Valerie Grussing: Our first speaker is Jessica Perkins. Jessica grew up in rural Rhode Island and obtained her BA in sociology with honors from the University of New Hampshire. Jess received her Juris Doctorate with a certificate in natural resources and environmental law with a specific focus on American Indian law from Lewis and Clark Law School. After law school she worked eleven years with the Sitka tribe of Alaska, serving as realty officer, resources protection director, and travel attorney. During this time Jess spent many hours researching and pursuing Tlingit land claims through the Sitka area. She also married the son of a Tlingit clan leader and became a member of the Kiksadi clan. After a short stint away from Sitka, she returned to work at Sitka National Historic Park, which was created to commemorate two important pieces of Sitka’s history, the 1804 Tlingit-Russian battleground and the 1843 Russian bishop’s house.
Jessica Perkins: Good morning. First off, typically in the Tlingit culture we give an apology, so if I say anything this morning that offends anybody, I apologize. This is the history as I know it, as I’ve been taught from my Tlingit elders and while I worked at the tribe, important things that folks shared with me.
Where is Sitka? I figured a lot of folks knew about Alaska, and some folks might know about Sitka, but Sitka is in the Southeast panhandle of Alaska, also known as the Alexander Archipelago which is that big picture, that lower part. It’s also a traditional Tlingit village. There is not a lot of archaeology around Sitka. What had been done is at least five thousand years old. It was also the capital of Russian America from 1804 to 1867 and currently it’s a kind of isolated fishing and tourist community with a year-round population of about nine thousand. I know those statistics add up to 110, and that’s because those are how people identify themselves as relating to those heritages.
There is no bridge to Sitka, it is on the outer coast and you can only get there by ferry or plane. As I was doing research for this, I thought it was interesting that I looked at a National Park Service publication, and it talked about the National Historic Landmarks (NHLs) in Sitka. This is a fairly decent rundown of recent history, post contact, of the Sitka area. As you can see it was 1799, we already had the Tlingit people there, then the Tlingits attacked the Russians at one fort site. The Russians left, the Russians came back two years later and we had another battle. At that time the Tlingits retreated. That 1804 battle was an important point and the Russians took over in some people’s minds, but in the Tlingit mind it was a survival march. Then Russian America was there through 1867.
Then the next NHL is the Sheldon Jackson School. Sheldon Jackson is a missionary who brought enlightenment to the people there in Southeast Alaska. The monument was designated, which is a actually a collection of the Sitka National Monument, is a collection of totem poles that were collected by the current territorial governor at the time throughout Southeast Alaska and brought there after bringing it to the World’s Fair. So then after that, the next time the Tlingit people show up is this Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall, so it’s like one building.Then from there the Navy, the Cathedral, the park, and then this bigger picture. I look at that, and if I was an outsider, I would think, “What happened to the Tlingits during that time?” That’s what I’m going to tell you today.
Since 1867 there was a lot of things happening. – 1867 is the transfer from Russia to the United States and like I just recounted, the folks thought it was important to collect the totem poles and other items from out in the forest. Those resources still live in Sitka, but they mostly live at the park or at the Sheldon Jackson Museum.
The government prohibited at the time, any kind of traditional cultural practice. They also forced folks not to speak their language. They weren’t recognized as US citizens until 1924. They weren’t permitted to own any land because they weren’t citizens and they didn’t think that that was okay. They weren’t permitted to vote until 1945 and during World War II, because Sitka was a Naval operating base and a strategic location, which is why the Russians came and why there was a spot there for the World War II, the Navy went out and burned down all the traditional fish camps that were out in the National Forest.
Unbeknownst to the local people, all of the traditional land besides the city of Sitka, had been designated as a National Forest, back between 1902 and 1909. Everybody was still using it just like they always did, nobody said anything. Then the war came and all of their seasonal fish camps were removed. Then of course, there was a lot of… in more recent history, there’s a lot of resource managers that don’t respect or bring in that traditional knowledge when they’re making decisions.
