A section of Angoon along the coast is seen on June 14. Angoon was destroyed by the U.S. Navy in 1882; here is where they first pulled up to shore. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

A section of Angoon along the coast is seen on June 14. Angoon was destroyed by the U.S. Navy in 1882; here is where they first pulled up to shore. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

Long-awaited U.S. Navy apology for 1882 bombardment will bring healing to Angoon

“How many times has our government apologized to any American Native group?”

More than 140 years after the U.S. Navy bombarded Angoon, the Admiralty Island community is preparing for an apology.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski announced that apology on June 7 during Celebration. The village was destroyed on Oct. 26, 1882.

Every anniversary, community members in regalia sing in commemoration as they walk down Front Street.

“I think it’s gonna be very good for the heart because the community has gone through so much trauma,” said Angoon Community Association president Mary Jean Duncan. “It’s trauma from back then, too, that carries on. Traumatic for a lot of families that lived back then, but their families are alive today.”

Duncan has lived in Angoon since the fourth grade. In a June 14 interview, the retired teacher said children are well-educated about the Navy shelling. She said an apology would benefit the community and provide healing for future generations.

History indicates six children died in the bombardment. Duncan said the reason generations persevered is thanks to the grandparents of the village.

“Grandparents had to give up their food and they ended up dying, too, because they bombed all their food caches,” she said. “There was only one canoe and no way of really getting the food for the people that were there. All the supplies were gone. Grandparents are the ones that gave up food so the young ones could eat and carry on their legacy.”

How the promise of an apology came to be after 142 years of waiting

Dan Johnson Jr. is the clan representative for the Deisheetan (Raven/Beaver) in Angoon. On June 14, he explained the long process of requesting an apology.

“When we were first notified by the Navy in early May, that left us kind of stunned as it were,” he said. “Because we have a number of our elders, our parents, our uncles, and some of our grandparents in the past, have traveled to D.C. to try to obtain an apology too and those attempts failed.”

This time around, the request for an apology began in September of 2019 when Rosita Worl, president of Sealaska Heritage Institute, gave a presentation outside Alaska about the bombings of Angoon, Wrangell and Kake during the late 19th century. A U.S. Air Force general was in the audience.

Johnson said Gen. Thomas Bussiere was “genuinely interested” in learning more, and set up teleconferences with Angoon tribal leaders and the public. People joined from all three communities. Johnson said they thanked the general for his intention to apologize, but it wasn’t the Air Force that destroyed Angoon.

“We told him it was the Navy that we needed to be talking to and that they were the entity to have to provide the apology,” he said. “Either them or our government, representatives of our government. We made that very clear and he understood that. He was very gracious himself and he said that he would use whatever influence that he had to be able to get the Navy at the table with us. And he did.”

After the teleconferences with Gen. Bussiere, Angoon tribal heads took the lead in obtaining an apology. In the past, Kootznoowoo Inc. funded trips to Washington, D.C. Now the tribal corporation, the city and the Angoon Community Association have transitioned to supportive roles, Johnson said.

Between 2021 and 2022, U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. David Krumm held teleconferences. Shortly after, the request for an apology was transitioned to another military official. But Johnson said he didn’t hear anything for quite some time, attributing the reason to being “smack-in-the-center of COVID.”

Then Sealaska Heritage Institute sent a letter to the Alaska congressional delegation. In August of 2023, U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan’s defense fellow, Patrick Homeyer, reached out to Angoon tribal heads.

It was then, and only then, Johnson said, that tribal leaders “began to realize that something may actually come of this.”

They were finally connected to the Navy on April 30 of this year.

U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Mark Sucato met with Angoon tribal heads to deliver news of the apology when he visited Juneau in May.

“To hear those words, to know that those are the words that our parents, our uncles and our grandparents, who traveled to D.C to try to get an apology, suddenly, to hear them was we were quiet,” Johnson said. “I think we couldn’t say anything for a good 10 minutes or so.”

In a June 17 email, Navy Region Northwest confirmed the Navy’s intentions to apologize.

