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In 2018 I got to teach at the Sitka Fine Arts Camp Elementary School session. The camp groups students by age and rotates four sections of each age group through four different classes, in music, theater, visual art, and dance.

This year I had the 5th grade group, kids going into 6th grade, who came in for I think around 50 minutes each. Each group had around a dozen kids, and we had to set up, work, and clean up in that time before the next group came in. The camp was one week, so five mornings total.

The cleaning up is an important part of the process – young people actually like knowing what’s going on and they actually like cleaning up, especially sponging off the tables.

The first day I gave them watercolors, and had them try various techniques, with nice watercolor paints (they are Cotman travel sets, and over the years we have replaced the paint as it was used up with Daniel Smith watercolors) on 80# drawing paper. First we looked at some slides of the work of Helen Frankenthaler and Vasili Kandinsky, and told a little about those artists and periods.

Tuesday, we did observational drawing, of a wooden stool, doing fast draw, blind contour, then a longer drawing, then, if they had time, a smaller object of their choice. In this one I showed them basic drawing tricks, using angles, proportions, overlap, scale, and the trick of using the back ground, and the angles of the box the stool was on, to give their drawing depth.

Wednesday we drew the counselor, with the same drawing instruction, with the addition of learning to show the model respect.

Thursday we drew a still life of at least two objects, on the table near them. We didn’t do any warmups, but instead sketched on newsprint, then drew with pencil and outlined with pen or drew with a pen, then watercolor, on 80# drawing paper, using the various watercolor techniques from Monday.

On Friday, I set up lights and pushed the tables together, with the lights at one end, and kids sitting on the long sides of the tables. They did a quick draw then shaded (modeled) drawing of white styrofoam balls. Then, had them gather all their art, and put their favorite piece on top, and we did a little art walk, where each said something they liked about (someone else’s) picture.

One more thing was to have each kid at the end of each session put his or her work in a stack. I didn’t have any drying racks, so we arranged the stacks of pictures all around the edges of the room on the floor.

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This is a review of The Organized Mind, by Daniel J. Levitin.

The problem with this book is that the author has an extremely limited and mechanistic notion of how our minds work.

You assume that this book will help you to deal with the complexity and volume of information, stimuli, expectations, tasks that can feel overwhelming, but it is actually more like a collection of magazine articles on how to organize information, and not how to “organize” your mind in any way to limit, or set priorities on the amount of “information” you should be organizing in the first place.

The problem is that our minds do not simply process information, like computers. We are social creatures, we are cultural creatures, we have highly sensitive psychological and emotional processing, and this book leaves all that out.

If we are feeling overwhelmed by information, the solution is not more information, on how to categorize it.

The only useful thing in this book are his tips (which are straight from airport how-to-organize books), which boil down to, write things down and organize your home and office so you can find things easily. The one thing I found useful is how switching from one task to another, or making decisions on what to keep and what to throw away, takes a lot of mental effort, so it’s better to keep on one task at at time.

Some of his tips are goofy – like, in the last chapter, the numbering system for interstate highways, such as “One- and two-digit highway numbers less than 100 identify major routes that cross state lines,” that will supposedly help you navigate (p 371).

He also devotes quite a bit of space to reasoning errors, where we make decisions that seem rational but are actually based on a misperception of the facts, all of which I’ve read elsewhere. He also has a lot of household organizing tips that are not going to be worthwhile for most people, and are found in books on organizing your home or office, if that’s what you want.

Because this book was written when it was, the issue of electronic information is huge. There is no way to deal with all the information we are confronted with now. You have to step back and think about how to limit it, without letting others limit it for you – as he does, when he enthuses about Reddit.

His understanding is demonstrated in his description of the rise of civilization, stating that all humans did was “procreate and survive” until 10,000 years ago, and that literature arose from accounting (p 13), because writing did. Literature is much older, from ancient oral traditions that are essential to our humanity. To me, this is the interesting question: before writing, for most of human time, we kept all we needed in our minds. So, why not look to art, to literature, to non-literate cultures? To truly “organize our minds.”

Another mistake is when he states that new knowledge can stave off Alzheimer’s disease (p 19). No, not new information – new ways of thinking, new kinds of activities. Learning more facts in some area you are already familiar with does nothing, you have to learn a whole new thing, like ping pong or music or social dancing.

He does touch on the human element in how we think, but barely, and it is not coherent. We function well when we feel like we matter, that we have some control over our lives, that others think highly of us. So human relationships and leadership that empowers members of the group are more critical than your filing system, but he calls this “communications (and) competent and ethically-based authority,” as if it’s one more system for organizing a company or the Army; even though his examples of success actually involve giving authority and autonomy to those at lower levels.

I compulsively read this entire book, because it was intriguing to me how he talks about “the organized mind” as if it is simply information management. This is not the only author I’ve read with this limited approach to success. It’s been helpful to me to define what it is that’s missing in this approach, to define what it is that really is at play, in people or organizations that function well. I believe those elements are going to be defined through the exposition of more and more subtle and sophisticated cognitive science, coming full circle to what great artists and leaders have understood and communicated since humans became human.

Why I Teach Art

Some Responses from the Faculty of the Sitka Fine Arts Camp, June 12, 2016

Before each camp, the faculty get together for orientation and introductions. In 2016, introductions extended to each of us telling why we teach. It made for a long meeting (!) but some beautiful expressions, and I took notes and am finally posting them here:

to give students an approach to learning

it is the act of giving in a genuine and meaningful way

to connect students to deeper reality

to give students tools for life

it is the act of recognition – of being recognized

empowering people

deep relationships

to counter capitalism

modeling strength for young Native people

collaboration – joyful

using skills and focus, the joy of creating

teaching allows me to question how and why I do my art

to teach problem solving

stretching by teacher and student

to learn empathy, confidence

the only way to make revolutionary, radical change

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This is based on a granola recipe from my husband’s sisters but now it’s Chocolate!

12 cups oats

2 cups coconut (unsweetened)

3 cups nuts (like almonds, walnuts, whatever you like) ground up some

toss all that in  a big bowl.

Meanwhile, put these in a heat-proof dish and warm up in a 350 degree oven:

1 1/2 cup good olive oil (if you measure that first, the honey will come out of the measuring cup easily)

1 cup honey

1/4 cup molasses

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 1/3 cup cocoa

when it’s warm stir it all together and pour over the dry ingredients.

Then, spread it onto two jelly-roll type cookie sheets (the kind with a lip around the edge)

Cook it for a total of about 20-25 minutes, but set the timer for 7 minutes, and rotate the two pans from upper to lower shelves, and take one out at a time, set the timer for another 7 minutes, and turn the granola with a spatula.

When it’s done, which is up to you if you like it more or less roasted, you take the pans out and sprinkle with

2 cups of chocolate chips

and turn the granola, and the chocolate chips get all melty. Then you sprinkle with

sea salt

and turn it with the spatula so the salt is all over the melty chocolate bits and mixed in to the granola.

Let it cool and we store it in those big plastic nut containers. It is really good with nonfat Greek yogurt. And if you look at the ingredients it’s probably got no more sugar than other granola.

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Sitka’s First Presbyterian Church in February 2018. Photo by James Poulson, Daily Sitka Sentinel.

Sitka’s First Presbyterian Church building was dedicated in 1958, after years of fundraising and volunteer labor. It replaced one built in 1892, that was on the Sheldon Jackson Junior College campus, which at the time was owned and run by the Presbyterian Board of National Missions. The current church is a quarter mile or so to the west, because the National Missions discouraged building churches on school grounds.

Sheldon Jackson College started as an industrial training school for Native children, became a boarding high school and finally a college. It was always very small, with around 130 students most years, part of why it finally closed in 2007.

The church is large enough to accommodate the entire student body and staff of Sheldon Jackson High School. It has a pleasant, lofty sanctuary with modern wooden laminated beams, and simple stained glass windows. (It was designed by architect Linn Forrest, who also designed the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center and Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood.) Adjacent is Latta Hall, a multi-purpose, linoleum-floored gathering space, a kitchen, a “fireside room,” and offices and a small upstairs. It is a large, plain but pleasant building, with high ceilings and lots of varnished wood. Membership was around 300 in 1962.

But by 2009, there were only 71 members, and worshipers filled only a small portion of the sanctuary. Like mainline Protestant denomination churches around the country, most of the remaining worshipers were of retirement age and older.

To be a member of a Presbyterian church, you apply to the Session, the governing body of the church, who decide whether you are sincere. If you are new to Presbyterianism, you take classes. Nearly all the members had joined decades ago, many when they or their parents came to work at Sheldon Jackson School or College, or when they attended school there.

