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Allan Engstrom

The Character of the Russian Occupation of Alaska.

Two main features distinguish the Russian occupation and rule in Alaska. They had a sensitivity in their conduct and relations with the native peoples that was lacking in many instances by examples of English and American behavior. The Russians also had a unique ability to completely adapt to local conditions, to live with the native people, to wear their style of clothing, to eat their food with relish, and to intermarry freely. When we talk of the Russian expansion into Alaska, we are dealing with only a few hundred men spread out over a 2000 mile rim of settlement, from the distant islands of the Aleutian chain to Kodiak, Cook Inlet, Prince William Sound, Yakutat and Southeastern Alaska, as far south as Sea Otter Bay, as the Russians called it, where the present day city of Craig is located. The Russians had no sense of the European racial animus in dealing with native peoples, to forcibly push them out of the path as civilization marches on. According to Orlando Figes, the author of a wonderful cultural history of Russia entitled Natasha's Dance, "The Russian empire grew by settlement and the Russians who moved out into the frontier zones, some to trade or farm, others to escape from Tsarist rule, were just as likely to adopt the native culture as they were to impose their Russian way of life on the local tribes...One of the consequences of this encounter was a cultural sympathy towards the colonies that was rarely to be found in colonizers from the European states." The driving force of Russian expansion into Siberia and Alaska was of course the pursuit of the fur trade. I would like to focus on the period of Alexander Baranov's Stewardship of Alaska, that is from 1790 to 1818, as he was largely responsible for the ad hoc formation of Russia's native policy in the territory. In dealing with local native tribes, Alexander Baranov did not believe in holding a grudge, nor did he believe in a policy of retributive justice. He dealt with local Alaskan natives with a respect and understanding of their own diplomatic customs. The Russians did fight as evidenced by the battles of Sitka in 1802 and 1804, but afterward, Baranov met with the principal Tlingit chiefs. He sought to forge a lasting peace and let bygones be bygones. None of the principal instigators of the 1802 Tlingit attack were ever punished.

It is unfair, perhaps, to indict a whole people on the basis of the actions of a few. I say this because the brutal actions of certain Russians have been used by certain scholars to indict the entire period. The only thing I remember from my high school Alaska history unit about the Russians in Alaska, was that there was a guy in the Aleutians who lined up the Aleuts to see how far a musket ball could travel. His name of course was Soloviev. But my question is, is it correct or fair to characterize the entire Russian period only by using these sound bites of Russian brutality and to ignore all the positive interaction? Here is a website I found published by the Alaska Humanities forum. Let me give another sampling of certain events which occurred in the late 1700's to the 1860's by English and American citizens. A month after the Russian fort at Sitka was overwhelmed by Tlingit warriors in 1802, and English ship, the Unicorn, under the command of Henry Barber, entered the harbor. A few days later, two Boston ships arrived, the Globe and the Alert. In order to secure the release of Aleut and Russians, a plan was hatched to seize as many Tlingit as possible who had come aboard to trade. A signal was given, a fierce fight broke out, several Tlingit were killed after resisting with their knives and daggers, and seven hostages were taken, including the wife of the chief and six men. One prisoner was given his freedom to take the message that the three ships wanted all of the captured men, women and children, in return for the Tlingit hostages. Then a grizzly episode ensued. In response to the Indian attack on the Russian fort and as an inducement to release the remaining captives, on the evening of July 11, aboard the Globe, one of the warriors was hung from the mast. When the Russians returned to Sitka in 1804 and successfully concluded the second battle of Sitka, there was no such spirit of vengeance. The Tlingit chief, Kotleian, who led the original attack which resulted in the deaths of many Russians and Aleuts, was never hunted down or killed. Baranov never sought to punish him. He did give him a medal. In 1819 when Baranov prepared to leave Sitka in retirement, Kotleian came to pay his respects. He wore the medal which Baranov had given him so many years before. It bore the simple inscription "Ally of Russia". I often wonder how many English or Americans would have responded in such a manner. But Baranov pursued an enlightened policy in his dealings with Alaskan natives, which was unusual for its time.

