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A new look at an old battle

Posted: Tuesday, November 16, 2010

"It was called the "Kake War" of 1869 but few people today know of it, said Zachary Jones, archivist with the Sealaska Heritage Institute.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Among those who are aware of it are the Kéex' Kwaan Tlingit of the Kake area, as well as other areas where related battles were fought, including Sitka, Wrangell and Cape Fox.

Jones spoke of his research as part of a series of talks held at the Sealaska Building during Native American Heritage Month. He's been using Tlingit oral histories to add to the official record of the clashes, and has been filling in a picture that's been bases mostly on Caucasian written records.

The picture it paint is does not reflect well on the U.S. Army, he said.

"This is a situation where the U.S. Army attacked the Tlingit people," he said.

In 1869, the United States had just purchased Alaska from Russia, but the residents of Alaska, including the Tlingit people of Southeast Alaska, weren't happy about that, Jones said.

"Was the land for sale?" asked Nora Dauenhauer, who already knew the answer.

Jones said one of the reasons for difficult relations between the Tlingits and the U.S. Army, which has been put in charge of the newly acquired territory, was the Tlingits didn't think their ancestral homeland was the Russians' to sell.

The military commander in Alaska, Jefferson Davis, served as governor of the area and enforced the rule of the United States with the cannon of the U.S.S. Saginaw, a gunboat operated by the army.

Davis, unrelated to the Confederate president of the same name, noted at the time the Native people didn't like the U.S. intrusion on their lands.

"The Tlingit do not like the idea of whites settling in their midst without being subject to their jurisdiction," Davis reported in 1869.

Those resentments, as well as communication errors, led to clashes at Sitka during which unarmed Kéex'' Kwaan who were visiting there were killed, and then retaliatory killings that escalated things, Jones said.

Davis sent the Saginaw to punish the Kéex'' Kwaan, but it arrived to find several communal houses apparently vacant, Jones said.

Failing to find anyone to fight, the soldiers shelled the village and burned the houses, destroying stocks food and plank houses needed for shelter.

Sadly, one fatality was documented, Jones said.

"An old lady was burned in the fire because she was too old and frail to rise from her bed (and flee) and most likely assumed that the soldiers wouldn't hurt her," he said.

The soldiers reported their actions had not killed anyone, which was reported in the official account, but Jones said he learned from oral histories not only of the Kake death but the Tlingit side of how the conflict developed.

The previous narrative of the U.S. Army fighting criminal Alaska Natives has been filled in with oral histories that explained the Tlingit side for the first time, Jones said.

That includes a series of errors by the army, and their brutal - and likely illegal under the laws of war - retaliation on the Tlingit, he said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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