 

Members had built the church – and ran it. Presbyterianism is named for the system of governance, which is the essence of democratic management, and is, in fact, one of the models for our American system of government. Members, the congregation, elect Elders to the Session, the governing body of the church. Each year at Sitka three Elders were elected for a three-year term on the nine-member Session. The Session runs the church, but decisions are made by the congregation. In the Sitka church, congregational meetings were held twice a year. At these meeting reports were made by committees like the finance committee and the building committee.

Ten or more churches make up a Presbytery. A number of Presbyteries form a Synod; representatives of all the Synods in the nation gather annually at the General Assembly. Decisions are made by voting representatives who have been elected by church members.

Others attended services but were not formal members of the church. With the small congregation, the Sitka church had fallen from the category of churches that were self-sustaining. By 2011 they had not had a full-time pastor for some time.

In 2011 the congregation selected a committee to search for a new pastor. The committee liked a recording of a sermon by an applicant, Dianne Wonnenberg, and invited her to Sitka, where she brought, in the words of a congregant, a caring, scriptural, message.

But in the months following her installation in July, most of the congregation became unhappy with her style and her theology.

While she had been ordained in the 1980s as a Presbyterian minister, by the 2000s her practice had become more Pentecostal than the style most of the Sitka Presbyterians were used to. Pentecostalism is a branch of Protestant Christian faith that emphasizes the Gifts of the Spirit – it comes from the Book of Acts in the Bible, in which, at the time of the Pentecost, Jesus performed miracles including healing. Pentecostals believe that those miracles, evidence of God, are just as real, now. Pentecostal services include being taken by the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, miracles of healing, and being called to the altar to witness. Services include vocal, and often passionate, responses from the congregation. Pentecostal sects include the Assemblies of God.

The Pastor, Diane Wonnenberg, and her husband, Charles, who was also ordained in the 1980s as a Presbyterian minister, according to their biography on his LinkedIn page, by the 1990s were traveling revivalists, working out of a van and trailer, with their four young children. In the early 2000s they were Presbyterian missionaries in Mozambique. In their letters on the Presbyterian Mission site of the Presbyterian Church (USA) they tell of her healing a man with prayer, and of her husband healing a man by laying his hands on him and praying, and of speaking in tongues at a tent revival at their home in South Dakota.

In Sitka, the actions that offended members of the congregation were her loud volume, the way she raised her hands, but mostly the “condemning” words of her messages.

Most of Sitka’s Presbyterians are not very demonstrative, and most are relatively tolerant. In 2018 a long-time member passed away, and the scripture reading at his service I think epitomizes the culture of this congregation: the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven,” from the Gospel of Matthew.

The belief that the best way to honor God is by “shining your light” through service, goes back to the origin of Calvinism (“Predestination” of who will go to heaven means that “works” won’t get you to heaven) but was also in the mission of Sheldon Jackson School and College – secular education, in a Christian setting.

This seems to have been the most offensive to many congregants, in the Pastor’s worship messages – decrying the error of those who did not agree with her interpretation of the Bible.

 

The Presbyterian Church nationally at this time was riven by the issue of allowing gays to become ordained ministers. Technically, it was the issue of allowing unmarried, but not celibate, persons to be clergy. In 2010 the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) – the largest body of Presbyterian churches – voted to allow unmarried but non-celibate clergy, which was ratified by individual churches in 2011.

This precipitated many churches to leave the denomination, in a process called discernment. The alternative body which many of them joined, that had been created for this purpose, is called ECO, the Evangelical Covenant Order, now the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.

The last president of Sitka’s Sheldon Jackson College, when it closed in 2007, had been an employee of the Presbyterian Church (USA),  serving as the president of the Board of Trustees of the college, when he stepped down  from the Board of Trustees to become the college’s last president. After the college closed, he returned to work for the Presbyterian Church as the Pastor to the Presbytery, the staff position also known as the Executive Presbyter, of the Alaska Presbytery, based in Juneau, Alaska’s capital. The Alaska Presbytery represented churches in Southeastern Alaska.

At the June 2011 General Assembly, the national gathering of the Presbyterian Church, this Executive Presbyter helped write the constitution of ECO and was its spokesman at that General Assembly. (The question of whether or not he could be impartial, in working with churches looking to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA) to join ECO was addressed by the Alaska Presbytery’s General Council in April of 2012, when they decided he did not have a conflict of interest.)

The articles for the new group are quite different from the Presbyterian confessions (the guiding documents for Presbyterian worship), and is closer to evangelical churches, including principles like the inerrancy of the Bible. The issue of gay clergy – whether or not being in a homosexual relationship is a sin – was the spark for its origin, and it demands either being celibate or being in a heterosexual marriage. It is a more conservative option for churches who felt they had to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA) over the possibility of ordination of gays.

 

This issue – of whether being in a homosexual relationship is a sin – has split many churches in the United States. Over time more and more Americans think it is a nonissue; but for those who believe, as the Pastor and her husband do, that even refraining from condemning this behavior is a sin, it is a matter of supreme importance. In this view, it represented “an erosion of Biblical authority.”

For many members of the congregation, whether or not they personally felt that gays should be allowed to serve as clergy, they did not like being told, from the pulpit, that anyone who did not condemn it was not a good Christian.

The majority of the congregation did not like the Pastor’s style of worship or her message. In early June 2012, members of the congregation, following church procedures, petitioned the session with the signatures of more than a quarter of the membership, for a congregational meeting to discuss ending her call. In August of 2012, a meeting was held, and members voted 22 to 12 to end her call. That should have been the end of it: it was not a good fit.

But the Session, which by this time was down from nine to just four members (including one whose term had expired), and the Pastor herself did not abide by that vote. It is clear in the Pastor’s writing that to her, disagreement with her was not about her conduct, but about, as she wrote in March, “the nature of revelation. . . . either what God has taught concerning sexual morality and the blessing of God for two thousand years is the word of God, or there is a new revelation that homosexual conduct is acceptable in God’s sight.”

This set up the conflict: the Pastor and the Session believed that anyone who disagreed with them was wrong.

The congregation had invited representatives of the Presbytery Committee on Ministry, as the body that would rule on whether or not to end the Pastor’s call, to the congregational meeting. That body, though, decided not to dissolve the pastoral relationship.

It seems straightforward, in hindsight, but at the time, it was very confusing and contentious, and nothing was straightforward; even holding a congregational meeting to vote on the issue took weeks, and when they did, there was no agenda and no minutes taken; the Presbytery called it a “listening session.”

 

Over the course of 2012 the Session dropped from nine to as few as four members, and met with as few as three. At least seven congregational meetings were called, with a regular meeting to elect two elders in January, but several were marked by dissension, without an agenda and without minutes being taken; one evolved into a shouting match, with Session members and the Pastor’s husband escorting people who had come to the meeting (but who were not members of the church) out of the building. The Pastor and the Session brought in new members of the church, and put them on to the Session, without customary training in Presbyterian service. Committees did not meet or deliver reports; even the church’s financial reports were not made available.

Then they began to push members to resign. The congregation, over the first year, began leaving the church, unhappy with the Pastor’s manner and theology. From a membership of 60, two thirds stopped worshiping there, and instead attended the Episcopal, Methodist, or Lutheran churches. But many were still members of the church, as were others too infirm to come to services. The Pastor and the Session began sending letters to these people, asking them, since they were not attending services, what their intentions were regarding their membership.

At the same time, they were recruiting new members, but were not able to get many, because at the time Sitka had a very popular evangelical church, as well as the Assembly of God, so there was no niche to fill.

Many of the members and former members of the Presbyterian Church were disturbed, but found fighting it, or even attending church, was too upsetting. But others were angry over the takeover of the church, and tried to end the Pastor’s call, seeing her as the source of the problem: these people paid a high price for their efforts.

My impression is that this was where most of the damage was done. The congregation believed in order, democracy, and civility; they saw rules being bent and broken, and decency and civility ignored, and there was nothing they could do.

 

The effort to end her call began with getting the vote of the congregation, but the Presbytery Committee on Ministry decided to keep the Pastor installed. Annually each church sends a delegation to Presbytery, consisting of the Pastor and, at least one member of the Session. The Alaska Presbytery consisted of all the churches in southeast Alaska. In 2012, Presbytery was held in Kake, Alaska. The Sitka Presbyterians who did not support the Pastor – none could travel to attend the meeting – sent a letter, signed by 22 members of the congregation, appealing the Presbytery Committee on Ministry decision, but the Presbytery voted overwhelmingly to affirm the Committee’s decision.

