History: Selective storytelling

Posted: Wednesday, August 12, 2009

This month marks the anniversary of the Klondike gold discovery. By most historical accounts, it was the single most important event responsible for stripping the word "folly" from Seward's purchase of Alaska. The truth, however, is that gold wasn't the first major source of revenue in the territory. From the day the American flag was first raised here in 1867, a private business and the U.S. Treasury began earning substantial profits for fur seals harvested by Aleut "slaves" in the Pribilof Islands.

One of the purposes of teaching history is to instill a sense of respect for cultural values and institutions. It is supposed to build a foundation for civic pride and responsibility. But far too often the history we pass on to the next generation is nothing more than carefully selected story telling by the masters of society. To preserve the purity of our collective image, many serious transgressions are left out of the narratives we've been taught.

The story of the Aleut people in the Pribilof Islands remains largely hidden behind a veil of shame. It's an embarrassing fact that until passage of Fur Seal Act of 1966, they were denied the freedom that African Americans had been granted by Thirteenth Amendment one hundred years earlier.

To call them slaves seems to be a harsh conclusion given that they were paid for their efforts. But it was the word used by former Gov. Sarah Palin last year when she officially declared Oct. 28, 2008 as the 25th Anniversary of St. Paul Island Aleut Independence Day. In the proclamation she commended the people for the courage "to overcome a long history of slavery and oppression" and acknowledged that as late as 1885 they remained "a captive labor force". It states that in 1910 the federal government controlled food, clothing and housing, and even censored letters sent off the island.

But overall the proclamation provides very little detail about the long ordeal of the Aleut people. There are no references to the actual conditions in which they suffered. It doesn't mention that by the time gold was discovered in the Yukon the proceeds from the fur seal harvests in the Pribilofs nearly offset the $7.2 million price tag.

Economics is always prime motivator behind slavery, and harvesting seals in the Pribilofs was no exception. From 1870 to 1890, the Alaska Commercial Company held an exclusive private lease on the Pribilof operation. During that time, they earned a profit of more than $18 million. The federal government received $6 million primarily from a royalty of $2.62 per fur pelt. According to an 1895 New Your Times article, the "Aleut employes (sic)" earned forty cents for each pelt.

The word slave isn't mentioned. It would not only have been politically incorrect, the income they earned was comparable to the wages of other industrial workers elsewhere in the country. Still, it was a paltry sum compared to the earnings by the Alaska Commercial Company and government. Worker exploitation is the modern phase we'd use.

The conditions the Aleuts lived under were oppressive in many other ways, and until 1983 they lacked the freedom to determine their own destiny. The main point though is that the true story is rarely told because it reflects so poorly on our state and national heritage. It seems we as a people lack the courage to be open and honest with many of our past and present mistakes.

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Walter A. McDougall argues the history we teach should be dominated by the ideals and aspirations of our "Euro-American dominant culture." But he also believes we need to include "the bad and ugly ... for only by learning that story will tomorrow's leaders ... know the standards they are supposed to live up to, gain the knowledge needed to excel, and begin to acquire good judgment, without which the power that knowledge imparts is a curse."

False history is not history at all. Our proud traditions can't be protected by denying the injustices exercised by our ancestors. The Aleut's of the Pribilof Islands have a century-long story that should be taught in Alaskan schools, not just for their sake but to guard against future arrogance imparted by the fantasy of American exceptionalism.

• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident.

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