Chuck Smythe, Ph.D., History and Culture Director for Sealaska Heritage Institute, standing next to reproduction of Tlingit battle armor by Sitka artist Tommy Joseph, gives a tour of new temporary exhibit, “War & Peace” in the institute’s gallery on Friday, Dec. 6, 2019. The exhibit opens Friday, Dec. 6, for Gallery Walk and will be up until February. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Chuck Smythe, Ph.D., History and Culture Director for Sealaska Heritage Institute, standing next to reproduction of Tlingit battle armor by Sitka artist Tommy Joseph, gives a tour of new temporary exhibit, “War & Peace” in the institute’s gallery on Friday, Dec. 6, 2019. The exhibit opens Friday, Dec. 6, for Gallery Walk and will be up until February. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

A wound still bleeding: New exhibit lays bare war and peace in the Southeast

The cruelty and callousness of the past still linger

The Sealaska Heritage Institute unveiled its newest exhibit, War and Peace, Friday for Gallery Walk.

“The Tlingit word for war was also the Tlingit word for law,” said Chuck Smythe, the history and culture director for the SHI.

Both the Russians and, later, the Americans would come to know the inhabitants of Southeast Alaska as fierce warriors, Smythe said, though that didn’t stop either from bringing violence to the Alaska Native tribes for slights both real and perceived.

The Tlingit had a highly developed sense of property law, Smythe said. Based on responsibility for indemnities intentional or not, clans would seek redress for injuries, losses, thefts or deaths caused by other clans or groups. This was the root of a number of one-sided incidents where the American military jumped straight to blunt force, lashing out and bombarding, at various times, Wrangell, Kake and Angoon.

“They can all be traced to conflicts between the legal system,” Smythe said. “Basically, it was a life for a life.”

A U.S. Navy shell used in the bombardment of Kake in 1869 by the U.S.S. Saginaw on display in the new temporary exhibit, “War & Peace” in the Sealaska Heritage Institute’s gallery on Friday, Dec. 6, 2019. The exhibit opens Friday, Dec. 6, for Gallery Walk and will be up until February. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

A U.S. Navy shell used in the bombardment of Kake in 1869 by the U.S.S. Saginaw on display in the new temporary exhibit, “War & Peace” in the Sealaska Heritage Institute’s gallery on Friday, Dec. 6, 2019. The exhibit opens Friday, Dec. 6, for Gallery Walk and will be up until February. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Rosita Worl, president of the SHI, wrote that the difference between the individualist western laws and collective laws of the Tlingit were frequently at odds. When negligence caused the death of a Tlingit shaman, Teel’ Tlein, in a whaling accident, members of his clan sought reparations from the company in the form of 200 blankets, Worl writes, taking two white employees into custody.

In response, U.S. Navy Cmdr. Edgar Merriman took the Revenue Service Cutter Thomas Corwin and a company of Marines. Demanding 400 blankets in tribute from the Tlingit, Merriman opened fire when his demands were not met, levelling the village. The U.S. Navy has still failed to apologize for the attack, Worl writes, and several attempts by the Tlingit to redress the wrong have gone rebuffed.

“It’s still remembered and still part of history, and the wrong has not been righted,” Smythe said. “It would start with an apology and a negotiation.”

SHI will also be showing the film “Haa Shagoon,” which shows the peace ceremony elders of the Tlingit attempted to perform along the Chilkoot River in 1980 to seek redress for the interruption of a salmon breeding river, the disruption of a burial site and the demolition of a landmark marking a neutral ground for peace negotiations. The U.S. government declined to sit down at the table, and the grievance still exists.

Chuck Smythe, Ph.D., History and Culture Director for Sealaska Heritage Institute, gives a tour on Friday, Dec. 6, 2019, of a new exhibit, “War & Peace” that includes a Congressional Gold Medal presented to the Dakl’aweidi (Killer Whale Clan) of Angoon in recognition of Tlingit speakers who served in World War II. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Chuck Smythe, Ph.D., History and Culture Director for Sealaska Heritage Institute, gives a tour on Friday, Dec. 6, 2019, of a new exhibit, “War & Peace” that includes a Congressional Gold Medal presented to the Dakl’aweidi (Killer Whale Clan) of Angoon in recognition of Tlingit speakers who served in World War II. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Many of the artifacts in the exhibit are examples of clothing or other signifiers of shaming for grievances inflicted on the Tlingit people, including naval uniforms and military headwear, Smythe said. The exhibit also shows original or replica weapons and armor carried into battle by the Tlingit in their wars, both between the clans and against the Russians in the Battle of Sitka.

“They were made to look ferocious, to inspire fear,” Smythe said of the war helmets and collars.

Tlingit clans had to be careful when prosecuting war not to attack those they had no grievance with, Smythe said, often closing to verify that the enemies at hand were the ones they sought before retreating to gather themselves and then attacking in earnest. Tlingit preferred to fight at close range, Smythe said, with daggers tied to their arms and spears.

Many of the artifacts, including some of the uniforms, were donated or loaned to the museum by the families who took them in the first place, Smythe said.

The museum also honors the five Tlingit code talkers, who served honorably in WWII. Doing for the Army what the perhaps better-known Navajo code talkers would do for the Marines, the Tlingit code talkers would use their native language against Japanese forces in the Pacific. They were not recognized for their service in life, but have since been honored by the SHI and the Alaska Legislature.


• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757-621-1197 or mlockett@juneauempire.com.


More in News

This photo shows the National Archives in the Sand Point neighborhood of Seattle that has about a million boxes of generally unique, original source documents and public records. In an announcement made Thursday, April 8, 2021, the Biden administration has halted the sale of the federal archives building in Seattle, following months of opposition from people across the Pacific Northwest and a lawsuit by the Washington Attorney General's Office. Among the records at the center are tribal, military, land, court, tax and census documents. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
Biden halts sale of National Archives center in Seattle

Tribes and members of Congress pushed for the halt.

This photo shows Unangax̂ Gravesite at Funter Bay, the site where Aleut villagers forcibly relocated to the area during World War II are buried. A bill recently passed by the Alaska House of Representatives would make the area part of a neighboring state park. (Courtesy photo / Niko Sanguinetti, Juneau-Douglas City Museum) 
DO NOT REUSE THIS PHOTO WITHOUT PERMISSION FROM JUNEAU DOUGLAS CITY MUSEUM. -BEN HOHENSTATT
Bill to preserve Unangax̂ Gravesite passes House

Bill now heads to the state Senate.

After over 30 years at 3100 Channel Drive, the Juneau Empire offices are on the move. (Ben Hohenstatt /Juneau Empire File)
The Juneau Empire is on the move

Advertising and editorial staff are moving to Jordan Creek Center.

The state announced this week that studded tires will be allowed for longer than usual. In Southeast Alaska, studded tires will be allowed until May 1 instead of April 15. (Dana Zigmund / Juneau Empire)
State extends studded tire deadline

Prolonged wintry weather triggers the change.

COVID at a glance for Friay, April 9

The most recent state and local numbers.

Gavel (Courtesy photo)
Court sides with Dunleavy in appointments dispute

The court, in a brief order, reversed a ruling by a superior court judge.

The Juneau Police Department are seeking Brenda Jay Gallant, 40, after she was indicted recently for her alleged role in a 2021 vehicle arson. (Courtesy photo / JPD)
Police seeking woman indicted for arson

The indictment for the August fire came this March.

Police calls for Friday, April 9, 2021

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Most Read