 

Over the summer of 2012, church members had sent letters to the Committee on Ministry, detailing the exodus of members, and the concerns they had with the actions of the Pastor and the Session, mainly the violations of the Book of Order, the rules for governance and worship, and the Pastor’s confrontational personal style. An issue with her theology was her declaration that physical and mental illness were the work of the Devil. Another issue was her calling out, from the pulpit, individual members for criticism for not agreeing with her. She refused to allow a funeral of a long-time lay pastor to be held in the church, because it was to include a secular song. That funeral was held in the Methodist church, instead. Another matter was not sharing the church’s financial statements, and their concern that the church could not afford to have a full-time pastor. The Pastor also got money from the church and members to go on mission trips.

The church had sold its manse in 2007. The Session at the time put part of the money into a fund for a down payment for a future manse, and the bulk of it in a fund for repairs to the church building. Over the course of 2012 the church was going into savings to pay the Pastor and other bills, then in late summer, tapped into the manse fund, without going to the congregation. In 2012, the church spent more than $48,000 more than it took in.

Money was a problem even before the Pastor came. With the loss of tithing members, and the loss of a church tenant – a secular preschool that the Pastor and the Session encouraged to leave – it was even more of a problem.

The Session at one point had a plan to start their own, Christian pre-school, to raise money, but this fell through in early 2013. Another plan was to recruit more members, who would contribute $100 a month.

While the majority of the group were focused on rationality and civility, the Pastor’s personality brought out bad behavior in at least three of those who opposed her, which helped make it such a messy and intractable problem: One long-time member wrote a letter to the editor, accusing the Pastor of staying on when she was not wanted. When that member died, the Pastor would not allow the service to be held in the church unless she officiated; the woman’s daughter called the Pastor “the devil.” One non-member who had been doing work for the church, angrily criticized her personally, and the Pastor asked police for a trespass order.

The letters from Gail O’Dell, the Moderator for the Presbytery’s Committee on Ministry, don’t acknowledge any fault with the Pastor or the Session. Instead, the Moderator writes that the church was evenly divided, in spite of the nearly two-to-one vote, and accuses those opposed to the Pastor of “agitation” and “campaigns of slander, innuendo, intimidation, and anonymous attack” and that the Committee on Ministry was seeking to support the “emerging mission” of Sitka’s First Presbyterian Church.

 

When the Sitka church had a congregational meeting later in August, called to reduce the number of Deacons, and of Elders on the Session (from 9 to 6), the congregation elected, to the Session, one of the old congregation who had been appealing the Presbytery decision. When she was not notified of being installed after a few weeks, she was called in to a meeting with the Pastor, who asked if the elected Elder would support her. She replied to the Pastor that she would probably support her in some things, and not in others. The Pastor told her that that meant she was not fit to serve on the Session.

This turns the process of church governance on its head, if the Pastor and Session decide who serves on the Session, overriding the congregation.

 

In October of 2012 the session distributed a memo from the Pastor, arguing (with lapses in logic) that members of the church had to support the Pastor in order to serve on the session, and a letter from the Alaska Presbytery’s Executive Presbyter, saying that the Session could do what it wanted with the manse fund.

 

Worse was to come: in 2013 the Secretary of the Session, with the Pastor, delivered a letter to the elected, but uninstalled, Elder telling her that they were taking away her 46-year-long membership in the Sitka Presbyterian church. She was nearly 90 years old at the time, with an impeccable record of service in the church and the community.

The central issue was made clear in a Session meeting with several of the old congregation in April, 2013, at which the Pastor to the Presbytery and another representative of the Presbytery were present. A Session member read a statement on behalf of the Session: that the issues in the church were not about “persons” or the Session, it was over “resistance to Renewal,” as revealed in the Bible.

The Pastor, the Session, and Moderator of the Committee on Ministry repeatedly called for reconciliation, but their intention seems to have been that the dissident members should repent and reconcile themselves to the Pastor’s and the Session’s interpretation of the Bible. The Pastor’s letter to the elected, but uninstalled, Elder is even more clear, urging her to “accept correction.”

 

The weakness of the Presbyterian system is that, like any human system, it is built on trust, and a common understanding of the rules. With the congregation mostly elderly, and unaccustomed to confrontational personalities, they did not know what hit them.

The worst of it was that the ugly behavior of the Pastor brought out ugly behavior in others. She made people angry and made them feel helpless, and because of the Presbytery’s actions, they were helpless, as they saw the congregation dispersed.

This is a horrible thing at any age, but even more so for people in their seventies or eighties. Parishioners died, and were not buried from the church they had belonged to their entire lives. One member, a loyal, dedicated member all his life, who was battling cancer, after one chaotic congregational meeting in 2012 said: “We’ve lost.” Those who kept fighting, and those who gave up, had something taken away from them. Before this episode, they could believe that a church body could worship together, even if all were not in agreement on every issue. Before this, church could be about being thankful, helping others in need, and trying to be better people. This church had had disagreements, and had even had to dismiss a pastor, but it was done with compassion and deliberation. Before this, they could believe that the process of discernment (choosing whether or not to remain with the Presbyterian Church (USA)) could be civil and democratic, if painful.

All this time the Session and the Pastor were working to promote the Sitka church to leave the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., because of their belief that Christians should condemn homosexual behavior, and called special congregational meetings to enter the discernment process, and another meeting to vote to leave.

In an ironic twist, they were told by the Presbytery discernment committee in December 2012 that because they would “likely be without funds to operate in 12 to 14 months,” they could not join ECO even if they wanted to, because they were financially unsustainable.

 

The Session and Pastor seemed to ignore this determination. Several Southeast Alaska Presbyterian (PCUSA) churches did join ECO in the spring of 2013, leaving too few churches for a presbytery. The nine remaining churches, under the jurisdiction of the Synod of Alaska-Northwest, based in Seattle, joined the North Puget Sound Presbytery. In March of 2014 the enlarged presbytery named themselves the Presbytery of the Northwest Coast.

 

The members of the congregation who felt spiritually unfulfilled by the services conducted at the church had, for some time, been meeting after the regular Presbyterian church service, in the Yaw Chapel on the former Sheldon Jackson College campus, calling themselves the Fellowship. This group had spent many hours writing letters and petitioning for meetings with the Session and the Presbytery, which had been ineffective. They learned there is a formal process they could use to appeal to the Synod-the next level up from the Presbytery-to hear their concerns. They initiated the process, and had a scheduled visit from a specialist in reconciling churches in crisis. This became the turning point in progress toward saving what they felt was a more Presbyterian way of worship.

The specialist, a retired pastor with experience helping churches in crisis, with a young minister representing the Synod, visited with the group in early 2014. By this time the Fellowship had more people attending than went to the service at the church. (At one point the Pastor had come to a meeting of the Fellowship, rose and told them they were not good Christians, and left angrily.) Since their primary concern was with process, they hoped to find a sympathetic ear, and someone who could help restore order to the church.

But, when one attendee of the Fellowship brought up that it was the violations of the Book of Order that most bothered them, he responded by telling them they had called their meeting a worship service, which was not allowed, and that the minister leading them was not allowed to lead worship service.

He asserted that the group may have been malicious in their actions toward their pastor, and that they did not sound repentant. All stated they wanted to move on and wanted to forgive. When one younger member said she couldn’t forgive and forget, she was censured by the group. Several old timers said they were ready to be repentant and to apologize and asked, sincerely, what to apologize for?

 

He probably did not intend to do it, but his words only wounded these people even more and made them defensive; what made me cry was the way not only the Session’s and the Pastor’s actions, but the early actions, and inaction, of the Alaska Presbytery caused a sense of helplessness and injustice, and anger, that was always going to be part of them.

 

The Pastor finally left in the spring of 2014. The congregation had been unable to get her to leave, but finally the church ran out of money – the funds from the sale of the manse were nearly exhausted.

At the request of the Fellowship, with concurrence of Session, the process of mediation continued. The Presbytery of the Northwest Coast sent two mediators to Sitka in August of 2014 to conduct a Mediated Reconciliation, to acknowledge the conflict, anger, and hurt, to seek forgiveness by those on both sides of the issue, and to move forward towards unity, respect and harmony. The Fellowship stopped meeting separately and some returned to worship at the church.

The Pastor was gone, but many of the congregation would not come back, and the church now had a style of worship that was no longer what it had been before that Pastor. As members who had hung in there, came back, they still found much to disturb them, including the use of songs that were unfamiliar, projected onto a screen, and to the Praise Team – who performed worship songs, both of these displacing hymns sung by the congregation.

The Presbytery supplied transportation and per diem for an interim pastor to be in Sitka about ten days, including two Sundays, each month from October 2014 to November 2016. Then, Presbytery supported a seminarian intern or temporary pastor to serve the Sitka Church for about five days every four to six weeks  until the July, 2018 closure. Members felt it a blessing to have this pastoral care, but attendance and membership continued to decline due to aging and health challenges of the congregation. Income declined and workload increased for the small, aging congregation beyond their capacity to continue. And, as the church moved away from the Pentecostal style and conservative message, the newer members, and the members who had been the Pastor’s supporters in the “renewal,” left.

