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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

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Presented by Rebecca Poulson at the 2016 Annual Meeting of the Alaska Historical Society

Introduction: This is a fascinating group of people, whose choices and circumstances are at the heart of Alaskan history. My research only scratches the surface.

I’d like to thank everyone who has shared their stories and who has worked to document this history. See the bottom for written sources, but I’d also like to specially thank Mrs. Carol Feller Brady, the late Ellen Hope Hays, and Mr. Gil Truitt for sharing their memories, knowledge, and insights into this community and Harold Jacobs for sharing his knowledge of Tlingit genealogy and tradition. Without their generosity this history would be a closed book.

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The school plat; the Cottages are at the bottom. Sheldon Jackson Collection, Alaska State Library Historical Collections

The Cottages was a model community for Christian Natives, former students of Sitka’s Presbyterian mission school. It was located on mission property at the edge of the Sitka National Historical Park, on Kelly and Metlakatla Streets. The first three homes were built in 1888. By 1889 there were 6, in 1900 9, 1910 15, 1920 18, 1930 17.

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Photo Shop Studio photo of Sitka in 1928, showing the Cottages at far right, and the Indian Village on the left, separated by the town of Sitka

It was a tiny community of no more than 18 homes, and fewer than 70 residents; more of a neighborhood than a community. There were strong ties to the Village, where nearly all the rest of Sitka’s Native residents lived until well into the 20th century.

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Sitka from the Western Harbor, from the 1869 Coast Pilot of Alaska, First Part.

Why was the Cottages founded? This requires looking back at the circumstances of the founding of the mission itself, in 1878.

In the mid 1780s to the 1810s, the maritime fur trade in sea otter pelts brought great wealth to the region without taking away indigenous control. By the mid-19th century, however, settlers, traders and miners, backed by military force, were aggressively displacing Native people in British Columbia and Washington Territory.

In Southeastern Alaska, the Russians did not have the ability to be aggressive toward the Tlingit. Instead they relied on diplomacy and engaged in mutually beneficial trade. Tlingit clans were major players in regional commerce.

After the 1867 Treaty of Cession, southeastern Alaska became the American frontier. Americans had the military might the Russians did not have. American traders displaced Natives from trade. I believe that it was this rapid destruction of the indigenous economy, under threat of force, that made missions attractive in the late 1870s, when they were not earlier.

Americans brought the belief that Natives are inherently inferior and must be subjugated for the good of society. Results of the treatment of Native people based on this narrative are then taken as evidence of their natural inferiority. This discriminatory cycle was probably behind why Native people wanted missions and schools, and ultimately, why, in spite of the sacrifices this group made, the settlers at the Cottages suffered much the same fate as other Native people.

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The Sitka school began in earnest in 1880, and very soon had boarding students – a small group of young men and boys who asked to be allowed to live at the school. The mission laid claim to the present campus in 1882, and students and staff soon built a large dormitory and school building.

The school was this successful right from the start, in large part because of the desire of certain Tlingit leaders to send their children. Missionary Sheldon Jackson, who founded Alaska’s Presbyterian missions, was a prodigious fund raiser. He fictionalized how depraved Natives were before Christianity, but that would not have been effective without the clear evidence of success in the mission students, in the growing facilities, and especially in the Cottages.

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Cottages families in front of Cottages Hall, around 1904. Collection Sitka National Historical Park.

cottages-ids

This is my effort at matching the names to the persons in the photo – no guarantees!