As I said, there’s a missing part in the history, and I alluded to the Kiksadi Survival March. The 1804 battle, after the battle with the Russians which is a big piece of history that I’m not going to try to interpret here, but the Tlingits survived by retreating. What they did is they traveled to a seasonal fish camp that existed at the time somewhere else on the north part of the island at a strategic location. You can only get to Sitka easily or safely, if you don’t have a large ship, through the Inner Passage. There’s one channel you’ve got to go through in order to get there. The Tlingits went up there and staged an embargo. They stopped all the ships from entering or leaving Sitka at the time.
After about twenty years, and it’s hard to get the dates right, but after about twenty years, after staging another village site that they have there closer to Sitka, the Tlingit came back and were permitted or negotiated or something, to live back in Sitka, close to where they used to live. You have the Tlingit village there. This is a painting depiction from 1869 and you can see that there’s a wall. The Russians surrounded their community with a wall and they had block houses and other things up above to protect their village.
The Sitka Indian village as I know it starts in 1830, but I have a feeling that the people were there a long time before that. There is not a lot of archaeology in this area. I talk about things that the elders that were alive when I worked at the tribe, shared with me from about three or four or five generations back. This is what it looked like, you see it was a very maritime culture. They have their canoes and fish drying racks out on the beach. There’s some predominant rocks and things. That’s the wall, and that’s how it looks like up close and you can see basically there was this division. The Russian approach to dealing with the Tlingits was a segregated approach.
This is an interesting picture here. What happened was after 1867 the American way of life was brought forth to the Tlingit people and sanitary laws were used in way, to tell the Tlingit people that they needed to rebuild their houses. In this picture, which is around 1890, you can see that there’s houses being reconstructed there on the waterfront. You can also see the wall that goes through and there’s a block house that’s labeled as #1 up on the right. Down below you can see the flag, so you know this is after America took over. You can see, if you look real close, the difference between the style of houses there.
Like I mentioned, there was this outlying of the Tlingit culture, but the territorial governor at the time did allow for what they called the last great potlatch of 1904. I’m going to read a little quote here, because I think it brings it together. “In 1902, several members approached Governor Brady, a former Presbyterian missionary, and requested that he issue a proclamation that would command all Natives to change and that if they did not they should be punished.
Like other missionaries and governmental officials, Governor Brady considered the potlatch a practice that perpetuated prejudice, superstition, clan rivalry and retarded progress. He was committed to breaking up the offensive clan system and replacing it with the independent family unit, but he was not eager to impose legal sanctions. Therefore in dramatic gesture, Brady decided to endorse one last potlatch at Sitka.”
This is a historical photo of that potlatch. In the Tlingit way, traditionally it’s a matrilineal society that’s built by clans so you have parity, you have a raven and an eagle, and then a raven would marry an eagle and then you inherit your lineage through your mother, my husband is an eagle, so his father’s clan, the Kiksadi, which is a raven clan, adopted me in and then my children, who are Alaska Native, are part of that clan as well and we’ve all been adopted through traditional ceremony and given Tlingit names and basically become part of that clan.
The clan house in that traditional way was the seat of traditional government. Traditional law was, you would bring things to the clan house and the clan leader and they would decide things and they had their own way of dealing with it. The village here, you can see, you can’t see from where you’re sitting, but there’s names for each for each of the clan houses.
My house is called Distinhitch, which is The Steel Bar House. This implies that they had a steel bar on their house and the reason for that was because of the Russians and their house, the Kiksadi houses, were very close to that stockade wall, and you have the house outside the fort. Then you get more, some of the other clans are more like the Koho house, or Eagle’s Nest house, some of those more traditional clan emblem associated names.
What I did, I had a small historic preservation grant from National Park Service as one of my main projects I did at the tribe. I put together the possibility of the village being a historic district. Not being an archaeologist, and understanding the register through section 106 and other things that I did. As a compacted tribe under BAA using Federal funding, I did my best, but it was hard because if you look at this picture, you can tell that there’s all sorts of development there. You can see the traditional houses, but you can also see fish processing plants, and you can see lots of boats in the harbor and these other things.
