Searching for Sitka

 
 

Before embarking on my Alaskan adventure, I felt the need to get a better sense of issues on the ground. Whose stories am I bringing back to Middlebury and where do I fit into the larger narrative with my own history? To be able to get the most out of my experience in Sitka in August, I needed to know more about the culture and history of the place.

Sitka is located in Southeast Alaska and at the heart of Tongass National Forest, the largest temperate forest in the world. The Tinglit people, the main indigenous group in the area, settled there ~10,000 - 15,000 years ago and currently make up about 25% of the borough's population (2010 US Census). The city was Alaska's first capital under Russian rule and was the site of the Alaska Purchase (1867) where the United States purchased Alaska from the Russian Empire for $7.2 million. Of course, this transfer of rights was done without acknowledging the Alaska Natives, and it was only with the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) in 1971 that the Tinglit were given some form of formal recognition of their ancestral rights to the land.

Bering Strait, where Russia's east coast lies closest to Alaska's west coast.

Bering Strait, where Russia's east coast lies closest to Alaska's west coast.

Battle of Sitka (1804) was the last major armed conflict between the Russians and the Tinglit. Painting by Louis S. Glanzman, 1988.

Battle of Sitka (1804) was the last major armed conflict between the Russians and the Tinglit. Painting by Louis S. Glanzman, 1988.

Unlike Native Americans in the lower 48 (all US states other than Alaska and Hawaii), Alaska Natives had formed for-profit regional corporations to manage the 44 million acres ANCSA had granted them. There are 13 Alaska Native Corporations in total, with the 13th representing Alaskans who no longer live in the state. Village corporations were formed by eligible villages defined as "communities half or more of whose population were Natives, having at least 25 Natives who were residents, and not being modern or urban in character". Village corporations would then register with regional corporations and only owned the surface rights to the lands they selected, while the regional corporations owned the subsurface rights to all land under ANCSA. The idea is then that land is owned by Alaska natives through privately owned shares of corporation stock.

 
 

While many have seen ANCSA in a positive light, the questions remains on how forcing Alaska Natives to organize in the structure of a corporation to claim rights to their land has changed how their ways of life exist in the present day.

Again, capitalism has prevailed! Hooray. There's clearly a lot more that needs to be unpacked, but in the meantime, here's a poem by Tinglit poet Nora Marks Dauenhauer.

LISTENING FOR NATIVE VOICES
for Joy Harjo

Trapped voices,
frozen
under sea ice of English,
buckle,
surging to be heard.
We say
'Listen for sounds.
They are as important
as voices.'
Listen.
Listen.
Listen.
Listen.

Nicole Cheng2 Comments