Starting left to right, front row – Eaton Hunter, Ralph Young, Don Cameron, John Cameron, Frank Price, Ben Peck, Tillie Howard, George Howard, unknown, Esther Cook, mary Cook, Tillie Wells, Bella Simpson, George Bartlett, Ruth Bartlett, David Howard (Middle?) Louis Simpson (boy?), Mrs. George Bartlett, Mrs. Albert James, Jean Wanamaker, Louisa Peck, Mrs. Maud Wells, Mary Simpson, John Newell, Lila Newell, John James

Mrs. Ralph Young (in white blouse?), Mrs. Elsie Newell, Mrs. John James, Mrs. John Willard (holding grand child), Mrs. Don Cameron, Mrs. Thomas Cooke, Mrs. George Howard, Mrs. Ray James (holding Ray Jr.), Albert James,

(Next row?) Edward Grant, Thomas Cooke, John E. Gamble,

Very top row? George Howard, Peter Simpson, John Willard, Willie Wells, Ray James Sr., Andrew J. Wanamaker, Cyrus E. Peck Sr. Identifications from publication The Voice of Brotherhood.

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The Cottages Band, 1904. Alaska State Library Historical Collections, Sheldon Jackson College Collection.

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Cottage Women’s Missionary Society. Photo Sitka Historical Society 91.26, folder 660.

Cottage Women’s Missionary Society Back Row – left to right: Mrs. John James Mrs. Cook Miss Gibson Mrs. Wanamaker Mrs. Young

Next row: Mrs. Newell Mrs. Dundas Mrs. Ray James Gibson Young (boy)

Next row: Mrs. Albert James & Baby Dorothy Mrs. Geo. Howard Mrs. Willard Mrs. MacKay Mrs. C. Bailey

Bottom row: Jenny Sing Mrs. Simpson Mrs. Sam Johnson & baby Ruth Bartlett Mrs. Bartlett & baby (two of the children are not identified)

Identifications from a Sheldon Jackson College pamphlet, collection Sitka National Historical Park

Contrasts and Conflicts

The Cottages presents a problem for us today. Cottage leaders stated that the old ways will bring Native people down. They were proud to be living in American-style homes and wearing American clothes, proud to be speaking English. We see the deliberate abandonment of language, in particular, as a great loss. I think the important thing is not to project our 21st century ideas onto them.

Even as Cottages leaders stated that they needed to put the old ways behind them, the reality was that life at the Cottages was permeated with Native identity. If we just go by the photographs, and the way it was framed at the time, we would think that these people’s identity began fresh with their adoption of an English name.

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Cottages families, in front of Cottages Hall, late 1906/early 1907. Sitka National Historical Park SITK 808.

But, a Cottage person’s identity would have been based on his or her Native name, family, lineage, relationships and in clan and house history going back thousands of years; identity changed with conversion, but was not replaced.

And, place. These people were still in the place their ancestors had enriched with complex significance. Only a few hundred yards away was the site of the 1804 Battle of Sitka, the major conflict between the Russians and the Kiksadi clan, that resulted in the cession of what is now Sitka to the Russians. Newcomers would not feel the resonance of that event, of what led up to it and the consequences, instead seeing a pretty view or a resource to be exploited.

So while these people look like they have completely assimilated, they knew who they were.

Who were these founders of the Cottages?

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Cottages families in 1912. Merrill Collection, Sitka National Historical Park.

Some of the Cottages residents in 1912: Bottom row: Dorothy James Truitt, Jennie Simpson Sing, Ray James, Jr.
Middle row: Tillie Howard Hope (the mother of Ellen Hope Hays), Mr. and Mrs. Sloan, Carol Feller Brady’s mother Elizabeth Kadashaan James, Carol’s father Ray James with Carol’s sister Flora, and David Howard (Tillie’s brother).
Back row: Ray James’s sister Olinda Bailey, Peter Simpson, Jr., Mary Simpson, Peter Simpson with Baby, Jennie Willard, John Willard, and Ray James’s brother, Albert James.

 

The community included important tradition bearers. Marriages were proper marriages between opposite clans. Perhaps partly due to culture and partly due to economic need, many traditional food gathering traditions were also followed.

Many of the families were closely related. Matriarchs of three families were sisters, whose parents, Kok Gla or John and Lucy or Mary Sloan, while not English speakers or graduates of the school, also lived at the Cottages.

