacific, Japanese forces attacked both Midway Island in the Pacific and Dutch Harbor, Alaska, between June 3 and 6, 1942. As a result the Japanese occupied the islands of Attu, and Kiska in the Aleutian Chain (Alaska) for nearly a year.
In reaction to fear of capture, the U.S. Government forcibly evacuated all Alaska Native families from both St. Paul and St. George Islands a few days later. Families were given two hours to pack one suitcase each. Some watched as their homes, livestock, and remaining possessions were destroyed by the U.S. military while they sailed away. The ships took them to Funter Bay, Alaska — several thousand miles east of their homes — to spend most of the balance of the war in old fish cannery buildings. Some of the men of the community joined the Army or were taken back to the islands to conduct the seal harvest, leaving a large number of women and children alone in the cannery buildings at Funter Bay for months on end.
The following petition shows their dismay and concern.
Ask your students the following questions as they read the petition:
- What conditions prompted them to draft a petition to try to gain assistance?
- What were they asking for?
- How many women signed the petition?
The administrator of the regional U.S. Fish and Wildlife Administration received the petition and took it to his superiors in Washington D.C., threatening to quit his job if the housing situation was not improved. Unfortunately, nothing was done and he left his job as promised.
Much later, in 1988, President Reagan signed a bill into law making restitution to both Japanese-Americans who had been held in Japanese Relocation camps and the Aleut Natives who had been sent to the canneries during World War II.
You can continue your classroom discussion by reviewing additional primary sources relating to the Aleut relocation, such as:
- Log book from Dutch Harbor, Pribilof Islands during the evacuation, June 16–29, 1942
- Log book at Funter Bay Evacuation Camp, Southeastern Alaska, October 26–December 31, 1943
- Log book illustrating the condition of one of the native villages (that was not burned immediately) upon their return, April 30–May 26, 1944
In 1988, in his remarks when signing the Japanese Relocation Reparations Bill, President Reagan said, “I’d like to note that the bill I’m about to sign also provides funds for members of the Aleut community who were evacuated from the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands after a Japanese attack in 1942. This action was taken for the Aleuts’ own protection, but property was lost or damaged that has never been replaced.”
Today, there is a new process for submitting petitions for both the Executive and Legislative branches of the Federal government online. See:
You could also use this Aleut Women’s Petition when teaching about:
- The Bill of Rights, the Third Amendment: Quartering Soldiers
- Women in History
- Native Alaskans
You can find hundreds of examples of petitions to the government about other subjects on DocsTeach.