 

In July 2018 the church closed. It could be that by this point, the congregation would have come to this in any case. The tragedy is not that it closed, but the hurt done to so many, when a few individuals decided that their interpretation of the Bible was more important than allowing the congregation to work together civilly, to decide as a body whether or not to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA).

The ugly behavior of the Pastor and her allies, pushing people out of the church when they did not agree with her interpretation of the Bible, and the loss of any control the congregants had when the Session, and then the Presbytery, did not acknowledge their concerns, led to anger, and a sense of depression and helplessness. It took a toll.

9 brighter

Lincoln Street in 1868 by Eadweard Muybridge, from the Online Archives of California from the Bancroft Library, University of California Berkeley.

I’m an artist, here in Sitka, and as I talked to people, and read about history, I had questions about the decade following the transfer of Russia’s claims in North America to the United States, which took place in Sitka, on October 18th, 1867. Sitka was the primary settlement in Alaska. How was it that in Russian days, prior to the transfer, the Indigenous Tlingit people seem to have controlled southeastern Alaska, but by the end of the 1870s, just a decade into American rule, they were  impoverished and marginalized. What happened? This post is based on research in 2017 – there is a list of sources at the end, and I plan to add citations to the text later this year.

I thought it would be a straightforward project to compile the many documents available from the time, and to simply bring all these resources into one narrative.

It turned out to be far from simple. The first problem was that the regional context of the time – what was happening in the region, in Washington and Oregon and British Columbia, is itself a vast topic, that had not been included in other narratives. This had to be researched, understood, and integrated.

The other vast topic was what was happening with Northwest coast Indigenous Peoples in the period around 1867. This is nearly overwhelming for a few reasons: first, is that things were changing so rapidly, in fundamental ways, to Indigenous societies, from things like epidemics, changing markets, and the flood of American and British immigrants, accompanied by the military, coming into the region.

The biggest factor though is the Euro-centric bias, that is glaringly obvious in documents from the time, but persists into the present. The problem is that it is so pervasive and common, it is hard to see. Even as I’ve learned about Indigenous Peoples history over the past few years, I have a long way to go, we all do, before we can appreciate Indigenous history as primary, with the influx of Europeans simply one chapter – and not the starting point or central focus. It is very difficult to completely get out of the Eurocentric viewpoint (that history started with the arrival of Europeans, and, that Indigenous Peoples were passive and marginal participants, whose societies were simple and static, who were reacting to and not initiating change).

Here is a link to a video of an earlier version of this presentation given at the Sharing Our Knowledge: A Conference of Tlingit Clans and Elders conference in Sitka in October 2017.

One economy

The first surprise to me when I started reading first-hand accounts of the era was that there was no separation between the Tlingit and the American communities or economies. I was expecting a separation, with an indigenous economy, based on what we now call subsistence, consisting of harvesting foods and making traditional crafts, and a separate, American economy, based on products brought in from outside, especially alcohol. This is the prevalent narrative, that the Indigenous economies were damaged by the American economic system. It turned out there was only one economy, with Tlingit people and Europeans and Americans all active participants.

For example, when the steamer John L. Stephens came in to port for the Transfer, Tlingit people came out to sell them fresh food. Everyone participated in the trade for furs, alcohol, and other items. The Americans, like the Russians, guarded the stockade separating the two communities, and enforced a curfew (which was resented) but during the day Native people and the non-Native people went freely back and forth, and Native people worked and traded and sat and observed. Socially as well, people on both sides of the barrier were related to and shared European and Indigenous heritage.

Right after the Transfer there was a flurry of economic activity as the Russian American Company assets were sold off and had to be loaded onto ships, and there was work available, as well as a market in furs, artwork, handicraft, and food for the Army and others who had just come to Sitka. One sign of the optimism was a city government, formed by some of the Americans, in December 1867.

The Army troops brought drunken crime and mayhem to Sitka, by officers and enlisted men alike. (The Russian American Company had strictly controlled alcohol available to their employees and in trade.) In May 1869, enlisted men even robbed the cathedral. Crime ebbed and flowed through the decade, but in the six months between October 1868 to March 1869, a year after the transfer, there was an average of 26 military offenders a day in the guard house.

The Russian America Company paid the fare for anyone who wanted to leave, and more than 500 Russians did.

8 brighterThis is approximately where the Pioneer Home is, now. The blockhouse on the left edge is in about the same location as the replica today. Taken in 1868 by Eadweard Muybridge, from the Online Archives of California from the Bancroft Library, University of California Berkeley.

In 1868 the Army had established a total of five posts in Alaska. They assumed that they would be needed to control the influx of Americans into the new possession. So few Americans came, however, that the Army closed all but Sitka in 1870. Sitka’s city government faltered and finally failed due to lack of funds. Sitka’s population fell.

The Army was supposed to be temporary, as it had been elsewhere in the west. California, Oregon, Nevada and Nebraska were already states in 1867. But in Alaska, the immigration didn’t come in the way it had elsewhere in the American West. By early 1869, the US government was virtually the only economic activity in Sitka. The once-a-month steamer was subsidized by a Post Office contract.

In the 1870 census, three years after the Transfer, the population still included about 1200 Tlingit people, but on the other side of the stockade, other than the Army, there were only 390 persons, down from the 900 or so at the time of the Transfer. About 250 of these people had been born in Alaska, 21 of them in Russia. Most of these people were people the Russian authorities called “creole,” people of mixed Russian and Native, mostly Alutiiq and Unangan heritage (the Indigenous people of Kodiak Island and the Aleutians). They were usually called Russians after the Transfer.

14 brighterThe Double Decker, held in trust by Sitka’s Collector of Customs for the destitute Russians who lived there. It was between Lincoln Street and what is now Seward Street, about where Service Transfer building is (across from the White Elephant shop). View is looking south, toward the church. Taken in 1868 by Eadweard Muybridge, from the Online Archives of California from the Bancroft Library, University of California Berkeley.

Poverty in Sitka was worst for the Russians, who before the transfer had depended on the Russian American Company. For a time, the Army even gave rations to nearly half of the Russians in Sitka, to prevent starvation. A sign of the desperation is the shocking total of 37 of the Russian women listed as prostitutes in the 1870 census. (This may not have been unusual on the American frontier at the time, when unmarried women had few choices to sustain themselves and their children.)

Why did Alaska not get the rush of American immigration and investment like in other parts of the West? One reason was that so much land was already available to Euro-Americans, due to the ongoing large-scale, often genocidal, ethnic cleansing in the contiguous United States, as the military and settlers killed and forced Indigenous people off their land and onto reservations. The other reason was the economy: a national recession. The main industry of the region, for Native and non-Native people, was the fur trade, which was not doing well, in part due to over hunting, but also due to the post-Civil War Long Depression of the 1870s, which extended to Europe as well.

7 brighterView of part of Sitka’s Village, from Japonski Island in 1868 by Eadweard Muybridge, from the Online Archives of California from the Bancroft Library, University of California Berkeley.

The fur trade and military, political and social relationships between Indigenous people and the Americans

The fur trade had been the dominant industry of the Northwest coast well before the Transfer, since the mid-1780s. Native people were involved as producers, and also as traders. Most of the profit went to those who acted as middlemen. Like traders everywhere, they profited on each transaction, and those who controlled a particular market, did very well.

Epidemics

A major impact of international trade was epidemics. Smallpox swept the coast around 1775, again in 1802, again in 1836-37, and again in 1862, each time killing a large proportion of the population affected, even entire villages. It would be hard to overestimate the impact of epidemics; depopulation alone was probably the major factor in the defeat of Indigenous Peoples across the Americas, and there was also trauma and social disruption.

The lucrative sea otter trade, which brought highly competitive maritime traders, Russian colonizers, and great wealth to the region, reached its zenith on this coast in the 1790s, and was pretty much over by 1820. The Russians in Alaska were organized as the Russian American Company, a private fur trading company chartered by the Russian government to colonize and to govern the colonies in North America.

Russians established a fort at Sitka, which they called New Archangel, in 1804, but due to chronic shortages of personnel and resources, never really controlled more than the immediate site of Sitka. The Russians and Tlingit people depended on the fur trade, in two ways. Both groups traded furs for manufactured goods. In addition, Tlingit people provided tons of food like halibut and venison to the Russian settlement, that was here because of the fur trade. Tlingit men worked for the Russians in various capacities, and many Russians had relationship with or married Tlingit women, so there were many people with heritage or relatives in both communities. While never comfortable or easy, Russians and Tlingit people had complex and interdependent relationships, both social and economic.

