Visiting lecturer tracks 'gun frontier' through Southeast Alaska

There are plenty of ways to buy guns in Juneau. Stores sell them. Individuals sell them. There’s even a Facebook group devoted to buying and selling guns and ammunition in Juneau.


But what was the first gun in Juneau? How about Southeast Alaska?

On Tuesday, George Washington University professor David Silverman explained in a lecture at the Sealaska Heritage Institute that he’s on a quest to answer those very questions.

For the past five years, Silverman has been researching material for a book that tracks what he calls the “gun frontier” — the way firearms spread across North America and were incorporated into American Indian and Alaska Native cultures.

“The argument I’m planning on making in this book,” he explained to an audience of about 20 people who attended the noon lecture, is that “Native people concluded that firearms were the key to the intertribal balance of power.”

His research has found that instead of the simplistic trade relationship often shared in grade school and high school lessons, savvy tribes and groups “used trade, diplomacy and warfare to direct the flow of munitions to themselves and away from their enemies.”

Silverman specializes in the study of American Indian tribes on the East Coast of the U.S., but this project has sent him across the nation and will next take him into Canada as he follows the history of the “gun frontier.”

In Southeast Alaska, he explained, the resistance of the Tlingit to Russian incursion is one of the best examples of how Native people used firearms brought by colonial and imperial nations against those same nations.

Even though Russians were strictly prohibited from selling firearms or alcohol to Alaska Natives, they were incapable of stopping English, French or American traders from doing the same.

“Early modern governments … generally proved incapable of cutting off the flow of munitions,” he explained.

The Tlingit used those munitions most famously in the battles of Sitka during the first decade of the 19th century, and their armed resistance also prevented Russian influence from spreading deeply into Southeast Alaska for decades.

Firearms weren’t just tools of warfare; they were used for hunting and other purposes.

“Guns grew to become some of the consummate tools of Indian manhood,” he said. “Firearms inspired vibrant artistic expression. … I see Native people across time and place in North America revolutionizing their place through the use of guns.”

Silverman expects his as-yet-untitled book to be available by this time next year. A video of the lecture is expected to be made available by SHI on its Facebook page.


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