Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘history’

9 brighter

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

On October 18th, 1867, Russia’s claims in North America were transferred to the United States. I wanted to know about the decade of 1867-1877, the decade following the Transfer, which took place in Sitka. Sitka was the primary settlement in Alaska. How was it that in the Russian days, Tlingit people controlled southeastern Alaska, but by the end of the 1870s, they were impoverished and marginalized. What happened?

Highly integrated into the economy

Army records and first-hand accounts show that Tlingit people were highly integrated into Sitka’s economy. For example, when the steamer John L. Stephens came in to port for the Transfer, Tlingit people came out to sell them fresh food. Tlingit people sold food, cut firewood, and did other work for the Americans. There was a curfew, but during the day they were free to come through the stockade and work, buy or sell things, or to sit and observe.

Right after the Transfer there was a flurry of activity as the Russian American Company assets were sold off. One sign of the optimism was a city government, formed in December 1867.

The Army troops brought drunken crime and mayhem to Sitka, by officers and enlisted men alike. In May 1869, enlisted men even robbed the cathedral. Crime ebbed and flowed through the decade, but between October 1868 to March 1869, 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 brighter

This 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, but in 1870 closed them all but Sitka. The 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, and 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. 250 of these had been born in Alaska, 21 in Russia. Most of these people were “creole,” people of mixed Russian and Native heritage, mostly Alutiiq and Unangan. They were usually called Russians after the Transfer.

14 brighter

The Double Decker, held in trust by Sitka’s Collector of Customs for the destitute Russians who lived there. It was between Lindoln 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 so bad that the Army was giving 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.

Why did Alaska not get the rush of immigration and investment like in other parts of the West? One reason was that it was not needed, because so much land was already available. The other reason was the economy: the main industry was the fur trade, which was not doing well, in part due to over hunting, but also due to the post-Civil War recession, the Long Depression of the 1870s, which extended to Europe as well.

7 brighter

View 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

The fur trade had been the dominant industry of the North West coast well before the Transfer, since the mid-1780s. Native people were producers, but the big profits were as middlemen, controlling access by other Natives to trade goods.

Epidemics

A major impact of international trade was epidemics. Smallpox swept the coast around 1775, 1802, 1836-37, and 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 was probably the major factor in the defeat of indigenous people across the Americas.

The lucrative sea otter trade was pretty much over by 1820. The Russians established 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 purchased furs from the Tlingit, and also tons of food like halibut and venison. They employed Tlingit people and many Russians had relationships with or married Tlingit women.

An illustration of this complex relationship was when in 1831 the Company extended the fence around New Archangel, and one benefit, according to the governor at the time, was to keep the Tlingit from selling rum to the Russians.

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 had to pay attention to diplomacy, and regularly paid Natives for injury done by Russians, even when accidental.

The Hudson’s Bay Company began expanding into the coastal region from the 1830s, and leased trading rights and for a time, a fort from the Russians at Wrangell, where the Russians had to intervene diplomatically between the HBC and the Tlingit.

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 rights 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 Pilot

Sitka 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, more and more British and Americans were coming into the Northwest. Tlingit people traveled to Puget sound to trade, and to work for, and interact with the white settlers, as well as with 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 Native people were forced onto reservations. Russian America was a de facto 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 their clan leader, and returned to Russian America.

By the 1860s the Russian American Company, in spite of their efforts, still dependent on the fur trade, was losing money, and were concerned that Americans would swarm into Alaska as they had into the American West, both factors in their decision to cede their claims in 1867.

What changed, for Tlingit with the Transfer?

On one side of the stockade, the 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 them from fishing and hunting, and yet they were complaining of poverty by the end of the decade. 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.

It was gold prospectors, backed by the military, who broke the Tlingit trade monopolies, first on the Stikine, then on the Chilkat routes.

12 brighter

The 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 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.

The Army’s biggest concern was always keeping alcohol from Native people. (This would be a paper in itself.) 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 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.

Tlingit made threats, but no organized resistance

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 brighter

Sitka 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. Traditionally, this was a life for a life, of equal status, but throughout the North West Coast, 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.

The Americans did not always treat the Natives 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, 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.

6 brighter

Sitka 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 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, breaks it. 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 introduced diseases, exacerbated by poverty.

