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Shelling of Angoon a dark part of past injustice

Posted: June 11, 2011 - 5:46pm

For the many years I have lived in Alaska, I have heard many stories concerning the shelling of the Alaskan Native American village of Angoon on Oct. 22, 1882. The fact is that after all these years bad feelings still remain on both sides, concerning, what I would like to term as, a tragedy. Yes, a tragedy that did not need to happen but one that was bound to happen. In order to understand this, you need to look back in history to see how each side got into the frame of mind to create this debacle.

The first written accounts indicate the first Europeans reached Alaska from Russia. In 1648 Semyon Dezhnev sailed from the Kolyma River through the Arctic Ocean around the tip of Asia to the Anadyr River. The legend holds that some of his boats were carried off course and were carried to Alaska. There has been no evidence of a settlement. Also, his discovery was never forwarded to the central government, leaving open the question of whether or not Siberia was connected to North America.

In 1725, Tsar Peter I of Russia called for another expedition. Two ships set sail from the port of Petropavlovsk in Kamchatka in June of 1741. The St. Peter was captained by Dane Vitus Bering and the St. Paul was captained by Alexi Chirikov. The two ships became separated and on July 15, Chirikov sighted what is now believed to be the west side of Prince of Wales Island. On roughly July 16, Bering and his crew sighted Mount Saint Elias. Both ships turned back toward Russia to carry the word of their find. However Bering’s ship was wrecked on what is now called Bering Island. Bering fell ill and died but his crew reached Kamchatka later in 1742. The sea otter pelts they brought back with them soon were judged to be the finest furs in the world and sparked the Russian settlement of Alaska.

Small associations of fur traders began to sail from Siberia toward the Aleutian Islands. Expeditions lasting two to four years or more caused the crews to establish hunting and trading posts. By the 1790s, these became permanent settlements. Rather than hunting the marine life for themselves, the Russians forced the Aleuts to do the work for them. As word spread of the riches in furs to be had, competition among Russian companies increased and the Aleuts were forced into slavery. The growing competition between the trading companies, merging into fewer, larger and more powerful corporations, created a situational conflict that aggravated the relations with the Alaskan natives. Over the years the situation became catastrophic.

The Shelikhov-Golikov Company (later called the Russian-American Company) established a monopoly that turned the systematic violence, caused by the ill treatment of the natives, into a tool of colonial exploitation. Between the native losses caused by battles fought and the Old World diseases, against which they had no immunity, 80 percent of the Aleut population was destroyed. The company moved to Three Saints Bay on Kodiak Island to set up what would become the city of Kodiak. In the process they killed hundreds of Koniag Alaska Natives. Later many of the Russian members of the colony took Koniag wives and started families whose names continue in the Kodiak community today.

In 1790 the company hired Alexandr Baranov to manage the Alaskan fur enterprise. In 1795. Baranov, concerned by the sight of non-Russian Europeans trading with the Natives of Southeast Alaska, established Mikhailovsk six miles north of present-day Sitka. He bought the land from the Tlingits. The Kiks.a’di objected to the Russian traders’ custom of taking native women as their wives, and were constantly taunted by other Tlingit clans who looked upon the “Sitkas” as the outsiders’ kalga, or slaves. The Kiks.a’di came to realize that the Russians’ continued presence demanded their allegiance to the Tsar, and they therefore were expected to provide free labor to the company. So, in 1802, while Baranov was away, Tlingits from a neighboring settlement attacked and destroyed Mikhailovsk. Following the Kiks.a’di victory, Tlingit Shaman Stoonookw (confident that the Russians would soon return, and in force) urged the Clan to construct a new fortification that was capable of withstanding cannon fire, and provided an ample water supply. The Sitkas sent messages to their allies requesting assistance, but none was forthcoming; they would face the Russian fleet on their own. The Tlingit chose to construct the roughly 240-foot-by-165-foot Shis’ki Noow (the fort of Young Saplings) at the high water line near the mouth of the Indian River to take advantage of the long gravel beach flats that extend far out into the bay; it was hoped that the shallows would prevent the Russian ships from attacking the installation at close range.

The Battle of Sitka (1804) was the last major armed conflict between Europeans and Alaska natives. It was initiated in direct response to the destruction of Mikhailovsk and the native village two years prior. The primary combatant groups were the Kiks.a’di (Frog/Raven) Clan of Sheet’-ka’ X’aat’l (Baranof Island) of the Tlingit nation and the Russian-American Company assisted by the Imperial Russian Navy. Baranov and the Russian navy came with a sloop-of-war called the Neva plus two other armed sailing ships. The battle began Oct. 1 and lasted until Oct. 7. Baranov was injured on the first day. On the fourth day the Tlingits departed the fort undetected under the cover of darkness. It wasn’t until the seventh the Russians’ landed a contingent of troops to secure the beachhead. To their great surprise, none of the natives were to be found. Baranov returned and built the settlement of New Archangel. It became the capital of Russian America and today it is called the city of Sitka. Skirmishes continued to be fought between the Tlingit and the Russians through the 1850s.