“The U.S. Navy intends to formally apologize to the affected Alaska Native clans for wrongful U.S. military actions against the village of Angoon in 1882,” Julianne Leinenveber, an environmental public affairs specialist, wrote. “The Navy values and respects the important government-to-government relationship we have with Alaska Natives, and we are invested in supporting community healing.”

“The Navy is committed to being open and transparent with tribal communities and the public during this process,” she wrote.

No official date for the apology has been set, but discussions between Angoon tribes and the Navy continue. Johnson said they are aiming for sometime this fall.

He said the history-making apology will be a modified traditional “pay-off party,” known in Tlingit as koo.éex’, deriving from the Tlingit verb stem “to call” or “invited.” He said the event could last up to eight hours.

“How many times has our government apologized to any American Native group, any American Native tribe?” he asked. “You probably can count them on your hand in the 250 some years that they’ve been in existence. And here we are now, one of those tribes. We’re very aware that other tribes, our sister tribes down south, are going to be watching, our sister tribes that surround us in the region are going to be watching. That’s just the beginning.”

Untitled photograph of Angoon prior to the 1882 bombardment. (Yale University Library, Richard Maynard Alaska and British Columbia photograph collection, WA Photos 62)

Untitled photograph of Angoon prior to the 1882 bombardment. (Yale University Library, Richard Maynard Alaska and British Columbia photograph collection, WA Photos 62)

“There’s a perception that we want to break”

The military’s historical narrative states that Angoon deserved the shelling, Johnson said. Tribal leaders expect the apology to include an official proclamation correcting this.

“That’s a perception that we want to break,” he said. “We want it broken. Because in our minds we didn’t do anything to warrant it.”

While historical narratives of the Angoon Tlingit and the U.S. Navy may differ, both agree the attack resulted from the death of a Tlingit shaman, Tith Klane, on a whaling ship which caused the Northwest Trading Company to ask the Navy to intervene. The U.S. government never officially investigated the bombardment.

“It was one of our people who had died, it was a terrible accident, granted, but the people over at the whaling station are the ones who just blew everything completely out of proportion,” Johnson said. “And they sent telegrams and what have you over to Sitka where the Navy was stationed at the time.”

The history has been passed down through Tlingit oral traditions, while the U.S. government’s record comes from reports submitted by the commanders of the Navy gunboats.

A young Billy Jones holds paddles. (Alaska State Library, Vincent Soboleff photograph collection, ASL-P1-022)

A young Billy Jones holds paddles. (Alaska State Library, Vincent Soboleff photograph collection, ASL-P1-022)

In 1949 and 1950, anthropologist Frederica de Laguna collected the story of Angoon resident Billy Jones, who was 13 when Navy bombs struck the village.

“His constantly telling that story reinforced what our grandparents learned from their own parents and grandparents of that day, so that the details coming out carried that emotion with it,” Johnson said.

Johnson was just a kid during the 100th anniversary. Since then he’s located historical communications between the two Navy commanders.

Tlingit culture is premised on reparations when an accident happens, whether it’s an injury or a death. Johnson does not believe the village of Angoon held prisoners or vessels hostage to ensure these reparations were made, which the government reports.

He said he believes the whaling vessel’s non-Native crew members who worked alongside Tith Klane chose to stay in Angoon to express their support. They could have easily left for Killisnoo Island instead, which is located two miles south.

“He was a shaman and so he was extremely high rank,” he said. “And when that happened, even to this day, when there’s a death among the people, our ranking system still exists. When there’s a death among our people, and the person happens to be of high rank, everything will shut down regardless.”

“It’s premised on making sure that the family who is hurting knows they’re not alone, knows that the weight they’re feeling is not going to crush them. That’s what happened that day, everything stopped, came to an abrupt stop. The immediate response was for the family and the community to begin preparing for his funeral,” he said.

In a Kootznoowoo video of the 100-year observation in 1982, tribal head Matthew Fred said, “we have reservations where this was a mere misunderstanding between two cultures.”

