50 State Bucket List #4
The first thing I asked the bus driver who shuttled us to the Old Town section of Sitka was, “where is the house where The Proposal was filmed?” To my amazement and dismay, she told me the movie was filmed in Massachusetts for budget reasons. After my anger dissipated and I began to learn the history of the settlement of Sitka, it became apparent that Hollywood still exploits and misrepresents Alaskan natives for profit under the guise of entertainment.
I chose to do my own walking tour of the city to gain insight into the character of the present city while learning about its settlement. Sitka’s history is unique among Alaskan cities because the Russians were the first to occupy this area when explorers came to hunt seal and sea otter for their valuable furs. Settlement meant taking over not only the land but conquering the people who already lived here.
The Tlingit were well-settled in Shee At’ika’ when Russian fur traders first came to their homeland in the 18th Century. The Tlingets were welcoming but wary of the traders who brought desirable items such as iron tools and cotton clothing but who violated territorial claims. Because the Tlingit believed in ownership of property they resisted the efforts of the Russians and successfully drove them from the land in 1802. In 1804, however, the Russian Baranov returned with battleships fortified with a crew of Haida slave warriors and drove the Tlingit back at the Battle of Sitka to raise the Russian flag and establish a foothold here. In repeated fashion of the stories of Manifest Destiny, American businessmen and Christian missionaries soon followed. The initial church that had the most impact, however, was the Russian Orthodox Church.
The original St. Michael’s Cathedral was designed by Bishop Innocent and constructed between 1844 and 1848 with funding from a Russian-American Company. The bell tower atop the magnificent structure can be seen from almost any point in Old Town. After the Russians left in 1867, the Church continued due to the conversion of so many Tlingit to the faith. The Tlingit had been drawn to the Church that offered education and instruction using their native language.
In 1867, the Russians sold the territory to the United States due to the fact that overfishing and hunting had made the territory unprofitable for them. Castle Hill, once a Tlingit village was turned over to the United States in a flag raising ceremony in October of 1867. That’s when the Tlingit, like other indigenous people living in US occupied land became subject to the boarding school system and the loss of their language, religion and everything Tlingit. Large numbers of the Tlingit converted to the Russian Orthodox Church at that time rather than lose their language in the American boarding schools. The Russian Orthodox Church is still strong in Sitka today even though most of the Russians left after the United States took over the territory. The devotion to the Church is illustrated by the actions of the people when an inferno created by a fire in downtown Sitka destroyed the Church’s Bell Tower and Clock.
The townspeople had managed to save most of the Church’s icons and property before the fire consumed the building. Soon after the fire, workers meticulously reconstructed the Clock and Bell Tower using drawings that had been prepared as part of an Historic Buildings Survey. The building is a beautiful centerpiece to the table of Old Sitka, inviting all to come have a taste of the unique flavor of the city. Other historic buildings, however, left a bitter taste in my mouth like the Russian tea served by park rangers outside the Russian Bishop’s House.
When Russian officials transferred ownership of Alaska to the United States and the American flag was raised on Castle Hill – the site of the Battle of Sitka- native children were compelled to leave their villages and abandon their cultural traditions that left a void in this proud native culture that resonates even today. The school’s emphasis on self-improvement, however, helped to foster a political movement known as the Alaskan Native Brotherhood (ANB) and Alaskan Native Sisterhood (ANS) which have played an instrumental role in fighting discrimination and securing political as well as land rights for Alaska’s native people.
Both these organizations have fought for and attained Workmen’s Compensation rights and the right of Native children to attend public school. In 1929 The ANB/ANS initiated what became the first Alaska Native land claims suit. As more lands are returned, there has become a movement of collaboration with the United States Forest Service and the Native Alaskans to begin projects to protect this giant wilderness that is home to not only native cultures but also home to plant and wildlife that needs the respect and treatment that the natives know how to give in order to do this. There are also many plants and herbs growing here that the Tlingit know how to use for their medicinal value, and many of these treatments are gaining respect among medical professionals all over the world.
During my discussion with Mame at Glacier Bay, I had asked her about native health issues and traditional versus western treatments. Mame told me that the most serious health threat today is cancer and that natives have a choice whether to use native herbal treatments or the harsh chemo and radiation therapies of western medicine. She said she had two uncles who had cancer and chose the herbal treatments. “They were able to live and work with the disease for many years before their death”, she said. Returning to native herbal health care and sharing that with the western world is a gift given to us by this once proud and prosperous culture. I was reminded of what we have given to them in return in an incident atop Castle Hill which will be featured in the next blog.