An illustration of the complex relationship and inter-dependency, that goes against the assumptions most of us have, was when in 1831 the Company extended the fence around New Archangel. One reason, according to the governor at the time, was that the Tlingit were selling rum to the Russian workers, who would trade the shirts off their backs to get it.

In this complex relationship, the Russians did not have the upper hand, as is often assumed, and had to carefully negotiate and pay attention to diplomatic relations. When a Russian governor allowed relations to deteriorate in the early 1850s, he was censured and removed. But his neglect of diplomacy led to a Tlingit attack on the fort in 1855, in which five or six Russians were killed and dozens wounded. The Russian authorities respected the Indigenous justice system and regularly paid Native clans for injury done by Russians, even when accidental.

The Hudson’s Bay Company began aggressively expanding into the coastal region from the 1830s, and leased trading rights and for a time, a fort from the Russians at Wrangell. At Wrangell, Tlingit traders objected to the Hudson’s Bay Company practices, in trying to control trade and drive down prices, and in neglecting trading protocol; the Russians had to intervene diplomatically between the HBC and the Tlingit, but even then, the trading post was short-lived.

The Tlingit clans who controlled trade routes to the interior, at the Stikine River (Wrangell) and the Chilkat (Haines area), were wealthy and powerful players in the regional fur economy. Clans defended their trading prerogatives by forcing the Hudson’s Bay Company to abandon trading posts up the Stikine River in 1838, at Taku in 1842, and above Chilkat on the Yukon in 1852.

Sitka from Coast PilotSitka showing the Village and the stockade. This was in the first Coast Pilot, published in 1869, from a drawing made in 1867 aboard the USS Lincoln. Images courtesy of the NOAA Central Library and John Cloud.

In the 1850s and 60s, the population, society and economy of the Northwest Coast was changing rapidly. More and more British and Americans came into the Northwest, seeking gold and other economic opportunities. Tlingit people traveled to Puget Sound, the economic center of the region, to trade, and to work for, and interact in every way with the new settlers, as well as with other Indigenous people from other tribes. In the mid-1850s, thousands of “Northern Indians” including Heiltsuk, Haida, Tsimshian, and Tlingit people gathered each year at Fort Victoria. While in the 1840s Tlingit sold sea otter pelts to the Russians, after 1851, they took furs the thousand miles to Victoria to trade.

In British America the British Navy enforced “gunboat diplomacy” on coastal tribes, and in the United States, it was equally violent, as the military and settlers forced Native people onto reservations, and worse, including bounties and massacres. Alaska was a relative haven of Native control.

In 1856, Tlingit people from Kake on the beach at Port Gamble, in Washington, were ordered to leave, did not, and the USS Mississippi fired on them, killing 27, including an important clan leader. The survivors asked for compensation from authorities but did not get any. The following year, relatives made the voyage back to Puget Sound, and killed the Collector of Customs at Whidbey Island, as someone with comparable status to the clan leader, and returned to southeastern Alaska.

By the 1860s the Russian American Company, in spite of their efforts, still dependent on the fur trade, was not making money. Some shareholders were concerned that Americans would swarm into Alaska as they had into the American West. These were both factors in their decision to cede their claims in 1867.

What changed, for Tlingit people with the Transfer?

On one side of the stockade, a few years after the transfer, the remaining Russians, formerly dependent on the Russian American Company, were starving. On the other side, Tlingit weren’t starving, but were losing ground economically. This seems to refute the myth that subsistence, living off the land, was enough. In this period there was nothing keeping people from fishing and hunting, and yet they were reported and described themselves as poor by the end of the decade.

One reason they lost ground was that American traders aggressively displaced Tlingit from what trade there was. In an 1870 report to Congress, Frank Mahoney, a Sitka businessman, wrote that on Kuiu and Kupreanof, the Natives “catch some furs, . . . , besides trading with some of their neighbors. Their trade has fallen off considerably since the occupation of the Territory by the Americans. They formerly were in the habit of getting their trading goods from small crafts from Victoria, but at present the Indians north, south, east, for two hundred miles, either come to Sitka or get their wants supplied by the small crafts that load or are owned by Sitka merchants.”

Indigenous trade in the 1870s centered on Port Simpson, and at various times Customs Collectors considered imposing duties on goods coming in by canoe, but they did not enforce it, maybe because of the relatively small quantity and the hassle.

Gold prospectors, backed by the military, broke the lucrative Tlingit trade monopolies, first on the Stikine, then on the Chilkat routes.

12 brighterThe Customs House and Barracks. The Barracks are about where the current City offices (old Post Office) is now. This is looking toward the wharf, the current Petro Marine fuel dock. Taken in 1868 by Eadweard Muybridge, from the Online Archives of California from the Bancroft Library, University of California Berkeley.

What changed, politically, for Tlngit people?

The only U.S. law in the Army period was the 1868 Treasury Act, which established the Customs Service in Alaska. The Army had the responsibility of government, but no legal authority. There were so few immigrants, that Congress ignored Alaska. Civil government would have been expensive; as it was, the costs of supporting the Army and the Customs Service, and the monthly steamer, cost more the government got back from customs. And, America was in a depression.

Of course, Indigenous law was always in effect, and was even recognized to some extent by American authorities.

The Army’s obsession was in keeping alcohol from Native people. This was related to their belief that Native people were more susceptible than non-Natives to alcohol, and that drunkenness brought out their inherent savagery. Demand for alcohol, and drunkenness, seems to have occurred in both communities, although it seems to have been proportionately worse with the non-Natives. In the recession economy, alcohol was the main item of trade.

When there was a ban on alcohol importation, there was a rise in distilling, by Natives and non-Natives, with molasses imported by the barrel. (You might know that the word “hootch” comes from the product made in Xootsnoow, or Angoon.)

Again and again, Army commanders ask their superiors for some definition of their role. When the Army commander in 1874 sent alcohol sellers to Portland for trial, the judge decided he did not have authority to jail civilians, and threw out the case, which led to one of the traders suing the Army commander for unlawful arrest. (The legal history is outside of my scope here, but the Portland judge took every opportunity to deprive Native people of their rights, even when they were set out in American law.)

Tlingit response to American rule

Right after the transfer, Kiksadi Clan leader, Mikael Kooxx’aan, initially refused to take down the Russian flag in front of his house. American accounts tell how the Tlingit, perhaps Kooxx’aan, complained that even though they had allowed the Russians to stay in their territory, they did not intend them to give it to anyone who came along. Tlingit leaders from other kwaans, when they met with General Davis to invite trade, told General Jeff Davis the same thing, that they did not recognize American claims.

FID6 brighterSitka from Aleutski Island in 1868 by Eadweard Muybridge, from the Online Archives of California from the Bancroft Library, University of California Berkeley.

Kake War

Tlingit law requires compensation for an injury or death, even if it is accidental. This was classically a life for a life, of equal status. Throughout the Northwest Coast, for less serious offenses and in dealings with non-Natives, this was commonly negotiated in material compensation.

In early 1869, an Army sentry killed men leaving Sitka by canoe. This was following an incident when General Davis entertained clan leaders at New Year’s 1869. Chilkat Kaagwaantaan clan leader Koh Klux, or Colcheka in Jeff Davis’s rendering, was insulted by a guard when he went through the stockade gate, he grabbed the soldier’s rifle and walked off with it. There was a violent confrontation when soldiers were sent in to apprehend him, and two Tlingit men were killed and a soldier badly wounded. Koh Klux gave himself up, and General Davis had him put in jail. There was an order following this incident that people couldn’t leave Sitka, but this apparently was not in effect when a sentry killed some men who were leaving.

Relatives of the men, from Kake, went to General Davis about compensation, but he repeatedly refused to work with them. These relatives then killed two Euro-Americans, who were camping at what is now called Murder Cove on Admiralty Island.

This led to the so-called “Kake War” in 1869, the first of three incidents in which the U.S. military attacked Alaska Native villages, when the USS Saginaw shelled three villages and burned all the houses but one to the ground, a total of 28 clan houses, many of them 30 or 40 feet square. They also destroyed canoes.

The Kake incident was repeated at Wrangell, later in 1869, after soldiers killed two Tlingit men, after one of them assaulted a woman at the fort. When the victims’ father retaliated by killing a white merchant, the Army shelled the village of Kaachx an.áak’w, then when he gave himself up, summarily “tried” and hanged him.

Americans did not always treat Native people unfairly. One of the deaths at Sitka in 1869, of a Chilkat man, was compensated by a merchant, Frank Louthan, who paid in blankets. He not only wanted to prevent violence, but the Chilkat refused to come to Sitka and trade until it was resolved. General Davis himself, later in 1869, when an Army policeman shot and killed a Tlingit youth, paid the family, to prevent a white person being killed. The Army punished petty criminals regardless of race, putting them in jail.