It was hard for me to – I put together the district nomination, but it was definitely a discontiguous situation. It never felt like I was doing the right analysis. I knew in my heart this was a historic place. I knew in my heart that I held a lot of history and importance to a lot of people. The words I had to use on the paper to match up with that was a disconnect. Part of the challenge is of course, everyone has challenges. The reason why I got into this was there were some clan houses there in Sitka that need some love.
During my tenure and prior to me, due to lack of being able to take care of the houses, we had to take down two houses. That’s troubling to me and it’s troubling to the people. The reason is, short story long, Native allotments provide for inheritance via Western means. That means the traditional clan people and the clan members of those houses are not the current owners. What you have is based on the individual family unit folks.
One time the house on the right was owned by Frank Kitka. It was a Luke Nihadi clan house. Nikoho clan. His children, not Luke Nihadi, they inherited it and then they when they died, because there wasn’t a lot of wills developed and other things for future planning. It’s been inherited down and there’s about 47 different owners who don’t get along. They’re not from that clan, and so it’s hard to get a mass of folks to agree that this is what we want. Some folks want to take it down and put something different up. Some folks want to preserve it as it was. Some folks don’t even want it.
It’s challenging when you look at these things. Each of these houses have been determined eligible. They are on what’s called restricted Indian property. The house on the left suffered, the foundation had some issues, and so we had to do some repair work and during that time we went through the 106 process and determined the eligibility.
If I look at Tlingit country, the Chicaguan as a bigger picture, here you have a picture of what’s called the Chicaguan, that’s the traditional territory of the Sitka tribe. Through the interviewing process of folks that still speak Tlingit, the anthropologist that had on staff at the time was able to collect place names. Every red dot on that map is a place name. To me, that documents that connection to the natural and cultural resources throughout the region.
When I think about cultural landscape and I think about scale, I think about how each of these rivers that flow out into the ocean, it was its own individual landscape, but the back in the day when you would go from place to place it was one big landscape. We have evidence of oyster farming. We have evidence of the different camps and such throughout.
The Tlingit people were a sea-based people and this is from the late 1800s of folks beach seining. The most important resource, some people call it the buffalo, the Tlingit are herring. Herring are a resource that – The eggs are used and the eggs are eaten and the Japanese have a commercial. There’s a commercial fishery that sells all the herring roe to Japan because that’s where the market is.
One of the things when I think about a landscape, a Maritime Cultural Landscape is you’ve got to include, like was said earlier in the conference, the natural resources that include the cultural resource because there’s herring house, there’s people that associate with the herring. Even in the village, we have something that is a very old ceremonial place for the Kiksadi people. On the left hand side is where is used to be. On the right hand side is where an elder I knew – When they were going to do construction in the channel, he had the construction crew take a piece of it and set it aside back in the 70s. Then when that place where he set it aside was going to get developed, he had them move it again.
He finally found a home in front of a place that’s not going to get developed, put a plaque up and every year folks still go ahead and use that for ceremony. In the end, it’s clear to me that the village has significant historic resources. The historic district designation doesn’t feel like the right fit, but I can make it fit, which is turned this word into that word and checking the boxes.
It is a truly Maritime Cultural Landscape. It contains all those elements of ethnographic landscapes as well as vernacular landscape. It’s also part of this larger Tlingit maritime cultural landscape. Alaska is still a lot like the new frontier. There’s a lot of development that folks think are still coming. Yes, it’s currently a national forest, but that doesn’t mean it’ll always be a National Forest. What I did here was try to document those bigger parts of the history that I think are of national significance, including burials and other archaeological resources in the area. There’s a small scale approach and a big scale approach. You can tie landscapes together, or you can look at it small. I think in both cases, the types of resources that are there are important for preservation.