Historic perspective

'Russians in Tlingit America' book sheds new light on Sitka battles of 1802 and 1804

Posted: Thursday, October 02, 2008

The historical battles between Tlingits and Russians near present day Sitka at the dawn of the 19th century were more significant than most people likely acknowledge, linguist and author Richard Dauenhauer said.

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"I think the battles of 1802 and 1804 are part of that history that ultimately shaped the entire American map of the United States in later years," he said.

Had the Russians not come back in 1804 to vanquish a coalition of Tlingit warriors that had soundly defeated the European colonists in 1802, things could have been very different in Alaska over the next 200 years, Dauenhauer said.

"I would speculate if the Tlingits had won in 1804 we would probably be part of the British Empire today," he said. "I think the British would have gradually expanded the Hudson Bay Company and (Alaska) wouldn't have been part of the United States."

However, Russia was able to maintain its grip on the lucrative fur-trading grounds of Alaska after the battle of 1804, and went on to broker a deal with the United States for $6.7 million more than 60 years later, setting the future course of the Last Frontier.

Dauenhauer, along with his wife, Nora Marks Dauenhauer, and the late anthropologist Lydia T. Black of Fairbanks, compiled, translated and edited a book published in June that provides new insights into the events surrounding the historic battles and the roles they played in a pivotal period of Alaska's history. "Anóoshi Lingít Aaní Ká: Russians in Tlingit America - The Battles of Sitka 1802 and 1804" is a richly detailed book comprised of Tlingit oral narratives, Russian manuscripts and other historic documents that took more than 20 years to complete. It is the fourth installment in the Dauenhauers' acclaimed "Classics of Tlingit Oral Literature" series published by University of Washington Press in cooperation with Sealaska Heritage Institute.

"It's in the language of Tlingit, Russian and English," Nora Marks Dauenhauer said. "I want the Tlingits to know that this is their history. They could study from this."

The Dauenhauers will present a lecture on the project and sign copies of the book beginning at 7 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 3, at the Alaska State Museum.

The catalyst of the project was an oral narrative by Tlingit speaker Sally Hopkins recorded by the National Park Service in Sitka in August of 1958 that the Hopkins family asked Nora Marks Dauenhauer to translate in the 1980s. The project soon grew to include another oral narrative from Alex Andrews, also recorded by the National Park Service in Sitka in July of 1960. But the groundwork for the book would stall soon after it began.

"We always work with the consent of the community," Richard Dauenhauer said. "In this case there wasn't really a consensus. Some community people wanted it done and other prominent members of the community did not want it done."

The project would sit on the shelf until around 2000 when a new generation of Tlingit elders took interest in presenting the information, the Dauenhauers said. They then received consent from the proper tribal leaders and moved forward.

There were both positives and negatives associated with the interruption. Many of the fluent Tlingit-speaking elders had passed away in the intervening years, leaving lots of questions unanswered, Richard Dauenhauer said.

"The people that could have answered those questions were gone," he said.

In the meantime, however, the Soviet Union had ceased to exist and documents that had been inaccessible for decades became available to use for research.

"There was a lot of stuff in Soviet archives that were really valuable," Richard Dauenhauer said. "There were also a lot of colleagues that we knew and they were not completely free to travel and exchange material. So we were able then to benefit from the opening of the former Soviet archives to include material. There's stuff in the book here that has never been published, even in Russian."

Some of those documents include translations of handwritten material by Alexandr Baranov, the chief manager of the influential Russian-American Co. that warred with the Tlingits.

The documents helped shed light on the events that led up to and followed the battles and have helped add context to the period and dispel some of the stereotypes, he said.

"The stereotypes that you have often are so superficial, like the 'nasty, warlike disgruntled Tlingits' taking on the 'nasty, mean ol' Russians.' But there was a lot going on and a lot building up to it," said Richard Dauenhauer, adding that the period is extremely complicated.

The records have also helped validate the Tlingit oral traditions derived from the period.

"One of the things that we've been able to do from the Russian records is match up some of the oral traditions," Richard Dauenhauer said.

"I heard the story of the battle, probably most of my life in Tlingit, so when I heard the story in the tapes I recognized some people, especially the person Gidák, who was a sharpshooter," Nora Marks Dauenhauer said. "My dad always admired him that he was a sharpshooter. My dad was a hunter."

Richard Dauenhauer said the oral traditions and the historical Russian documents helped provide a clearer picture of the events.

"What's exciting to us here is you have all of the different voices," he said. "We have the Tlingit voices speaking for themselves, and we have the accounts of the Russians. Wherever possible we dealt with firsthand accounts, or as firsthand as we could get."

The Tlingit oral narratives translated into English also add cultural context to the events, Richard Dauenhauer said.

"Sally Hopkins was the woman's point of view, and if you don't pay very, very careful attention you miss the battle," he said. "But she's got before and after and what the social impacts are. And her main concerns were talking to her descendants, saying, 'You guys are part of this history.'"

The translation of Andrews' narrative is comparable in ways to the work of the ancient Greek poet Homer, Richard Dauenhauer said.

"It's the blood and thunder. It's blow-by-blow and just exciting reading," he said. "It's like reading the Iliad or the Odyssey - guys getting speared and so on and so forth."

The book also adds more depth to monumental figures involved in the battles, including the celebrated Kiks.ádi warrior K'alyáan and Russian naval commander Iurii Lisianski.

"There are a lot of exciting, to me, things in the book, for example the eyewitness accounts of the battle of 1802," Richard Dauenhauer said.

The Dauenhauers plan to discuss their favorite parts of the book at the lecture on Friday and possibly read some passages. There also are some artifacts referenced in the book that are on permanent display at the state museum that will be discussed at the lecture with the assistance of curator Steve Henrikson.

The Dauenhauers said the battles of 1802 and 1804 in Sitka are still very much a part of the cultural fabric of the region.

"It was a very complicated event and it's alive and well today. There are people whose descendants are in the community today, whose ancestors are in the book," Richard Dauenhauer said. "People whose ancestors are in the book are by and large very aware of their identity and how they are connected."

• Contact reporter Eric Morrison at 523-2269 or eric.morrison@juneauempire.com.

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