These women are Kiks.adi, Point House. The eldest was Amelia, who later married Don Cameron, who came from Chilkat. Mary Sloan married Tsimshian Peter Simpson, and Lottie was the first wife of George Howard, Tlingit from Kake.

A fourth sister married a businessman born in England, Bernard Hirst. They lived in downtown Sitka, and their sons attended the “white” school.

In 2004, Ellen Hope Hays, who grew up at the Cottages, a Kiksadi Point House woman, whose grandmother was one of the Sloan sisters, showed me this photograph, saying, this is a photograph of descendents of those who fought the 1804 Battle of Sitka. The photograph was taken in 1912, one hundred years after the Battle, and one hundred years before she showed it to me – and her own mother is in the picture, as a girl. The leader of the Tlingit defense in 1804 was a Kiksadi Point House man, Shk’aawulyéil. Her grandmother’s great- grandmother was his sister.1 Another granddaughter recently told me that this photograph was taken at the fort site.

There is therefore a wide gap between how the Cottage members saw themselves, in the context of history, place, and lineage, and how the community looks to most people now.

A granddaughter says that Amelia Cameron and her parents did not go to the school or speak English, but lived there because of clan ownership. Her husband, Don Cameron, was Kaagwaantaan. He was a translator for ethnologist John Swanton, and himself provided traditional narratives.

 

The Cottages community included William Wells or Kaads’aati, of the Luknax.adi, and Rudolph Walton Kawootk’, a Kiksadi man. Both were among the “original students” at the school. Both were in line to become leaders, and they and their families made the decision in 1880 to send them to the school. Both became devout Presbyterians.

Elizabeth James was sent to Sitka from Wrangell, by her father, Kaasx’agweidi clan leader Kadashaan (a), an early convert to Protestant Christianity, and he and his mother were also tradition bearers, contributing material to Swanton. Elizabeth married a son of Amelia Cameron, one of the Sloan sisters.

Perhaps the best known of the Cottage community is Peter Simpson, a leader in civil rights and land claims. He was a member of the Christian community at Metlakatla, British Columbia led by missionary William Duncan, and part of the exodus in 1887 to New Metlakatla in the United States.

Models

The missionary activity by William Duncan was well known to Presbyterian missionaries, and to Tlingit people, who have strong trade and even family ties to the coastal Tsimshian. Founded in 1862, the Christian Native community of Metlakatla had their own frame houses, large church, and a sawmill, and other industries.

It seems likely that the Cottages was modeled at least in part on Metlakatla. We can’t know how much of the idea for the community came from the missionaries, and how much may have been the idea of certain Tlingit people.

In 1887, William Duncan led 800 Christian Tsimshean people from Metlakatla, in British Columbia, to New Metlakatla, in southeastern Alaska. The following spring, in 1888, Presbyterian missionary Sheldon Jackson brought Peter Simpson and 31 other boys from Metlakatla to his Sitka training school.1 (7)

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Hamilton and Simpson Sawmill, Port Gravina, Alaska. Taken by B. A. Haldane of Metlakatla, Alaska, 1895. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) 297380.

Then, in the fall of 1892, when he was about 21, Peter Simpson and some other Metlakatlan graduates of the Sitka school returned south and started Hamilton, Simpson and Company, a sawmill, at Port Gravina – a town they founded – across Tongass Narrows from Ketchikan. The all-Native company eventually had a fishing operation, ran a tug, owned a large store, a carpenter shop, and rental cottages. Gravina burned down in 1904 and was not rebuilt.

Of course most enterprises in southeastern Alaska failed sooner than later, but Native people had more obstacles to success. Simpson’s granddaughter Isabella Brady told how as Natives, they could not get title to the land to rebuild, and says that this is the source of his lifelong fight for land claims.2

Could it be that the Cottages settlers hoped to have a place to do business? Commerce at the Cottages was limited to a boatbuilding operation and sales of handicrafts to tourists, but, by the teens, people associated with the school and the Cottages dominated Sitka’s boatbuilding and commercial salmon seining, which was a big deal at that time.

