An impromptu community vote on Saturday to rename downtown’s Seward Street to Heritage Way might not have been official or binding, however, a recently submitted formal application calling for the same thing is and is now being processed by the city, according to City and Borough of Juneau City Manager Rorie Watt.
On Saturday afternoon Sealaska Heritage President Rosita Worl held a “public meeting” amid the dedication ceremony of Kootéeyaa Deiyí, Totem Pole Trail, hosted by Sealaska Heritage Institute at Heritage Square.
In front of the crowd of hundreds of residents, Alaska Native leaders and artists, Worl requested the name of the street be changed as she gave a speech standing next to Watt and Deputy Mayor Maria Gladziszewski.
“Today we are proposing to change the name of the street in the Water Soboleff building and the Sealaska Plaza from Seward Street to Heritage Way,” she said to the crowd. “The city recommends that we have a community meeting to discuss the proposed changes, I would say our citizens here today constitute a community meeting.”
She continued: “The reasons to change the street name is to make the street name compatible with the Northwest Coast arts people, the Heritage Square, the Walter Soboleff Building, the arts campus, the new SHI Fab Lab that will work to incorporate Indigenous and Western Science, and furthering Juneau as the Northwest arts capital of the word.”
Worl’s speech and “vote” was met with large smiles from both Watt and Gladziszewski, along with a roar of applause, cheers and laughter from the crowd.
In an interview with the Empire Monday evening, Watt said the idea to have the street name changed has been in the works for years, but now bringing it to reality is finally in the works after SHI submitted an application with the city Saturday to formally request the change.
“I think it’s a great idea,” Watt said. “I think for Alaska Native people, Seward is not one of their icons, so this makes sense. I like it.”
Seward Street is named after William H. Seward, known during his lifetime as a former U.S. senator and governor of New York, vice president and secretary of state, and more widely known in Alaska for his role in negotiating the purchase of the Alaska territory from the Russian Empire in 1867.
Seward, who died in 1872, has been a source of controversy in recent years as people have reexamined his legacy.
On one hand, Seward has been recognized as an abolitionist in the Lincoln administration and an aid to Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad.
When the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1864, Seward was Lincoln’s Secretary of State and contributed language to early drafts of the document, according to the
Library of Congress. Documents from the William Henry Seward Papers at the University of Rochester Library show Seward sold a plot of land to Harriet Tubman, founder of the Underground Railroad.
On the other hand, Worl said in a letter sent to the Empire that Seward’s hand in the purchase of the Alaska territory represents “the imperial ambitions that drove the United States to dispossess Indigenous peoples of their land and exclude them from the political institutions of the state.”
Worl is not alone in her views.
As recently as 2020, a petition gathered 1,300 signatures in Juneau and made headlines after petitioners called for the removal of the statue of Seward from Dimond Courthouse Plaza across from the Alaska State Capitol.
The petition was filed in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died in Minneapolis police custody after an officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck. During that time, many statues of historical figures across the country were torn down, vandalized or peaceably removed as protesters called for a reexamination of those figures’ legacies and reconsideration of what kind of people are memorialized in the public square.
Worl said the name change would be consistent with the long-held views of Southeast Alaska Natives.
“Seward embodied Manifest Destiny. His imperialistic vision was founded on white supremacy.
The history endured by Native Americans in the Lower 48 states repeated itself in Alaska with
the suppression of Native cultures, languages, and spirituality and the expropriation of our land
and natural resources,” she stated.
Now that the application has been submitted, if accepted by the city the change will likely take at least a few months as it must go through a public process and voted on by the Assembly.
• Contact reporter Clarise Larson at firstname.lastname@example.org or (651)-528-1807.