Each year, Sitka marks Alaska Day with a reenactment of the Oct. 18, 1867, ceremony that transferred Alaska from Russia to the United States. Last year, however, events took a turn. A woman, Paulette Moreno, marched to the top of Castle Hill. She shouted no slogans, disrupted no part of the ceremony. She dressed in Tlingit regalia and carried with her a small and unassuming sign. It read, “Gunalcheesh Sheet’Ka Kwaan for your care of Tlingit Aani for time immemorial.” The sign acknowledges the Tlingit of Sitka for caring for the land for thousands for years. It is a subtle reminder that while some view Alaska Day as a festive time, others interpret the holiday as a celebration of colonialism — the commemoration of a day when one country that held no rights to the land sold Alaska to another country that had no right to buy it. Standing atop Castle Hill on Oct. 18, 2016, Moreno was confronted and told that she was a threat.
As the story spread through the community, many expressed shock and others curiosity. Were members of the Tlingit community present at the Transfer ceremony? If they were, did they fully comprehend the implications of the events? Gaining a better understanding of the social and geographical landscape of 1867 Sitka provides some illumination, as does an examination of the primary sources – the writings and remembrances of those who actually stood on Castle Hill that fateful day in 1867.
As a business town and a major port on the Pacific coast, a walk down Sitka’s main thoroughfare in the nineteenth century likely sounded quite different than it does today. Sitka’s population included Russians, Finnish, Baltic Germans, Creoles, Unangan, Sugpiaq, and Tlingit, each with their own language. The success of the Russian American Company’s business ventures relied, at least in part, on the ability to facilitate communication among the many ethnic groups present. Before the Russians built their first fort on Baranof Island in 1799, they were already using interpreters fluent in Tlingit. Archives, such as the journals of navigators Izmailov and Bocharov, who traveled to Yakutat and Lituya Bay in 1788, document this fact. By 1808, Sitka became the administrative headquarters for all of Russian America and multilingualism grew in importance. In the 1840s, Father Ioann Veniaminov of the Russian Orthodox Church established a seminary school in Sitka. He encouraged the study of Tlingit and other Alaska Native languages and required students to take six years of Native languages. After the Transfer in 1867, some multilingual residents of the former Russian colony found their skills in high demand. Sergei Kostromitinov, for example, became an interpreter for the American authorities, as he spoke fluent English and Russian in addition to several Native languages.
The geography of Sitka also failed to present much of a barrier to the Tlingit of Sitka in their understanding of the events of Oct. 18, 1867. The Native village in Sitka sat less than a quarter mile from the Russian American Company Chief Manager’s residence, the place where the Transfer ceremony occurred. A palisade separated the two communities, but the Tlingit passed through the barrier during the day to trade with the Russian community. In fact, the colony depended heavily on the Tlingit for local fresh foods and even contracted with them to grow turnips and potatoes.
If common sense suggests that the Sitka Tlingit population may have attended the Transfer Ceremony and understood its meaning, then the first-hand accounts solidify it. On the matter of participation, we can look to the 1867 report of U.S. Army Major General Lovell H. Rousseau to Secretary of State, William H. Seward. Rousseau wrote that around three o’clock on Oct. 18, 1867, Russian and American officers and those under their command began to gather for the ceremony. He noted, “The Prince Maksoutoff, and his wife, the Princess Maksoutoff, together with many Russian and American citizens, and some Indians were present.”
A correspondent for the New York Times reported, “By 3:30 a large concourse of people had assembled, comprising Americans, Russians of all classes, Creoles, and Indians, all eager witnesses of the ceremonies.” The reporter for the Daily Alta California noted that some Tlingit, “put off in their canoes, rounded the anchorage, and took a position in the harbor from whence they had a remote but yet impressive view of the proceedings.”
Attending a ceremony and comprehending the weight of the events can indeed be two separate things, but again, the primary sources imply that the Sitka Tlingit understood what was happening. The Daily Alta California correspondent wrote, “Of the nature of the event they had a partial knowledge, and were disposed to regard it unfavorably.” However, General Rousseau’s report questions the notion of “partial understanding.” He wrote that a Tlingit chief “angrily remarked, ‘True, we allowed the Russians to possess the island, but we did not intend to any and every fellow that may come along.’” Andrew Alexander Blair, a midshipman on the USS Resaca, supported Rousseau’s account with a continuity that historians often only dream of. He wrote in his diary, “At the Indian village…they all came to the conclusion that although they gave the country to the Russians they did not agree to give it to any one that happened to come along. So Uncle Samuel must move off.”
No one can argue that Russia or the United States included Alaska Natives in the Treaty of Cession negotiations or held a press conference to explain to them the transfer of Alaska. However, to assume that the Tlingit of Sitka had little knowledge of the events transpiring right in front of them perpetuates a nineteenth-century tendency to underestimate the intellectual abilities of Alaska Natives, a stereotype and a myth best left in the past. On Oct. 18, Sitkans and visitors alike will once again march up Castle Hill to the site of the Transfer Ceremony. However, this year, as Alaska commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Treaty of Cession, hopefully we can usher in a new era in which there is indeed room on the hill for everybody.