Thievery was common in the Pacific world from Alaska to Australia. It bedeviled all the famous mariners who sailed these waters. An episode occurred in July 1794 in Cross Sound about 100 miles north of here. In volume three of Vancouver's Voyage, on page 240, a native man is caught making off with some iron item from the ship. He is not hung, but instead given four dozen lashes, a harsh and brutal punishment. Alexander Baranov learned early on that he could not punish the Aleut by physically beating him. It was too great a humiliation. In Khlebnikov's Life of Baranov, published in 1835, an episode is related that occurred in 1800 on Kodiak. A group of Aleuts were brought before Baranov. According to Khlebnikov, "It was by chance discovered that they had daggers concealed under their clothing. When asked why, they confessed that if Baranov had ordered corporal punishment, they were going to strike him down and then kill themselves...He knew from experience that for the Aleuts nothing is more shameful than corporal punishment." According to Khlebnikov, Baranov instead sought to simply shame them, he scolded them. One final example in 1869, two years after the transfer of sovereignty from Russia to the United States, a punitive expedition set out from Sitka to Kake. From the book, The USS Saginaw in Alaska Waters by Sitka's own Robert DeArmond, Peveril Meigs is quoted from his diary: On page 88, "Everyone expected that two whites would be killed to square for the two Siwashes we killed a short time ago. It seems very strange to me how the two Sitkans managed to escape so easily, and although they brought the first news, I am almost inclined to think they are the murderers. They are a treacherous set of fiends. Or course the Saginaw has got to go to Kake and try to find the guilty ones and hang them. We intend taking the two Sitkans with us to identify them. I expect that it will end in a fight that will knock their town down. I hope so." I include this account of the Saginaw, not so much for the extent of the bloodshed, but mainly for a sense of the spirit of the time, after the Americans took over in Alaska, and to juxtapose it with the Russian experience which came before. In order to talk about something more pleasant than murder and retribution, let's look at the second part of this presentation, that is a discussion of how the Russians blended into the social network of the native people, as mentioned by the quote of Orlando Figes above. Let's begin by recounting an episode in 1790 at Three Saints Bay on Kodiak Island. This is where Grigorii Shelikov, who traveled from Russia to Alaska with his wife, Natalya, established the first Russian permanent settlement in Alaska in 1784. The following is taken from Martin Sauer's account of the Billing's voyage, published in London in 1802.

The Glory of Russia left Unalaska and arrived at Three Saints Bay at six p.m. on June 29, 1790. One of the Russian officers, who had lived with a female native for some years and who had several children, asked the priest on the Glory of Russia to baptize her, so that they could be married. This was done. Sauer wrote that she was a handsome woman, with tattoo punctures on the chin and perforated under lip. Her house was extremely clean as were her children, and very healthy. She was dressed in Siberian fashion and in his words seemed the perfect lady of Russian economy. Sauer concluded by saying that he had dined with them and was very well satisfied with the treatment he had been given. Much of the Russian success in Alaska was due to their ability to adapt to local conditions. Black bread, the traditional food, was largely absent. Regarding the common peasant saying, Shi da kasha pisha nasha, which means cabbage soup and oatmeal is our food, both were often also largely absent. The agoold phrase, though, pointed to the fact that Russians could get by on the simplest of foods. In Alaska, the Russian hunters lived on dried fish and seal or whale meat. Many developed a taste for local delicacies like stink eggs or stink fish, a native dish of fermented salmon. And it is doubtless this ability to so totally adapt to local food and conditions which facilitated the Russian ability to intermarry so freely. In times of shortage, the Russians suffered equally, often succumbing to disease in the lean winter months. In terms of class status in official Russian society, the average Russian hunter was little differentiated from the native hunter with whom he worked alongside. In general, the Russians in Alaska were not bound by the constraints of European prejudice. Even modern commentary often fails to see the true spirit of the relationship between the Russians and the natives, especially the Aleuts. I saw a recent inscription under a piece of Aleut art at the State Museum in Juneau. The words were, "The Aleuts were brutally treated and forcefully employed by the Russians to hunt the sea otter." The inscription belies the richness of the relationship between the two peoples and the cross cultural contact which shaped Alaska for 126 years. It also denigrates the memory and history of all those Alaskan natives today who can trace their ancestry to those Russian fur hunters of old. In conclusion, I would encourage a new paradigm in the teaching of Alaskan history, one which moves beyond the sound bites of brutality and seeks to understand the rich and true fabric of life in Russian America.


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