By the 1860s, the Russian government was considering ridding itself of its Russian America colony. Zealous overhunting had severely reduced the fur-bearing animal population, and competition from the British and Americans exacerbated the situation. This, combined with the difficulties of supplying and protecting such a distant colony, brought about a waning interest. After Russian America was sold to the U.S. in 1867, all the holdings of the Russian-American Company were liquidated. Following the transfer, many elders of the local Tlingit tribe maintained that “Castle Hill,” in Sitka, comprised the only land that Russia was entitled to sell. Native land claims were not addressed until the latter half of the 20th century, with the signing of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

With the purchase of Alaska, the American military moved into Sitka and set up a military governorship. I’m pretty sure the Russian government was glad to be rid of this rather expensive problem. It wasn’t until gold and other minerals were found that Russia began to have second thoughts.

I think from the native point of view, the change from one white group to another did not seem to be a very big deal. The only real immediate change was the language spoken by the white people and the religion they were pushing. Beyond that, the treatment seemed similar or better at least initially. The Americans did not have the negative history the Russians had with the Tlingits and there seemed to be no need to carry on with the skirmishes they had been having with the Russians. So things began peacefully.

As time passed, the Native people were able to find jobs with the American companies. However, there was a custom that the Natives demanded adherence to and that was that if a Native was killed or injured by another or by a white man, his surviving relatives could demand from the parties, who were responsible, a certain payment or tribute consisting generally of blankets; when this levy was made it meant pay or die. The military government did not like this practice (a kind of insurance policy) and tried to break it up but without any luck. Many of the companies agreed to it in order to receive cheap labor but the agreement was never meant to be honored as far as they were concerned. It wasn’t long until an incident occurred that was the beginning of a dark chapter in Alaskan history.

While cutting down a tree for the Northwest Trading Company at Killisnoo, a Tlingit was killed when the tree fell on him. Immediately a certain number of blankets were levied as a fine upon the company by his relatives, and payment demanded. The company refused. Matters remained in status quo until the USS Adams with Cmdr. Edgar Merriman arrived. A complaint was made to him by the superintendent of the company along with a request to be extracted from Killisnoo. Merriman informed the Natives that in future no such payments should either be demanded or enforced as far as white men were concerned; that if they persisted in such a course he would punish them severely and that in this instance the company would and should not pay. The Natives submitted with bad grace.

On Oct. 22, 1882 while the Northwest Trading Company was whaling in the Kottzenoo Lagoon, a bomb, shot from the whale-boat at a whale, accidentally exploded and killed a Native shaman who composed one of the crew. The almost all-Native crew overpowered the two white men in the boat and took them prisoner; captured the boat, nets, whaling gear, and steam launch of the company and demanded payment of two hundred blankets for the dead man.

The company superintendent got up steam on the company’s tugboat “Favorite” and left for Sitka for aid from the naval commander. Upon hearing the story from the superintendent, Merriman placed a howitzer and Gatling gun on the “Favorite,” sought the cooperation of the revenue-marine steamer Corwin along with a force of about 100 Marines and sailors, and started himself for Angoon, picking up the USS Adams on the way.

Upon arriving at the lagoon, Merriman arrested two Natives he thought were the ringleaders and got the two principal chiefs of the tribe on board the Corwin. He informed them that instead of the Northwest Trading Company paying anything, he would fine them four hundred blankets, payable the next morning, under penalty of having their canoes destroyed and principal village shelled and burnt. On the following day, the Natives having failed to come up with the blankets, Merriman made good on his threat, destroyed their canoes, and shelled and burned the village.

As there was hardly anyone in the village of Angoon at the time, there was little or no immediate loss of life. However, because it was just before winter set in, the entire food storage for the village was destroyed and many did not survive the winter.

The attitude of both the Russians and the Americans was one of absolute superiority. The Natives were treated like children. If they got out of line they were punished. A white man’s life was sacred; if you killed, hurt, or in any way damaged him you as a Native were in big trouble; few questions were asked. Unlike the Russians, the Americans had a Constitution the said that everyone would be treated equally. The U.S. had just fought the Civil War that was supposed to free the slaves and yet American natives continued to be treated, to some extent, worse than the southern black slaves. Finally, on Sept. 14, 1982 (almost 100 years later) a letter was sent to Charlie Jim Sr., vice chairman of the Kootznoowoo Heritage Foundation, from Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Manpower and Reserve Affairs John S. Herrington that officially acknowledged the Navy’s involvement in the affair saying, “The destruction of Angoon should never have happened, and it was an unfortunate event in our history.”

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