As Native American Heritage Month has come to a close, Sealaska Heritage Institute concluded its lecture series Monday with a lecture on the importance of Tlingit communications and understanding.
Cyril George Sr. spoke to a packed room on how failure to communicate led to problems between Angoon Natives and the federal government that last to this day. George is a clan leader of Deisheetaan of Angoon and Kaakáak'w Hít. He spoke on how proper communications and cultural understandings are integral to Tlingit relations, both in the past and today.
The focus of his story regarded an 1882 incident when the U.S. Navy bombarded Angoon based on such misunderstandings, an incident for which Angoon Natives are still awaiting a formal apology.
This bombardment followed the death of a Native shaman who was accidentally killed on a whaling vessel. The Angoon people demanded payment for this death in accordance with Tlingit law, but were seen as a threat and attacked.
SHI's head of special collections, Zachary Jones, added the funerary celebrations were also misinterpreted as preparations for war, which further incited the Navy to the attack which ultimately killed several children and destroyed much of the village and food supplies.
"The main point is from the first time I hear this bombardment story, we were always told it was an accident. We need to set the record straight," he said on how even though it was based on an accident, the devastation was based on cultural misunderstandings and continue along similar lines today.
"The Navy has not apologized," he said.
Jones said it was an example of how Tlingit cultures have been misunderstood and resulted in shooting first and asking questions later.
"In looking at the historical documents of the individuals who perpetrated this attack, you can see how they spent a lot of time justifying what they had done, more time than was necessary," said Jones.
The Navy did pay $90,000 following a 1973 damages lawsuit. George said the insulting aspect of this is that the amount not only valued the property at their 1880s values instead of accounting for a century of inflation, but also, in a way, valued the deaths of seven children within this amount.
He said the Navy acknowledged its attack should not have happened but never apologized.
George shed light on different connections he's encountered to the incident. He told of how his work led him to talk to several people through the years that felt the effects from the attack, including a woman who found a letter from a relative that gave a first-hand account of it.
A commemoration of the event was put on in 1982. "I got to talk to some of the old people on how they hurt," said George.
To illustrate how much Tlingits value cultural understanding, he expressed how appreciative they were on Angoon when a descendant of one the Navy personnel in the attack came forward to offer a personal apology for his relative's role some years ago.
Elder John Martin gave a tribute to the speaker at the speech's end and said George showed a refreshing perspective on history that demonstrated a need for people to learn to understand each other, linking the past and the present. He said the bombardment story brought out the importance of respect and understanding between cultures. He said this incident also helped introduce Tlingit law to the United States, saying "respect comes from individuals in any man's world."
"It was about setting the record straight from an accurate historical perspective of bombardment and parables and little stories about the duty and love of Tlingit culture," said Tlingit storyteller Ishmael Hope. "He's one of the last tradition bearers that can tell traditional stories in both Tlingit language and English. He's a living cultural treasure and these people, they're like diamonds in the rough because you only have written accounts of things Cyril just knows and he talks about."
George's granddaughter and Sealaska Corp. director Barbara Cadiente-Nelson said as an elder, he serves as a conscience and a voice to those past who suffered the injustice that stemmed from cultural misunderstanding and differences. She said he expressed that hardship and that no matter what the government said it did to alleviate the suffering, it struck a deadly blow to the community. She said his speech expressed the Tlingit virtues of respecting all things and living those values.
Besides this historical incident, George gave several personal stories that helped illustrate Tlingit values. George's speech also likened the bombardment to the loss of language, culture and traditions, and that Angoon is doing its part to recover it by living those values. He said he hopes as time goes on, these traditions will become more widely known and respected.
"Now there are people interested in learning our way and we're thankful," said George.
Martin said these personal stories demonstrated a methodology of survival with a message to try not to violate Tlingit laws of respect.
George was mayor of Angoon for many years and interim director of the original SHI board of directors. He has also been a Kootznoowoo Permanent Fund trustee and chaired the Kootznoowoo Heritage Foundation.
Contact reporter Jonathan Grass at 523-2276 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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