Lecture shares bombardment history, calls for formal reconciliation

In a livestreamed lecture sponsored by Sealaska Heritage Institute, ethnohistorian Zachary Jones presented on the U.S. military's 19th century attacks on the Tlingit villages of Kaachxhaan.áak'w, Kéex' Kwáan and Xutsnoowú Kwáan - present-day Wrangell, Kake and Angoon.

Though the attacks occurred over 150 years ago, their effects are still felt by Tlingit communities today, Jones said, and community leaders are still seeking restitution.

In 1867, the U.S. government paid Russia $7.2 million - less than two cents per acre - for the territory of Alaska and dispatched the Army to govern the land.

Since the Tlingit people controlled the land and water along the Northwest coast, this move amounted to an invasion of a foreign nation, unauthorized by Congress, Jones said, for which "Alaska's Indigenous communities were not consulted or compensated."

The soldiers implementing military rule in the new territory were "not America's best and brightest," he added. Jefferson C. Davis, first commander of the Military District of Alaska, is a prime example - instead of any military accomplishments, he is best known for killing a superior officer and having a name similar to Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

In Alaska, Davis pursued a policy of violent "gunboat diplomacy," Jones said, that would escalate tensions between individual soldiers and Tlingit people into the full-blown destruction of Tlingit villages.

In Kake, soldiers razed three village sites and two forts, then destroyed canoes and food supplies in February of 1869.

Later that year in Wrangell, when a white woman was injured in an altercation at a Christmas party, soldiers shot two Tlingit brothers. After their father - a religious leader - killed a white man in response, soldiers opened fire on the entire Wrangell village, destroying homes.

In 1882, after a false report of a potential uprising in Angoon, Naval Commander Edgar Merriman directed his forces to destroy the village in the middle of winter. Some historians have questioned whether the attack was a premeditated attempt to gain access to rich coal beds near Angoon, said Jones, an archivist with the National Park Service in Anchorage.

The U.S. military has still not issued a formal apology for the attacks, and for the past 150 years tribal citizens in Angoon, Kake and Wrangell have continued to seek redress.

In October 2018, then-Gov. Bill Walker apologized for the harm inflicted on Alaska Native communities by colonization, but the military has not issued a similar statement about its destruction of Native communities in Southeast.

A formal reconciliation to address the bombardments has been discussed, but no definite plans have been made. In 2020, Lt. Gen. Thomas Bussiere met with representatives from Angoon, Kake and Wrangell to learn more about the steps the military could take to reconcile with communities.

"The last group of people from Angoon who traveled to D.C. to meet with the Navy were met with silence and no responses of any sort," said an Angoon tribal member, according to a 2020 Sealaska Heritage report on the meetings. "It might sound like it happened a long time ago, but the echoes of that day still can be heard and felt today. Getting some sort of resolution is something that would be very good for all of our people."

Tribal members suggested monetary compensation, a monument to commemorate the lost communities or funding for culture camps that would tell the stories of the bombardments.

These actions would address the past violence within the framework of the Tlingit legal system, which values equity, compensation and the restoration of balance, Jones explained.

"A Tlingit individual's life really matters," he said in the Nov. 7 lecture, and clans have "the legal right to request reparations as payment for a death. Without this compensation to restore peace, it sort of hangs in the air."

"The issue is not yet resolved for the people of Angoon" and the descendants of the other communities that were attacked, Jones continued. "I would urge any leaders or authorities ... to acknowledge and take steps to address what happened."

SHI's historical lecture series is being offered in honor of Native American Heritage month, which lasts throughout November. Another lecture is scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 14, at noon, and will be available via livestream on SHI's YouTube channel or in person at the Walter Soboleff Building in Juneau.

At the event, Ed Thomas, president emeritus of the Tlingit & Haida Central Council, will deliver a talk titled "Hall of Famers in History: Decades of Leadership." While the Nov. 7 lecture focused on the region's traumatic history, the Nov. 14 lecture will highlight the Tlingit community's successes in securing civil rights.


Reader Comments(0)