There was never any organized resistance by the Tlingit clans, and the Army was never afraid of the Tlingit. The brutal retaliation was to put down “insolence,” – again and again you see references to a “saucy” or “insolent” Tlingit leader – to demonstrate the overwhelming dominance of the United States. The Army knew about Tlingit law, and probably, like the merchant Frank Loutham, saw that it was a valid system of justice. The Army’s refusal to operate in the system, and to instead insist on American style justice – the punishment of individuals – might have been driven by a power struggle, the desire of the Americans to subjugate Native people.

6 brighterSitka from Noow Tlein/Castle Hill in 1868 by Eadweard Muybridge, from the Online Archives of California from the Bancroft Library, University of California Berkeley.

Indian Wars and Racial Stereotype

The most striking, and disturbing, thing in reading documents from this period is the virulent stereotype of Natives, as “savages.” This was the era of Manifest Destiny, the height of the Indian Wars, and the height of racist justification for taking Native lands:

Natives are passive and lazy. They are shrewd, greedy, treacherous, brutal, and untrustworthy. And yet every American observer records experiences and interactions that contradict every aspect of this portrayal. The heart of the stereotype is that Native culture is so “primitive” that mere “contact” with the “civilized” culture, especially alcohol, is enough to break it and send the “poor Indian” into confusion and anomie. This stereotype lays the blame for Native poverty on Natives themselves and their inadequate culture.

I believe there were three main factors, in the Tlingit loss of power over this decade: the declining fur trade, and being pushed from their central role in it. The second factor is deliberate subjugation by the US military and officials, driven by racial stereotype. The third was the high mortality from diseases, caused by the poverty that resulted from being pushed to the margins of the economy.

I believe that the Transfer brought an acceleration, of what was already under way in the Pacific Northwest before 1867, as settlers, backed by the military, refused to recognize Indigenous law, or property rights, or status.

After 1877: Army pulls out, Navy comes in

The Army pulled out of Alaska in June 1877. The US government was cutting back on the size of the military, and they needed all available men for the Nez Perce War. Sitka Tlingit immediately began to take apart the stockade, to salvage the contents and occupy government buildings, to assert their right to be on the other side whenever they wanted, and even demanded and got compensation from a merchant for a death.

Alaska was left to the Treasury Department, which in Sitka consisted of a Collector of Customs. There were only three Revenue Cutters on the entire West Coast, and one of those had to patrol the fur seal grounds. Alcohol imports were banned, but there was no law to control molasses or to allow destruction of stills, even if there had been a police force to do it. From August to November 1878, Portland merchants shipped 4,889 gallons of molasses to Sitka.

In 1879, the non-Native Sitkans, claiming they were afraid of a Tlingit attack, sent to Victoria for a British warship for protection. The alleged threats were by Kiksadi leader Katlian, demanding compensation (and wages owed) for the deaths of five Kiksadi men working on a whaler. The HMS Osprey responded, but an American ship was close behind. The government stationed a U.S. Navy ship at Sitka.

In 1879, the commander of the USS Jamestown found 360 U.S. citizens living at Sitka, of whom 34 had been born in the United States.

Sitka by DeGroffSitka by Edward DeGroff, looking toward the wharf. “Baranof’s Castle” is on the left.

Increasing Economic Activity

But by the end of the 1870s, the national economic depression was over. The first canneries were built at Old Sitka and at Klawock, in 1878. More visitors started to come in the late 1870s, and the Pacific Steamship Line had the first tourist cruise to Glacier Bay in 1882. A large gold strike in 1880 at what is now Juneau put Alaska on the map.

These new industries, however, had limited opportunities for Tlingit to participate, and, backed by the government, they took Native land and resources.

Tlingit people suffered devastating losses to disease, in common with other impoverished groups in America, even as most Americans were seeing dramatically increased lifespans.

Missionaries

The first Protestant missionaries in southeast Alaska were Indigenous Tsimshian people, who were at Wrangell to work during the Cassiar gold rush in 1873. Presbyterian missionary Sheldon Jackson took this opportunity to send his own missionaries and teachers to Wrangell, then to Sitka in 1878.

From the earliest days of American occupation, Tlingit leaders consistently protested injustice, and from the mid-1870s, were also asking authorities for schools. In 1879 naturalist John Muir and Presbyterian missionary S. Hall Young reported that every village they visited, with “but one or two exceptions” was interested in missions and schools, having heard of the work of William Duncan, at Metlakatla, in Canada.

The Tsimshian Christian community of Metlakatla was the most famous, and there were also other Anglican and Methodist missions. The major mission sites had sawmills, and there was even a cannery at the Christian village of Metlakatla, and an enormous church and new frame-style houses.

The invitation to missionaries by the Tlingit could have been in part to get sawmills and new, prestigious, frame-style houses, and to regain economic ground. Anthropologist Aurel Krause visited the Tlingit at Chilkat in 1882, and reported that “after they had gone to church for half a year and sent their children to school, went to the missionary and complained that they had not been rewarded for their virtue and had not received boards to build their houses as the Tsimshian had.” This is not to say that the Tsimshian or Tlingit were not sincere, but economic opportunity was probably part of the attraction of Protestant Christianity. Reading and writing in English was also an economic asset at the time.

Some of the earliest students at Sitka included young men of standing in Tlingit society. The Sitka mission saw rapid success because of the early support of certain Tlingit leaders, and the dedication and drive of the first students.

Boys 1883 Sitka SchoolStudents in the Presbyterian school at Sitka. Rudolph Walton, Kawootk’, may be the young man in the front, second from left. Photo from the Presbyterian Historical Society, Sheldon Jackson Collection, on the Internet Archives (www.archive.org).

The Choice

The missions promised empowerment, but operated on the same stereotype the military had, that Tlingit people were weak, and that in particular their culture was an obstacle to progress. They believed they were helping Native people by getting rid of Native culture and language. Native people who joined the Presbyterians made a deliberate choice. But in spite of their sacrifice, Native Presbyterians were still subject to racial bias, poverty, and early death.

The Shelling of Angoon

In 1882, the Revenue Cutter Corwin destroyed most of the village of Angoon, over a protest by Angoon Tlingit demanding compensation from a whaling company for an accidental death. In contrast to the shelling of Kake in 1869, which received little attention, the destruction of Angoon was condemned in Congress and in American newspapers (although Angoon residents did not receive an apology until a century later).

This incident, and Sheldon Jackson’s influence, led to the 1884 Organic Act, Alaska’s first government, 17 years after Alaska became part of the United States. Thanks to Sheldon Jackson’s influence, Christian mission schools were privileged, and the U.S. government even provided monetary support for mission schools until 1894. They excluded the Russian Orthodox Church, which Protestants considered decadent and superstitious.

Nevertheless, by the late 1880s, the Russian Orthodox church at Sitka grew rapidly with Native converts. This was due to many factors, but possibly one was that this church allowed more Native control than the Presbyterians did.

Sitka by MerrillE. W. Merrill photograph of Sitka Channel and the Village in the 1900s. E. W. Merrill collection, Sitka National Historical Park.

The dynamics of the decade of 1867-1877 led to the Alaska we know today. High rates of death, subjugation by the government, and economic marginalization – all driven by the stereotype of the weakness of Native culture – put enormous, sometimes insurmountable, obstacles in the path of people identified as Native.

Alaska Natives were not citizens until 1924. Schools were not integrated in Sitka until 1949, and aboriginal rights to land and resources was not addressed until 1971. Native languages, technology and history are still not seen as valuable in most public schools.

It’s clear, looking at the history, that any problems this group might have now are due to what happened to this population because of being defined a certain way, as primitive and uncivilized, 150 years ago, and the way that stereotype has persisted into our own times.