I believe that the Transfer brought an acceleration, of what was already under way in the Pacific Northwest before 1867.

Indian Village 1878

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, and 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 DeGroff

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

Missionaries

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

From the earliest days of American occupation, Tlingit leaders asked 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 Methodist missions. The major mission sites had sawmills, and there was even a cannery at 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.

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 School

Students 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 culture was a problem. 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 high rates of 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 American. Sheldon Jackson’s influence privileged Christian missions, 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 could be because this church allowed more Native control than the Presbyterians did, and, who knows, possibly because of the limits of what the Protestants could deliver as far as economic mobility.

Sitka by Merrill

E. 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 Native peoples’ success.

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 problems the Native population has now are not because of anything about them other than what happened to this population, when they were defined a certain way, as primitive and uncivilized.

And yet the stereotype persists today, that there is something about Natives themselves that keeps them from succeeding. Seeing this stereotype in its full-blown form in the 19th century, you can’t help seeing it throughout our culture now. By learning about our history we will bring this stereotype, the false linkage between Native culture and social dysfunction, into the light of day, and abolish it for good.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

Sheldon Jackson yearbook page
“Deputation” from the 1967 Alayeksa, the yearbook of the last graduating class of Sheldon Jackson High School

Recently a friend wrote that Sheldon Jackson School “was first and foremost a boarding school for Native students, and if one looks at the legacy of the boarding school era throughout Indian Country one begins to understand just how devastating an impact that period had on Native communities and their future development. . . . SJ is in many ways the central nerve of this forced assimilation in Alaska . . . “

The school’s legacy is complex, and some students had bad experiences, others had positive ones, and many had both.  Just as everyone’s experience was different, boarding schools were different. Sheldon Jackson was a private school and students had to pay to go there. Many were legacy students, whose parents and even grandparents went there. For students alive today, they were not forced to go to school, but they and their parents were forced to make a terrible choice – if they wanted education, they had to leave their homes, family, culture, community.

There was deep damage done to generations, not only losing their culture, but in being told that it was not worth anything, losing their sense of themselves, their culture, parents, language, as worthy. There are also damaging consequences from taking away a person’s sense of power, through forced submission to rules and customs of an alien culture. Boarding schools were engaged in a culture-replacement project, based on the assumption that Native culture and language were not only inferior to Euro-American culture, but that they had to be stamped out in order for Native people to progress.

The really important and difficult thing about mission education is that it was never simply  missionaries forcing Natives to do something. Mission and government schools varied, through time, and for different students. On one end were children taken from their parents against their will. The vast majority, perhaps all Sheldon Jackson students in the 20th century were there because their parents wanted them to be there.

Native people long ago, just as now, made their own decisions, and had their own reasons for adopting the dominant education and culture, or for making the sacrifice to send a child to Sheldon Jackson. This is hard to understand now, how Native people could have written and spoken about the need to “give up the old ways,” how Native people could have exhibited pride in assimilation. Many parents deliberately did not teach their children their language, in the belief that it would hold them back.  This is what we have to try to understand – the atmosphere 50 years ago or more, when abandoning one’s language seemed like a good choice; when there were few or no other options. It was not so long ago that being Native was understood as a handicap. There was no sense of how important language is to culture, and how important language and culture, and pride in one’s heritage, are to a healthy sense of who we are. Racial bias was pervasive. The assault on traditional culture was coming from all sides, from the government and popular culture, not only in education.

When we paint all missions as sites of forced assimilation we ignore the complexities of the past. Sheldon Jackson was successful only because Native parents supported it. In the earliest years, the mission tried to keep children by force, but in the 20th century it was unnecessary. We paint missionaries as villains, we drive a stake through their hearts, and think we are good. Demonizing missionaries only deflects attention from the continuity of past attitudes into the present. Racial bias, stereotypes of Native Americans, and patronizing attitudes did not vanish with the missionaries, even if we’d like to pretend they did.

A few weeks ago I was telling another friend about an interview with an older Native man, who still believes that not teaching the children the language was a good decision. My friend gazed at me with sorrow – the kind of look I get from those who regret I don’t accept Jesus as my Savior – as if by listening, and acknowledging this man’s viewpoint, arrived at in the course of his traumatic early-life experience, I was in agreement with his position.

