Museums in Sitka, Alaska
Two virtually adjacent museums are well worth a visit for anyone travelling the Gulf of Alaska: the Sheldon Jackson Museum and the Sitka National Historic Park. Both are within easy walking distance of each other and the two jetties where cruise ship visitors land in Sitka. Both museums have an interesting range of exhibits that illustrate Sitka’s fascinating and important local history.
The local Tlingit Indians, as they call themselves, take pride in a very ancient and rich heritage. Their amazingly detailed and consistent verbal history correlates strongly with a number of archeologically verifiable markers, including a massive eruption of the nearby now-dormant volcano, Mount Edgecumbe, some 8000 years ago. The eruption covered the Sitka area with ash as much as seven metres deep but this catastrophe coincided with a retreating ice cap and the amazingly fertile land quickly recovered.
In turn, this encouraged a northward migration of the people who became known as the Tlingits. They evolved into the two moieties that persist today: the Eagles and the Ravens. Plentiful fish, game and other resources shaped a rich and diverse culture that is recorded in epic songs and poems, as well as artefacts that include beautifully carved totem poles.
Traders, seamen, warriors
The Tlingits became sophisticated traders, expert seamen and fearsome warriors. They constructed substantial wooden buildings within fortified villages, carved huge totem poles and conducted complex ceremonies, including their fascinating potlatch. (See Tlingit: Their art and culture.)
In the 1700s, the Tlingits traded furs with Spanish, British, Russian and American ships for items such as manufactured goods, iron, flour, tea, blankets, tools, firearms and ammunition. Situated on Baranof Island, Sitka used to be the headquarters of the Russian fur trading enterprises in America. It now houses 8600-odd permanent residents and is notable because it was here in 1802 that the local Kiks.ádi clan of the Tlingit people lost patience with Russians brutally colonising their land and enslaving their people. After all, the Tlingit were slave owners, not slaves.
Armed chiefly by British (e.g. Hudson Bay Company) and other French, Spanish and American traders, warrior chieftain Katlian, wielding a blacksmith’s hammer and wearing a Raven helmet, led a raid that destroyed the main Russian Sitka fort. His braves massacred nearly all of the Russian fur traders and their despised Aleut slaves.
Anticipating a Russian counterattack, the Tlingits rebuilt the fort. They did not have long to wait. The Russians returned in 1804 with a fleet that included 550 kayaks filled with 600-odd Aleuts. The Chief Manager of the Russian American Company, Alexandr Baranov, was soon seriously wounded, but under the command of Lysyansky, after six days’ intensive fighting, including bombardment at two cables (183 metres) by the Russian sloop Neva (ex-HMS Thames) and three smaller ships, the Russians forced the Kiks.ádi out of their homeland of 2,000 years. Smallpox, tuberculosis, influenza and other introduced diseases soon decimated the wandering Tlingits.
Exploiting their Aleut slaves, the Russian-American Company became the most profitable fur trader in the world until over-harvesting led to a sea otter and fur seal population decline in the mid-1800s. Additionally, fashions changed and profits fell.
The United States purchased Alaska from a cash-strapped Russia for a bargain $7.2 million in 1867. Sitka remained the seat of territorial government until it yielded this title in 1906 to Juneau with its hordes of gold-seeking Yukon-bound “stampeders”.
Christian missionaries of one denomination or another came in waves after 1804, ostensibly seeking the salvation of the local Tlingits’ souls, whether the Tlingits wanted their souls saved or not. One particularly vigorous Presbyterian, the Reverend Dr. Sheldon Jackson, backed by powerful Washington friends, became Alaska’s first General Agent for Education. Tragically, he attempted to erase indigenous culture and replace it with his version of Protestantism, causing incalculable confusion and harm to many Tlingits and other North-Western Indians. On the other hand, between 1888 and 1889, Jackson collected more than 5000 Indian culture artefacts, many of which might have been lost. A large number of these may be seen in the Sheldon Jackson Museum, Sitka, which Jackson opened in 1889.
Resigned to become nothing much more than just another small sleepy fishing village, Sitka suddenly found itself host to 20,000 military personnel in WW II. The USN established a large Naval Air Station nearby and the Army set up coastal fortifications, including one of the earliest American radar stations, on a nearby mountain top. Oddly, although the foundations remain, no photograph of this particular 180-mile range radar station is known to exist.
Sitka quietly resumed its somnolent state after WW II with its permanent population dropping rapidly to less than 10,000. Tourism returned slowly to about 5000 visitors a year but in recent years it has recorded a dramatic upswing. Sitka might see 5000 and more tourists disembarking every summer’s day from the here-today-gone-tomorrow huge cruise ships that swing at anchor out in the bay.
Perhaps the most prized object in the Sheldon Jackson Museum is Katlian’s Raven helmet, worn in the 1802 uprising. Other items include delicately carved masks, baskets and intricately woven cloth. There are also a number of old sealskin kayaks and weapons on display.
Summer visiting hours are 0900 to 1700 daily, but the Sheldon Jackson Museum closes on holidays. Admission is US$4 per person and further details may be found at www.museums.state.ak.us.
Sitka National Historic ParkThe Sitka National Historic Park dates from 1902, when the collection began. It is very close to being the best site in the world, after the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, to see original and reproduced totem poles (left). More than 30 of these huge monsters, both under cover and out in the open, record the history of the local people, their families and important historical events.
The park also houses the site of the original Russian fort of 1799, now little more than a grassy mound. On the soft pine-needle trail through the tall trees bald eagles, squirrels and other wildlife abound. The trail passes many totem poles, each with its own discrete plaque explaining its historical relevance.
In conjunction with the Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Centre, the park’s visitor centre displays an interesting collection of historical artefacts and photographs. It also offers a 12-minute video that describes some of the more important historical events that shaped the area.
The Visitor Centre is open daily, May through September, and there is a small charge for those who do not have a Golden Age Passport issued by the National Parks Service. For further details see the website: http://www.nps.gov/sitka.