The boatbuilding operation began in 1906 under Peter Simpson. Men who worked with Simpson, nearly all related by marriage, went on to build most of the hundreds of boats built in Sitka in the 20th century.

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Peter Simpson’s shop at the foot of Metlakatla Street. Photo Sitka Historical Society.

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The boat at center is named “William,” perhaps the boat built for Rudolph Walton. Merrill photo Sitka National Historical Park.

 

Simpson’s shop was on the point of land below Metlakatla Street. In the fall of 1908 he had five men working there, and enlarged his shop. In 1909 they launched a 34-foot boat for Rudolph Walton, the William, and had built “many” others.3 (15) In 1910, when he was nearly 40, Simpson employed his brother-in-law George Howard, who was about his age, and John James at his shop.4 (16)

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Sealing boats gathered for blessing by the Orthodox priest. The store may be Rudolph Walton’s store. Herring Rock is at right. Merrill Photo, collection Sitka National Historical Park.

George Howard left the Cottages, and built a home and boatshop on the northern edge of the Village in the teens. He built sealing boats and fishing boats. Peter Simpson was often “high boat” in the fur seal hunt in the 1920s.

Hope working

Andrew Hope at the bandsaw, fisherman Andrew Soinio in foreground. This may be Scotty Jennings’ boat shop, in the 1920s. Photo from a glass slide in the collection of the Sitka Historical Society.

Andrew Hope, who was a graduate of the Sitka school, married the daughter of Lottie Sloan and George Howard. His eldest son grew up as the adopted son of the Cameron family at the Cottages.

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Early day salmon seiners, from The Silver Years of the Alaska Canned Salmon Industry: An Album of Historical Photos by Laurence Freeburn.

Dozens of boats were built by this handful of men and their associates. I’ve counted over 50 documented vessels (over about 32 feet) built in Sitka in the 22 years between 1909 and 1931, and at least 31 were built by Alaska Native builders. There were many smaller boats as well. The largest output was in the teens, when engine-powered seiners came to Alaska.

Most of these early seiners were financed by the canneries, for top producers, and nearly all of these men were also affiliated with the Cottages.

These men did not learn to build boats at the school. I believe they learned by working with Scandinavian and other immigrants of the time, and Tlingit craftsmen applied their woodworking and boat design knowledge to the new technology. Other Native builders built boats in villages and towns all over southeast. There were a few non-Native boatbuilders as well.

Rudolph Walton or Kawootk’ was one of the original students at the school. His name was given him by his sponsors at the school, a Philadelphia family who named him after a prominent Presbyterian of that city. Walton was proud of the association.

Walton was a carver and jeweler, and sold his work at the Cottages, but then built a store and home in the Village in 1905.

In 1906 he was at the center of a school integration case, when his step-children were barred from attending the “white” school. The testimony in this case, expecially the way Natives are treated, reveals the gross racial bias that was not usually on display. He was involved in clan affairs, for which he was condemned by the missionaries; while his attempt to get his kids a good education resulted in condemnation by other whites.

This epitomizes the bind that Cottage people were in: they made the sacrifice of their traditions and language, and apparently of clan leadership, in order to secure a future for their children, but in spite of their proper clothes, education and manners, they were still treated with gross bias – possibly, as for Walton in the Davis Case, even more so, because they dared to challenge the status quo.

Most of the founders of the Alaska Native Brotherhood had been educated at the Presbyterian mission school and were affiliated with the Cottages.

We are fortunate to have people with us today who grew up in the Cottages, and who tell their story, or even write about what it was for children in the 1930s, the last days as a community.

They describe the joys of growing up with the Sitka National Historic Park for a backyard; of playing with cousins, and feasting on traditional foods, when families went fall fishing, or to canneries in the summer. And the grandparents, aunts and uncles and great-aunts and uncles, as well as parents who practiced and taught traditional food gathering. How musical many of the residents were, and the excellence of the Sheldon Jackson School choir and basketball programs, and how warm and welcoming the school staff was to these young kids. And the spontaneous picnics, and church-centered celebrations of Thanksgiving and Christmas, and being a part of the Sheldon Jackson School community.