Johnson said the Navy commanders met on the morning of Oct. 23, 1882.

“They had received a notification from Angoon from the whaling station as to what was happening. In their minds it was an uprising, they could care less what caused it, what precipitated it, they didn’t know the details of it. But that didn’t matter to them. They immediately left the meeting that they were at and began to arm their ships. That tells us that they had no intentions of coming and calming things down.”

In the 1970s, the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska hired anthropologist Philip Drucker to research the case. Drucker noted that despite alleged white hostages being the primary mission bringing the ships to Angoon, neither of the Navy officials “even mentions what should have been the climax of the expedition’s achievements, the rescue of the white captives, if there actually was such a rescue.”

Affairs in Alaska: letter from U.S. Navy Commander E.C. Merriman, in relation to the shelling of Angoon by the revenue steamer Corwin. (Alaska State Library, HJ6645.U54)

Affairs in Alaska: letter from U.S. Navy Commander E.C. Merriman, in relation to the shelling of Angoon by the revenue steamer Corwin. (Alaska State Library, HJ6645.U54)

According to Tlingit oral history, it was in the middle of funeral preparations on Oct. 25, 1882, when “all of a sudden the ships are arriving, the captains are coming ashore and they’re making demands,” Johnson said.

The government’s historical records also report that before the bombardment, Angoon asked for 200 blankets in compensation for Tith Klane’s death.

Johnson said it’s questionable if that demand was ever made. He believes J.M. Vanderbilt, superintendent of the whaling company station at Killisnoo, jumped to conclusions on why his boats were beached and why his two crew members were not present, leading him to report to the Navy station in Sitka on Oct. 23, 1882.

On Oct. 25, 1882, Navy Commanders Edgar Merriman and Michael Healy demanded the village of Angoon provide them with 400 blankets by Oct. 26, or they would bomb their village.

Johnson said this was all while the village was grieving Tith Klane’s death and that after a death “our unwritten tradition among our people (is) all work that is happening stops.”

The village provided the Navy with 81 blankets instead of 400. On the early morning of Oct. 26, 1882, the Navy opened fire.

“The one thing we keep pointing out to all the generals that we talk to, and to the people that we’ve talked to, is that in 1882, the United States is all of 106 years old,” Johnson said. “In our minds, they’re just a toddler, as it were, compared to our culture, which is 12- to 14-thousand years old.”

The Beaver Prow canoe. (Alaska State Library, Vincent Soboleff photograph collection, ASL-PCA-1)

The Beaver Prow canoe. (Alaska State Library, Vincent Soboleff photograph collection, ASL-PCA-1)

All Angoon houses and food caches were destroyed in the burning. Blankets and other ceremonial items were looted. Only one canoe out of 40 and one hat survived. The canoe had taken several people and one hat to Kelp Bay for a wedding, Johnson said.

“It’s one of the few surviving artifacts that we have,” Johnson said. “It’s called the bear hat. It still exists.”

The Beaver Canoe that survived the bombardment is known as “the savior of Angoon,” as it allowed villagers to haul firewood and fish. The prow was fitted with a carved beaver, a crest of the Deisheetaan. The crest disappeared in 1910. In 1999, it was discovered at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and repatriated to Angoon.

The 140th anniversary of the bombardment was honored through the return of a dugout canoe. Tlingit master carver Wayne Price and Chatham School District students carved the new dugout. Johnson said the return of a dugout and the promise of an apology will offer the community healing.

• Contact Jasz Garrett at jasz.garrett@juneauempire.com or (907) 723-9356.

Students begin the commemoration walk outside Chatham School District to push the 30-foot-long dugout canoe down to Front Street in October of 2022. It is the first dugout canoe made in Angoon since the U.S. Navy bombardment. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire file photo)

Students begin the commemoration walk outside Chatham School District to push the 30-foot-long dugout canoe down to Front Street in October of 2022. It is the first dugout canoe made in Angoon since the U.S. Navy bombardment. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire file photo)

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