Sitka, Alaska: A Clash of Two Cultures

“There are strange things done in the midnight sun by the men who moil for gold;

The Arctic trails have their secret tales that would make your blood run cold;

The Northern Lights have seen queer sights, but the queerest they ever did see

Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge, when I cremated Sam McGee.

Robert Service, 1874-1958.

 

Alaska’s history is rich, replete with fascinating personalities of those who experienced lives that 21st Century citizens have difficulty even imagining. Historical figures, those with names like Diamond-Toothed Gertie, Bear-Grease Sam, Ethel the Moose, and the infamous twins Vaseline and Glycerin, leave us little doubt that life in the Alaskan frontier was an adventure unlike any other. To find proof of this, we need look no farther than Jack London’s Call of the Wild, or Robert Service’s  The Cremation of Sam McGee. Yet, there is more to the story of Alaska than just the era that we call the Klondike Gold Rush. This became very clear to me when I spent three months in Alaska’s Inside Passage, volunteering as a researcher for the Sitka National Historical Park Museum.

 

Sitka National Historic Park

Sitka National Historic Park

 

Sitka is a small village on Baranof Island in the Alexander Archipelago. The Tongass National Forest, a wilderness that daily encroaches upon the village’s narrow streets, is home to brown bear, Sitka black-tailed deer, mountain goats, bald eagles, and Pacific salmon which spawn by the hundreds of thousands in the Indian River. For more than fifty centuries, it has also served as the traditional home of the Kiksadi Tlingit, an aboriginal people of the Pacific Northwest Coast. However, Sitka was not always the peaceful, wilderness paradise it is today. The village and its people were the victims of what is known in history as the Age of Discovery, which occurred during the 15th to 18th Centuries.

Today, one can clearly see the evidence of Sitka’s earlier times in the ethnographic collections of the oldest museum in Alaska, The Shelton Jackson Museum. Aboriginal masks and clothing, made from animal hides and fur, line the shelves in glass enclosures. Moose-hide moccasins, Athabaskan knives, and full-sized kayaks provide a glimpse into the past, while honoring the ancestors of today’s native people.

 

Tlingit Cleaning Seal Intestines

Shelton Jackson Museum Photograph of a Tlingit Cleaning Seal Intestines

 

Native Alaskan Mask at Shelton Jackson Museum

Native Alaskan Mask at Shelton Jackson Museum

 

Native Alaskan Mask at the Shelton Jackson Museum

Native Alaskan Mask at the Shelton Jackson Museum

 

Shelton Jackson Museum Mask

Native Alaskan Mask at Shelton Jackson Museum

 

Totems carved by Tlingit and Haida stand solemn along the shores of the Pacific, only a few steps away from the entrance to the Sitka National Historical Park Museum. There, the tide ebbs and flows peacefully as gulls soar overhead. The scent of the ocean is intoxicating, just as it was when, in the mid-1700’s, the Danish explorer Vitus Bering made his second voyage across the Bering Sea. Alaska was ripe for Russia’s exploitation. Especially tempting were the rich pelts of fur-bearing animals. Seals, black fox, and sea otters brought good prices, and  Siberian fur traders who settled along Alaska’s shorelines carried on a lucrative trade.

The voyage for Bering, or any other mariner crossing the strait, was not easy. The brutal body of water, which separates the continents of Asia and North America by only forty-seven miles, is one of the most difficult to navigate on the face of the planet. Choked for over half the year with ice floes that sometimes reach six inches in thickness and with winter temperatures that reach minus 58 degrees Fahrenheit, the crossing is not for the faint-hearted. The strait is located just south of the Pacific Ring of Fire and, thus, experiences frequent earthquakes.

 

Alaska's Tongasss Rainforest

Hiking Train in Alaska’s Tongasss Rainforest

 

Sitka and the Age of Discovery

Reasons for the Age of Discovery were multifaceted. Yet, of two specific goals there can be little doubt. First, Europeans believed they had a responsibility to bring salvation to aboriginal people whom they considered pagan. The second goal was to plunder the riches of all vulnerable, unclaimed land worldwide. Already, Portuguese, British, French, Spanish, and Dutch had plied the earth’s waters. The mariners sailing the vessels of those countries had jealously anticipated riches. They had not been disappointed.

However, as early European explorers harvested the rewards of their adventures, they grew complacent. Russia’s occupation of the northern land startled them. They awakened, once more, to the potential riches awaiting those who dared to take them. In his 1942 book Lord of Alaska: The Story of Baranov and the Russian Adventure, Hector Chevigny explained. “England, France, and Spain, like dogs, jumped out of a sound sleep, pointed to the north, and growled.” They did so in vain, for by that time usurping Russia’s control was impossible. The Europeans were forced to look elsewhere to enrich their coffers.

 

New Archangel: Russian Colonialism

Sitka, known as New Archangel by the Russians, served as the colonial capital during the occupation. Today, the legacy of Russian Alaska is evident throughout the village. The Russian Bishop’s House, which served as residence for the bishop of St. Michael’s Cathedral, an active Orthodox church, is one of the few existing Russian American structures on the North American Continent. It is not unusual to see Russian Orthodox clergy walking down the sidewalks, robed in their long flowing vestments and shopping at the St. Michael Icon, Gift, and Book Store, which specializes in the histories of Russian America and St. Michael’s Cathedral. For entertainment, visitors flock to watch the all-female New Archangel Dancers, dressed in authentic Ukrainian and Russian costumes, performing the ethnic dances of Russia.