Sources:

Transfer accounts:

House of Representatives, Executive Document, Number 125, Fortieth Congress, second session, 1-8 (General Rousseau’s Report);

Acquisition of Alaska” Daily Alta California Vol XIX Number 6457, November 19 1867 accessed at the California Digital Newspaper Collection, https://cdnc.ucr.edu;

Delavan Bloodgood, “Eight Months at Sitka,” The Overland Monthly February 1869, 175-186;

Captain George F. Emmons, The Journal of the USS Ossipee, Transcription by John M. Baldry, Elizabeth Richardson and Damon Stuebner, accessed at http://alaskahistoricalsociety.org/wpcontent/uploads/2016/12/Ossipee-Journal-Transfer.pdf

Before 1867 and regional context:

Petr Aleksandrovich Tikhmenev, A History of the Russian American Company, trans. and ed. Richard A. Pierce and Alton S. Donnelly (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1978)

Nora Marks Dauenhauer, Richard Dauenhauer, and Lydia T. Black, editors. Anóoshi Lingít Aaní Ká / Russians in Tlingit America: The Battles of Sitka, 1802 and 1804 (Seattle and London: University of Alaska Press and Juneau, Alaska: Sealaska Heritage Institute, 2008)

Kenneth N. Owens with Alexander Yu. Petrich, Empire Maker: Aleksandr Baranov and Russian Colonial Expansion into Alaska and Northern California (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2015)

Andrei Val’terovich Grinev, The Tlingit Indians in Russian America, 1741-1867 trans. Richard L.Bland and Keterina G. Solovjova (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2005)

Katherine L. Arndt and Richard A. Pierce, A Construction History of Sitka, Alaska, as Documented in the Records of the Russian-American Company, 2nd Edition (Sitka, Alaska: Sitka National Historical Park, National Park Service under Cooperative Agreement with the Department of Anthropology, University of Alaska Fairbanks, 2003)

Ilya Vinkovestsky, Russian America: An Overseas Colony of a Contintental Empire, 1801-1867 (New York and London: Oxford University Press, 2014)

Golovin, Captain-Lieutenant Pavel Nikolaevich, The End of Russian America: Captain P. N. Golovin’s Last Report, 1862. Basil Dmytrishyn and E. A. P. Crownhart-Vaughan, translators and introduction (Portland, Oregon: Oregon Historical Society, 1979)

Robert M. Utley and Wilcomb E. Washburn, Indian Wars (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1977)

Barry M. Gough, Gunboat Frontier: British Maritime Authority and Northwest Coast Indians, 1846-1890 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1984)

Clarence R. Bolt, Thomas Crosby and the Tsimshian: Small Shoes for Feet Too Large (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1992)

Susan Neylan, The Heavens are Changing: Nineteenth-Century Protestant Missions and Tsimshian Christianity (Montreal, Kingston, London and Ithaca, New York: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003)

Peter Murray, The Devil and Mr. Duncan (Victoria, British Columbia: Sono Nis Press, 1985)

The American Army occupation:

Letters and documents from National Archives, Department of War, Record Group 393: Records of United States Army Continental Commands, Records of the Department of Alaska 1867-1870 and Records of the Post of Sitka, 1867-1877

Reports by General Davis in Congressional Reports of the Secretary of War, including 1446, H.R. Doc 13, 41st Congress 2nd Session, 1870, 59-62

Frank Mahoney, “Letter from Frank Mahoney on the Indians and their trade in Eastern Alaska” Appendix F in Vincent Colyer, Bombardment of Wrangel, Alaska, Report of the Secretary of War, Secretary of the Interior, and Letter to the President (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1870)

Vincent Colyer, Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Made to the Secretary of the Interior, for the Year 1869, 586-587

Stanley Ray Remsberg, United States Administration of Alaska: The Army Phase, 1867-1877; A Study in Federal Governmance of an Overseas Possession University of Wisconsin, Madison PhD Dissertation, 1975.

Zachary R. Jones, “’Search For and Destroy’: The US Army’s Relations with Alaska’s Tlingit Indians and the Kake War of 1869,” Ethnohistory 60, no. 1 (Winter 2013), 1-26

Robert N. DeArmond and Richard A. Pierce, The USS Saginaw in Alaska Waters, 1867-68 (Kingston, Ontario and Fairbanks, Alaska: Limestone Press, 1997)

Zachary R. Jones, “The 1869 Bombardment of Kaachx an.áak’w from Fort Wrangell: The U.S. Army Response to Tlingit Law, Wrangell, Alaska” Sealaska Heritage Institute and National Park Service American Battlefield Protection Program, in collaboration with Wrangell Cooperative Association, City and Borough of Wrangell, 2015

Bobby Dave Lain, North of Fifty-Three: Army, Treasury Department, and Navy Administration of Alaska, 1867-1884 University of Texas at Austin, PhD Dissertation 1974

Don Craig Mitchell, Sold American, The Story of Alaska Natives and Their Land, 1867-1959 (Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 2003)

Sergei Kan, Memory Eternal: Tlingit Culture and Russian Orthodox Christianity through Two Centuries (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1999)

Sidney Harring,“The Incorporation of Alaska Natives Under American Law: The United States and Tlingit Sovereignty, 1867-1900” (1989). CUNY Academic Works.http://academicworks.cuny.edu/cl_pubs/326

Aftermath:

John Muir, Travels in Alaska (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988)

Aurel Krause, The Tlingit Indians, Results of a Trip to the Northwest Coast of America and the Bering Straits trans. Erna Gunther (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1956), 230

Ted C. Hinckley, Alaskan John G. Brady, Missionary, Businessman, Judge, and Governor, 1878-1918 (Miami, Ohio: Miami University, 1982) 25-73

In re Petition of Can-Ah-Couqua, 29 F 687 (1887) The Federal Reporter: Cases Argued and Determined in the Circuit and District Courts of the United States, Volumes 29-30, accessed at books.google.com

Sea otter, 1806

Sea otter, an image published (in black and white) in The World: or, the Present State of the Universe, being A General and Complete collection of Modern Voyages and Travels. Selected, arranged, and digested, from the narratives of the latest and most authentic travellers and navigators. By Cavenshish Pelham, Esq. This book was published in London in 1806. This colored image is from Ancestry Images.com.

I put together the following for a Sitka Maritime Heritage Society boat cruise, as background for a presentation by Jerry Deppa about how sea otters came to be reintroduced to Sitka Sound.

First, picture the northwest of North America 300 years ago: populated by many distinct indigenous nations, with thousands of years of complex histories, wars, trade, and customs. North American indigenous societies, and technology, were far from static, and far from passive, far from the stereotype of simple, timeless people living on natural bounty. In fact, Native people actively managed important resources, and social systems and language are as complex and “advanced” as those of Europe.

Sea otter were valued by North Americans for their rich fur, and were eaten.i Sea otter are a kind of weasel, but spend their lives at sea. Unlike other marine mammals, sea otter do not have a layer of fat under their skin, but are insulated from the cold ocean water with dense, soft fur, with 6,000 hairs per square inch. This makes it the most luxurious fur in the world.

A robust trade network on the NW Coast flourished in localized specialty products such as hooligan oil, baskets, red cedar canoes, and seal oil.ii Regional trade came together at a huge annual market at The Dalles on the Columbia River.iii

This was also the European Age of Exploration, and, of global trade: In 1778 Captain Cook, on his last voyage, spent time working on his ships in Nootka Sound. While there, they traded for some sea otter garments. In 1779, they made a huge profit on them in trade at Canton, China.iv

Cook’s journals were published in the mid 1780s, and the rush was on.v

Soon American ships dominated, nearly all out of Boston.vi Trade moved from Nootka Sound (on Vancouver Island) as sea otter were hunted out, and, as traders tried to get closer to the sources of the skins (to bypass Native middlemen): Sitka was the hot spot in the 1790s.vii While sometimes trade was accompanied by violence, it was mostly civil as shrewd Yankees met their match in shrewd and experienced indigenous traders. Elaborate trading protocol developed.viii

British traders were handicapped by Hudson’s Bay Company monopoly on NW Coast, and East India Company monopoly in China, which meant they had to pay to play. And wars raged on the European Continent during the peak years of the trade, which further handicapped European traders.ix

Americans alone sold an average of 14,000 sea otter pelts/year at Canton 1805-1812. The peak years for profits were 1790-1810.x

Over the next several years, increasing competition and fewer furs made the trade less profitable. The trade moved to land furs and other products, and ventures like supplying the Russians at Sitka. In the late 1830s the Hudson’s Bay Company, trading out of forts on land, completely took over the fur trade on the Northwest Coast, as well as supplying the Russians.xi

Impact on United States: After the Revolutionary War, the sea otter skin trade was a fortunate replacement for lost British markets. Sea otter furs were the only thing Americans had in any quantity that the Chinese wanted.xii They traded for porcelain, silks, tea, and profited in each of the three transactions: trading furs for guns and other goods with the Natives; trading Chinese luxury goods for sea otter furs; and then their biggest mark up was selling Chinese goods on the domestic market.xiii Profits from the North West Trade produced some of the capital for American industrialization.xiv

Every one of these hundreds of thousands of furs was purchased from Northwest Coast Natives – which brought great wealth into the Northwest Coast indigenous economy. There was an explosion of art. The Native middlemen profited the most, as guns, ammunition, beads, fabric, iron etc. were traded far into the interior for more furs, which in turn were traded for further profit with Americans and Europeans.xv

But – international trade also brought devastating smallpox epidemics: in the early 1770s an epidemic was brought by a Spanish explorer; further outbreaks in 1795 and 1811, and a devastating epidemic in1836-37, plus other diseases such as syphilis and tuberculosis, killed more than half the people originally here.xvi It is hard to overestimate the impact the decimation of the Native population must have had. What could it have been like, to see a third, or a half, of your community sicken and die over a short period of time? It must have been traumatic, to lose children, parents, grandparents.