The next day, I talked to a graduate of Sheldon Jackson High School in the 1960s, a woman who I knew as politically active, and I was expecting to hear about racist attitudes and harsh discipline. Instead, she told how she attended Sitka High School for a year, before going to Sheldon Jackson, and how there was a “world of difference” – that SJ was “like family.” How at Sitka High, she was a nobody, a “little Native girl.” Some other Native kids identified and were treated as white, and were popular at Sitka High; but for her, there was “so much racism.” At Sheldon Jackson, “life changed.” She was accepted as a Native student. Through her years at Sheldon Jackson, and through church, she has connections, everywhere in Alaska, even where she has no relatives, if there are SJ people from the years she was there.

This was another surprise, but an unintended consequence of segregated education at Sheldon Jackson was – in spite of the suppression of Native language and culture – to foster the identity of this generation as Alaska Natives, across tribal and geographic lines.

Later that same evening, I saw a film, Strangers No More, about a school for the children of immigrant workers in Tel Aviv, Israel. The film followed a handful of children, refugees who had seen family members murdered in front of them, who had grown up in refugee camps, and had fled to Israel. Again and again, tears came to my eyes, as the the women in the film, a teacher and the principal, took care to help the children through the traumas they had been through, and to help them to succeed in the school. The compassion and caring of these teachers was extraordinary, as was the deep gratitude and love of the students for the teachers, and the affectionate relationships among the children. The children’s faces glowed with love and pride. It was clear that without this school these children would have much diminished chances of success, perhaps even survival. One teacher says, it’s in the Bible – Jews have a duty to help those less fortunate.

Here is a mission school. Were the Tel Aviv teachers sensitive to the cultures of the children? They taught in Hebrew. It’s like SJ in another way: the power relationship is unavoidably uneven. The helper has more power than the student – or even the adults, the parents of the children. They helped the father of one young boy – tired, fearful, weary – by helping him through the process of extending his work visa. This is a great good – but it also reinforces the power relationship, and his helplessness.What does that do to how the son sees himself and his father? Any time the more fortunate help the less, we may be taking away their sense of control, of identity, and reinforcing the very power structure that has led to their problems – the war and evil that’s driven the kids from their homes. When the dominant culture trains kids from others’, we are implicitly putting down their culture. And, making the children outsiders in their own culture.

There are important differences, of course. The teachers at this school could not have taught in the children’s languages if they wanted to, so they had no choice but to teach in Hebrew. Unlike Sheldon Jackson, they did not punish children for speaking their own languages, and were not teaching in the children’s ancestral home place.

But in important respects, this school is much the same. We don’t know whether it works for all children, but for some, just at Sheldon Jackson, it is life changing. The children leave better off than they were, with a stronger sense of themselves, friends with children from all over the world.

We still believe in the power of education, and in helping others. Public education in America came out of this basically patronizing, missionary impulse to help less fortunate children, and still has this sense behind it, so we need to learn about these more explicitly mission schools. As we go forward we have to consider what it is that is, and  was,  beneficial in these schools, and whether we can minimize the bad. Or, can we imagine an entirely new model, that integrates, and is guided by, students’ culture and language?

How much of the good is due to the individual teachers – like the best teachers at Sheldon Jackson, they genuinely respect the children and their abilities and expect the best from them. These teachers are highly educated themselves, and respect themselves. You can see that a poor teacher, or one with control issues, would be disastrous in this situation.

How much of the success is the fact that for these children, there are no alternatives? So there is no way but up. There must always be this complexity. Perhaps the best thing is for us to be aware of it, and to try to be humble, and motivated by what’s best for the child – and try to be open to what that might be.

A school can be all downside, discipline without love, politics or doctrine trumping making the child feel safe, appreciated and able to grow, reinforcing a child’s sense that he is a failure. It depends on the individuals, and the culture of the institution. When it works, it is because of a genuine human relationship, and the exact situation, the setting, the times; and it’s a subtle, individual thing. You can imagine one kid being ignored, not fitting in, and experiencing humiliation; while next to him, a kid whose temperament fits better with the teachers and the culture of the institution thrives.

No doubt this school in Tel Aviv is not perfect, but it’s just as unlikely that Sheldon Jackson was wholly to be condemned. All offer important lessons.

Read Full Post »