But the striking thing in these narratives is that most are stories of survival. What unfortunately shaped this community, was premature death and the unfortunate consequence of repeated, severe trauma: alcohol abuse. This, I believe, was a direct result of forces that were against Native people from the very start.

By the 1880s, most Americans saw enormously improved living standards and life expectancy. But this improvement was not enjoyed by Alaska Natives. Even in the 1930s, homes in the Cottages did not have running water. Economic and social marginalization stemming from racial discrimination probably had something to do with it, but whatever the cause, Alaska Natives saw a horrific rate of premature death. At least two men’s deaths were related to overwork.

Ellen Hope Hays, who was a child of the Cottages, said that it was disease that had the biggest impact on Native people, more than racism or alcohol.

I went to the Division of Vital Statistics in Juneau and copied out the deaths in Sitka in the 1930s. When I ordered the list by age at death, I was shocked. At least eighty percent of the family names of those who died at age 30 or younger are those of Native families.

Peter Simpson outlived all 15 of his children – only two lived to adulthood, and both lost children of their own, and died leaving others. Carole Feller Brady’s entire family died – parents, three sisters, and two brothers – by the time she was still only a teen. Many of the families were closely related, and the small size of the community, made these intense losses devastating.

In 1937, four young men from the Cottages – two graduates, a current student, and the young husband of a graduate – drowned. In 1936 and 37, 5 other Cottages residents also died prematurely. This is from a community of only 17 homes.

Nine of the seventeen people in this photograph died prematurely.

By the 1930s, Sheldon Jackson School staff were concerned about the situation, in which alcohol abuse was a problem in many homes. Cottages founders tried to revive the Cottages Society, but the devastation wrought by so much trauma was out of anyone’s control.

Carol Feller Brady, whose two idolized older brothers were among the drowning victims, and whose father died of tb the year before, tells how school superintendent Les Yaw told her sister not to be too hard on their mother, who was drinking: “her heart is buried six feet underground.”

Everyone we’ve interviewed had stories of tremendous loss, of siblings, parents.

But all those people also have beautiful stories of family, food, and traditions. Their stories help us to understand how they survived circumstances that overwhelmed others, whether by force of will, by not looking back, or by cultivating forgiveness. “Life was hard,” is as close to a complaint as we’ve heard.

We can also learn from the story of the Cottages how racism shaped the experiences of Native people, and how those same stereotypes and assumptions persist today, ironically stemming from the consequences of generations of deliberate categorization of Natives as inferior.

Selected sources:

Joyce Walton Shales, “Rudolph Walton: One Tlingit Man’s Journey Through Stormy Seas, Sitka, Alaska, 1867-1951” (Ph. D. diss., The University of British Columbia, 1998)

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

Twelfth Census of the United States, Census of Alaska, Southern District, Sitka, Alaska 1900, accessed at family search.org.

Thirteenth Census of the United States, Population – Alaska, 1st District, Sitka, Alaska 1910, accessed at findmypast.com.

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

Don Craig Mitchell, Sold American, The Story of Alaska Natives and Their Land, 1867-1959 (Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 2003), 65-110

A. E. Austin, “History of the Mission” The North Star 5 no. 12 December 1892 1-4

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

Susan Neylan, “Longhouses, Schoolroom, and Workers’ Cottages: Nineteenth Century Protestant Missions to the Tsimshian and the Transformation of Class Through Religion” Journal of the CHA 2000 New Series 11, 51-86

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

1.This and most of the other Tlingit geneology from Harold Jacobs, personal communication.
(a) Kadashaan was Kaasx’agweidi – personal communication, Harold Jacobs
2.Murray, p. 207 (boys to S.J.); William Gilbert Beattie, Marsden of Alaska (New York: Vantage Press, 1955), p. 19 (boys to S.J., incl Simpson); North Star, September 1888 (Simpson in school here).
2 Isabella Brady (grand daughter of Peter Simpson), personal communication
3 North Star, March 1909, p. 2 (boat for Walton, many boats past few years), Chronology p. 38 (Walton’s boat the William)
4 1910 Census (Simpson, Howard, James building).