 

Russian Orthodox Clergy

Russian Orthodox Clergy

 

Sitka, Alaska St. Michael's Cathedral Interior

Sitka, Alaska: St. Michael’s Cathedral Interior

 

Off the beaten path of Sitka, on a hillside covered in old-growth spruce, one will discover the cemetery where Russian mariners and Siberian fur traders were laid to rest. Winding along narrow, overgrown pathways, and hidden beneath moss, weeds and grasses, headstones made from the ballasts of ships which once crossed the Bering Strait stand in quite solitude. Some of the gravestones are chipped and  broken.  Others have sunken deep into the peat moss, a testimony to the impermanence of life.  Few of the names carved on the stones are still visible. I was reminded of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous poem. “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone stand in the desert…… My name is Ozymandias, king of kings.”

 

Sitka's Russian Cemetery

Sitka’s Russian Cemetery

 

Sitka's Russian Cemetery

Sitka’s Russian Cemetery

 

The 126 year Russian occupation was not always peaceful. Alexandr Andreevich Baranov, the governor of the newly colonized land, used his power to force the Alaskan natives to harvest the fur-bearing animals. Historically, when aboriginal people have been conquered by those who possess more advanced weaponry, atrocities occur. The Age of Discovery has also been labeled the Age of Exploitation. One need only read the history of Russian America to understand why.

In the Aleutian Islands, exploitation of the Aleut was the foundation upon which the fur trade built its success. It is believed that many Russian fur traders treated the native people with dignity and respect. However, history tells us that others did not. Official Russian policy dictated that all tribal people of the occupied lands were to be treated humanly. However, Chevigny once again provides us a clue by quoting an old Russian proverb. “God was high in his heaven, and the Tsar was far away.” Traders who were determined to meet quotas often held the Aleut females and children captive. They were released only after their husbands or fathers had delivered the required number of pelts.

 

Sitka 025

New Archangel Dancers

 

Seward’s Folly: The Purchase of Alaska

By the 1850’s, Tsar Alexander II saw Russia’s colonization as a liability. The fur-bearing animals had drastically decreased in numbers, and it was difficult to convince Russian settlers to migrate to the newly colonized lands. In addition, Russia’s defeat by Britain and France in the Crimean War had drained the Tsar’s coffers. To remain in Alaska was no longer in Russia’s best economical interest.

The United States, under the leadership of Secretary of State William Seward, eagerly agreed to purchase Alaska for $7,200,000, or 2.5 cents per acre. The agreement was widely ridiculed as “Seward’s Folly,” and the state was called “Seward’s Ice Box.” Folks who visit it today don’t quibble much about the asking price. Author John Underwood in his book, An Empire in the Making, explained that Juneau’s Treadwell Mine, alone, produced more than seven times the original purchase price of the state before the mine collapsed in 1917.

 

Sitka, Alaska

Sitka, Alaska

 

Things to Do in Sitka

Larger than England, Spain, France, and Italy combined, Alaska is a nature lover’s paradise. With more than 12,000 rivers, 3,000,000 lakes, and 1,000 glaciers, it is a prime destination for those who love the wilderness. For nature enthusiasts who visit Sitka, there are opportunities for whale watching, alpine hiking, hiking along Indian River, and fishing. Bird lovers will not want to miss the Alaska Raptor Center, and those passionate about history will want to make their first stop at Castle Hill, where once Tlingit children played around the Kiksadi clan houses but where, in 1833, the Russians built a castle for Baranov’s living quarters. Although the castle no longer stands, the view is worth the short climb.

No trip to Sitka would be complete without an evening at Ludvig’s Bistro. The aroma of King crab, prawns, calamari, scallops, and salmon entice passersby to drop in and enjoy both the food and the ambiance. Most all seafood served has been netted that very day and delivered by local fisherman.

In the Sitka evening, when the Naa Kahidi Dancers walk upon the stage of the Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi, a structure designed in the form of a Tlingit long house, visitors sit enraptured. The dancers, dressed in native costumes, begin to chant softy as they sway. Their feet, enclosed in soft leather moccasins and their steps synchronized to the ancient beat of the hand drum, they dance just as their ancestors did centuries before. The distant past, that time long before Peter the Great commissioned Vitus Bering’s maritime adventures, comes alive again.

 

child (1)

Naa Kahidi Dancer

 

One can easily imagine the Raven Clan dancing around the campfire on the ancient shores of the Pacific as Raven, the being which the Tlingit believe brought the world into existence, perches atop totems created in his honor. In the glorious, rugged land of Alaska, Raven still down looks majestically over his creation, while names such as Vitus Bering and Alexandr Baranov, more and more, fade away into the annals of history and while the sea otters and the seals continue to safely repopulate their mysterious, underwater world. Yes, Alaska is America’s last frontier, and I can think of no better place to begin exploring our northern state than deep in the primeval Tongass Rainforest and along the shores of Sitka.

 

Sitka 144

Whale Watching in Sitka

 

 

 

Suggested Resources

In the Beginning Was the Word: The Russian Church and Native Alaskan Cultures (Library of Congress)

Exploration and Settlement on the Alaskan Coast

The Cremation of Sam McGee

Sitka National Historic Park

The Tlingit Culture

Welcome to Sitka, Alaska

Purchase of Alaska, 1867