What was the impact on the North West Coast Natives? Wealth while it lasted, but, then the sea otter were gone; after that the trade was in land furs, which were not as profitable; by the 1830s changing fashions and social disruption in Europe meant there was a smaller market and lower prices; due to hunting pressure, there were fewer fur-bearing mammals of any sort, and the Hudson’s Bay Company was relentless in eliminating the middle man, meaning less of the profit for indigenous entrepreneurs.

The Russians:

The Siberian fur trade of 1600s and 1700s brought Russian fur traders sweeping across Siberia, hunting and trapping animals but mainly demanding “tribute” or taxes to the Czar in the form of furs.

In 1742 the survivors of Vitus Bering’s last voyage returned to Siberia with sea otter furs. Like Cook’s men 30 years later, they discovered how valuable sea otter furs were in the Chinese market. Between 1743 and 1800 there were a hundred expeditions for furs to Alaska and the North Pacific islands. Over time, companies had to be bigger and take longer to go farther, as sea otter were exterminated closer to the Siberian mainland.xvii

Native people were much better at hunting than the Russians – so, the Russians forced Natives to hunt for them.

There were deadly confrontations,xviii and Russians forced Native labor not just for hunting, but providing food and equipment for the hunting expeditions and sustaining the Russians themselves. Devastating disease epidemics; taking people away from providing for their own needs; and violence caused the population of the Aleutians – people who had developed rich and unique technology and culture over thousands of years – to drop to only 20% of what it had been.

Merchant Grigorii Shelikov built the first permanent Russian fort, on Kodiak, in 1784. There were only a few companies left by that point. These companies consolidated in 1799 as the Russian American Company, with a charter by the Czar to govern Alaska.xix

So, by the 1790s, the Russians were also moving into southeastern Alaska, as they ran out of sea otters farther west. They brought fleets of hundreds of Native hunters in baidarkas (kayaks).xx

Alexander Baranov – who had been Shelikov’s manager, then became the first Governor of the Russian American colonies – wrote that Southeastern Alaskan sea otters belonged to Russia, and that the Americans and British, trading with the Tlingit, had no rights to them.xxi

In 1794 the Russian ship Phoenix (built at Seward) with 170 baidarkas took 2000 otter just at Yakutat.xxii The first hunting expedition to the Sitka area was in 1796.xxiii

Over the years 1797-1821 Russians took average of 3000 sea otter a year;xxiv in those first years, most of those were from southeastern Alaska.

Alexander Baranov established a fort at Old Sitka, about seven miles north of present-day Sitka, in 1799.xxv It seems remarkable that they could establish a base for hunting sea otter, which would have diverted the profits from those skins from the Tlingit, to the Russians.

In 1799, 115 Native hunters working for the Russians died from paralytic shellfish poisoning from mussels at what is now called Poison Cove. In spite of this tragedy, they took 1800 furs that season.xxvi

In 1800 they took 2000 sea otter, and in1801 4000 sea otter, just in the Sitka area. Sitka’a harbor also had various British and American ships trading from the Tlingit at this time.xxvii

The Russian-allied hunters taking thousands of sea otters from the Tlingit waters, in addition to insults and abuses, led a multi-clan alliance of Tlingit to destroy the fort in 1802.xxviii They salvaged the stored sea otter pelts, and went to Captain Barber on the ship Unicorn, according to him to demand surrender of the survivors he had on board. Barber instead forced the Tlingit to turn over the pelts and the captives they held, which he then took to Kodiak and gave back to Baranov in exchange for 10,000 rubles (in furs) for his trouble.xxix

Sitka, or New Archangel, was established on the site of Noow Tlein, now downtown Sitka, by the Russians in 1804, following the Battle of Sitka at Kaasdaa Héen, or Indian River. This battle might have gone the other way, but, the Russians had the naval ship Neva, and the defending Kiksadi lost canoe of gunpowder and several young leaders in an accidental explosion. Baranov had also retaliated against other clans who had participated in the 1802 sacking of the Old Sitka fort, which may have discouraged potential reinforcements.xxx

The Kiksadi clan and their relations made a strategic retreat, but, this was the end of Russian hunting in southeastern Alaska, although Baranov reported 500 furs from 1804-early 1805.

At the newly-established fort of New Archangel, the Russians and the 700 Native people working for them suffered scurvy, and near starvation the first winter; in 1805 the Russians bought the American ship Juno, which they sent to California the winter of 1805-06 for supplies from the Spanish.

Fast forward: sea otter were largely hunted out by 1820, and by the early 1830s Russians saw they were driving sea otter and fur seal (they had discovered the Pribilof Islands,where the animals breed) to extinction, so began conservation in areas they controlled, in western Alaska. Through moratoriums on certain areas, they built sea otter back up.xxxii

In southeastern Alaska, the Russians purchased sea otter furs from the Tlingit. The average number of sea otter pelts sold by the Russian American Company 1842-1860 – hunted by Company employees in Western Alaska, and purchased from Tlingit in southeastern Alaska – was 1,347/year.xxxiii

Of that total, the Tlingit sold an average of 150 sea otter a year to Russians, but after 1851, Tlingit took them all to the newly-established port of Victoria to trade, because they got better goods than the Russians had.xxxiv

The Russian American Company was dependent on fur trade, which, after the 1810s, was mainly land furs. After the sea otter hunted down, the fur trade was not that great. The Russian American Company tried to diversify, but couldn’t. Expenses grew as the Company supported retirees and widows, and it was always expensive to supply the colonies. Sad state of the fur trade part of why they sold out.xxxv

In 1867 Russians sold their claims to the Americans. Fur hunting and trading was wide open. Fur seals were very nearly wiped out in the international frenzy for profit.

Summary:

From 1780s through the 1870s the fur trade was pretty much the only economic activity in Southeastern Alaska. After the 1830s, the fur trade was not that great, with declining takes, changing fashions,xxxvi then the American and European recession of the 1870s.

This is what the incoming Americans saw – the impact of repeated, severe disease epidemics over the previous century and a half, and poverty due to the poor state of the fur trade over the decades before and immediately after the Transfer. The Tlingit economy was probably made worse by the pullout of the Russians, who seem to have bought more food and other items from the Tlingit than the Americans did.

The impoverished state of the Tlingit in 1867 fed into stereotypes and prejudice against Natives, and justification for denying citizenship, and for excluding Natives from civil and economic opportunities.

 

In addition to the sources in the end notes, other useful books include Ilya Vinkovetsky, Russian America: An Overseas Colony of a Continental Empire, 1804-1867, Oxford University Press, 2011,

and Kenneth N. Owens with Alexander Yu. Petrov, Empire Maker: Aleksandr Baranov and Russian Colonial Expansion into Alaska and Northern California, University of Washington, 2016.

iJames Gibson, Otter Skins, Boston Ships, and China Goods: The Maritime Trade of the Northwest Coast, 1785-1841 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1992) 7-8

iiGibson, 8-11

iiiGibson, 10

ivGibson, 22

vGibson, 23

viGibson, 38

viiGibson, 135

viiiGibson, 110-126

ixGibson, 24

xGibson, 315

xiGibson, 79-80

xiiGibson, 36-38

xiiiGibson, 58

xivGibson, 292

xvGibson, 270

xviGibson, 272-277

xviiGibson, 12-13

xviii Petr Aleksandrovich Tikhmenev, A History of the Russian American Company, trans. and ed. Richard A. Pierce and Alton S. Donnelly (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1978), 10

xixTikhmenev, 14

xxGibson, 13

xxi Dauenhauer, Nora Marks, Richard Dauenhauer, and Lydia T. Black, editors. Anóoshi Lingít Aaní Ká / Russians in Tlingit America: The Battles of Sitka, 1802 and 1804. Seattle and London: University of Alaska Press and Juneau, Alaska: Sealaska Heritage Institute, 2008, 140

xxiiTikhmenev, 35

xxiiiTikhmenev, 45

xxivTikhmenev, 153

xxvTikhmenev, 61

xxviIbid.

xxviiGibson, 14

xxviiiTikhmenev, 65

xxixIbid.

xxxDauenhauer, 219-325 (Baranov burning villages, 249)

xxxiiTikhmenev, 206-206, 235

xxxiiiGolovin, Captain-Lieutenant Pavel Nikolaevich, The End of Russian America: Captain P. N. Golovin’s Last Report, 1862. Basil Dmytrishyn and E. A. P. Crownhart-Vaughan, translators and introduction (Portland, Oregon: Oregon Historical Society, 1979), 164

xxxivGolovin, 154

xxxvTikhmenev, 215

xxxviGibson, xi