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This is our second week reading The Call of the Wild, by Jack London. This week we’ll share a few paragraphs of our responses to the book, and get the next book, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, to read over break.

Last week kids brought in the results of their background research, which included sexism, colonialism, the Yukon Gold Rush, the biography of Jack London and of Robert Service, the impact of the Gold Rush on Alaska Natives, racism, and the romantic idea of Wilderness.

One thing that’s useful is the concept of colonialism, which is the set of attitudes and actions when one group takes over the land and resources of another group, and labels them as inherently inferior as a way to justify taking their stuff. This helps tell why Native Americans are depicted in certain ways in American literature.

The first thing that I noticed, and that you picked up, was that it is extremely violent. When you look at accounts of the Gold Rush, or particularly the Canadian dogsled mail service at the time, it becomes clear that he has created his own, ultra-violent world that bears little similarity to the actual Gold Rush.

Not that the Gold Rush wasn’t violent, but it was much sorrier and diffuse than what he depicts.

At one point Buck finds a dozen wolverines feeding on a bear he’s killed. First of all, wolverines are solitary. Then he chases them off, killing two. Right! Then there is all the dogs killing other dogs, which the humans seem to find amusing. And, the real Canadian mail was run in stages, and one team of dogs would not be running thousands of miles without a break. And, why do they keep selling Buck, when he’s “one in a t’ousand.”

It seemed like most of you enjoyed the story, in spite of the exaggeration, or because of that. I think he was trying to set up this opposition between civilization and the wild. His descriptions of the violence are dramatic, and the relationship between Thornton and Buck is also well done and is actually believable.

As far as “The Wild,” the struggle for survival seems to have two ways it can influence a person, or dog – a brutal savagery, displayed by many characters and especially the Indians at the end, and the way The Wild can actually improve a person or dog that is inherently superior, by carving away all the softening effects of civilization, while leaving his moral nature intact.

This gets to the idea of Wilderness as a means of uplifting the (superior) soul, to God.

Inborn superiority seems to be a core theme. Buck, the dog, the main character, is a super dog, just as John Thornton, his human friend, is a superman. Buck is constantly fighting off much larger and more numerous foes. Early on in the book London makes a reference to the “cold-tubbing races,” and he seems to have been a racist at heart – some peoples, as well as individuals, genetically, are superior to others.

He uses terms like half-breed and squaw, which are unacceptable today, as bad as the n-word.

But the worst, and I don’t know how it is that people don’t object to it, is the end of the book, in which for some unknown reason some Indians murder all the dogs and men in the camp, shooting them full of arrows. Then Buck goes for the Indians, who are dancing, of course, in the wreckage of the camp. He kills some, and causes others to panic and shoot arrows and spears into each other, then flee the “ghost dog” and avoid that valley in the future.

London had to have brutal Indians murder his hero, John Thornton, because having him die due to an accident would make him less than super competent to survive in the wilderness. That doesn’t make it ok. This kind of stereotype of the stupid, brutal, unpredictable, superstitious, and cowardly Indian is the worst there is. To me it cheapens the whole book, and honestly, the way Buck kept fighting off bigger and more numerous enemies, already makes it more like a magazine story than quality fiction.

Obviously I have problems with this book! And am surprised that it is given to kids without a disclaimer about the racist depiction of Indians, and how unfortunately that was part of how people viewed Natives at the time. We have to do better than that, now, and get beyond the stereotypes of the Indians as in harmony with nature (colors of the wind, anyone?), or cruel stupid savages, and view Native people, past and present, as fully human, complex as anyone else.

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