Alaska-Siberia Research Center director reviews Dauenhauer book

Posted: Sunday, January 11, 2009

"Russians in Tlingit America: The Battles of Sitka, 1802 and 1804," edited by Nora Marks Dauenhauer, Richard Dauenhauer and Lydia T. Black.

The Second International Conference on Russian America was held in Sitka in August 1987. Many essays by various authors, Tlingit oral traditions, and translated documents from Russian into English, included in the monograph under review, were presented in one of the conference's symposia. For this monograph, divided into nine topical sections, the editors added for the first time Tlingit oral recollections recorded almost half a century ago, several articles on the Russian-Tlingit encounters in 1741, 12 appendixes, gazetteer, glossary, plates, maps and figures.

The subtitle of the book, The Battles of Sitka, 1802 and 1804, suggests that the information compiled in this edition would be focused on the events that took place in Southeast Alaska in 1802 and 1804. Nevertheless, the editors included in this edition a material either chronologically distant from these two dates (e.g. articles on the Captain Chirikov's encounters with Tlingits in Southeast Alaska in July of 1741), or the subject matters only indirectly related to the Russian-Tlingit relations (e.g. Appendix 4, The Raven Helmet; or Appendix 10, Russian, Aleut, and Euro-American Names, etc.).

In this edition, the editors stated that: "For the Tlingit of Sitka, the battles of 1802 and 1804 were a watershed. Our view is that these events were a turning point not only in Tlingit history but in the multicultural history of Alaska, and ultimately of American history. The popular memory of the Battles of Sitka, like the Battle of the Alamo in Texas, has merged the streams of history and myth, and they now flow together" (p. xiii).

This is an ambitious statement. One may argue (S. G. Fedorova, Russkaya Amerika v zapiskakh Kirila Khlebnikova. Moscow: Nauka, 1985, p. 6) that Tlingits' attack of the fort Novoarkhangelsk at Old Sitka, and massacres of 16 Russian and Alutiiq men, women and children in 1802; and then Russian retaliation against Tlingits in 1804 would be difficult to classify as a turning point in history.

A turning point in history is a point at which a very significant change occurs. Sometimes a turning point has immediate repercussions, making its significance obvious to people at the time; and sometimes the impact of an event is clear only in retrospect. A turning point can be a personal choice affecting millions; it can be an event or idea with global or local consequences; and it can be the life of a single person who inspires or affects other people.

According to the editors: "The book raises, and hopefully answers (at least to a degree), the fundamental question of who owns history (p. xv). From the Tlingit point of view, the history belongs primarily, if not exclusively, to the Kiks.ádi, a Raven moiety clan associated with Sitka, because the events took place on their land, and their ancestors died defending it from foreign invasion. From the Tlingit point of view, an unauthorized telling constitutes stealing, and one often hears the accusation 'They stole our history' or 'They stole our language'" (p. xiii).

From the academic point of view, however, history is not owned by a nation or any given ethnic group. History is a social process, the development and evolution of mankind from the past through the present and to the future. It tries to form a picture of all things that happened to the human race from its origin upon the earth to the present moment.

It is also important to stress that many historic material and textbooks published prior to the 1990s describe the Russian period of Alaska's history as a bloody and ruthless colonization of northern territories. Russia's Eastward expansion into Siberia, the Far East and Alaska was motivated by exploration of new hunting territories (James R. Gibson, Feeding the Russian Fur Trade. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1969). Often Russian explorers were ruthless toward an aboriginal population, but overall this movement was much more humane than colonization of Australia or colonization of North American territories in the Lower 48. The aboriginal population in Siberia and Alaska had not been placed on reservations or dislocated from their homeland as they were in the Lower 48.

In summary, in spite of my disagreement with the editors on several methodological and theoretical issues, I found their monograph a significant work that will be used as a reference for a long time. The monograph is well designed, illustrated and printed by the University of Washington Press. I highly recommend it both for students of Alaska studies and those interested in the Russian-Tlingit relations of the Russian-American period in Alaska.

• Alexander Dolitsky is director of the Alaska-Siberia Research Center and is a Juneau resident.

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