My Turn: Seward’s statue, scars and all

  • By TONY TENGS
  • Tuesday, September 29, 2015 1:00am
  • Opinion

Kudos to the William H. Seward commemorative statue committee for a decision they made recently, concerning the statue they are commissioning to celebrate the upcoming 150th anniversary of the U.S. purchase of Russian interests in Alaska. The statue will stand prominently in the downtown Juneau courthouse plaza just across the street from the Capitol.

The committee voted unanimously this past Wednesday to allow Ketchikan sculptor Dave Rubin to depict Seward as he appeared — with a significant facial scar — when he conducted the purchase of our great state in 1867, which Seward regarded as the most significant achievement of his life.

Perhaps some members of the statue committee had signed onto what they first thought would be a more “ceremonial” undertaking and did not realize how interesting the job would be. But they have done their job well, and sculptor Dave Rubin will do this tribute justice.

And this man, William H. Seward, is truly significant. I have an antique Alaska souvenir spoon depicting a likeness of Seward around which is the motto, “The Father of Alaska.” And in terms of this land becoming part of America, that statement pretty much says it all. He was Alaska’s champion, and he took great heat for it. Remember the pervasive nickname for our state, “Seward’s folly”?

When we think about Seward, if we think of him at all, many of us don’t think about him working at President Lincoln’s side as Secretary of State, and how he narrowly escaped death by the same conspiracy the same night that Lincoln was assassinated. One of the conspirators broke into Seward’s home, attacked his son and daughter and tried to stab him to death in his chambers. Seward survived only because a neck brace he was temporarily wearing protected him enough to prevent fatal damage. He was left disfigured from the event, but thankfully he survived. His wife and daughter would die within a year of the attack from illness and trauma derived from the violence.

Depicting Seward’s scar is important because it speaks volumes about the man’s immense personal sacrifice and mojo, to persevere toward his greatest achievement, the Alaskan purchase, in spite of a huge setback that may have led many others to go and lie in the weeds somewhere. And as fate would unfold, it would turn out the facial scarring that Seward bore would figure into higher honors being given him by the Tlingit people when he visited Southeast Alaska in 1869. They knew from experience that scars often revealed not those who had done the least, but those who had done the most. So it is most fitting that Seward’s “battle scars,” in service to our nation, be honored in our commemoration of him.

Reading a preview chapter from “Across the Shaman’s River,” a fascinating history by Haines historian Dan Henry of white man’s (especially John Muir’s role) expansion into Native Southeast Alaskan American territory, has been most informative regarding Seward’s life and trip to this area.

About Seward’s earlier political history, Henry writes: “William Henry Seward devoted most of his political career toward the abolition of slavery. In 1846, he defended William Freeman, an African American man accused of murder. He and his wife Frances paid the bills for Frederick Douglass to print The North Star. The Sewards deeded a home on seven acres to underground railroad conductor, Harriet Tubman. With Frances Seward as the voice of abolition in her husband’s ear, William Seward became the conscience of the moderate Republican President.” We can be proud that the “Father of Alaska” may well have been the Godfather of Abolition of Slavery, as well.

Seward’s personal Alaska connection goes thus: Apparently, after leaving his office as Secretary of State when Ulysses S. Grant became president, Seward made an extended journey which included a trip up the Inside Passage to see his newly purchased prize. The two main places of extended visitation were the new Territory capital of Sitka, and Klukwan, which sits north of Haines.

Klukwan was known as the “mother village” and if there was a capital of the Tlingit nation, this was it. When in Sitka, Seward was enticed by geographer George Davidson, who had been sent up to survey the new territory, and who was in Klukwan as a guest of Koh’klux, the Chilkat sháade háni, or “chief” spokesman. Davidson’s main interest there was to observe a total eclipse of the sun, which he had determined Klukwan would be a perfect vantage point to view. When the time of the forecast eclipse drew near, amazingly the clouds parted, almost as if on cue. The observation was a success and made quite an impression on the Chilkat witnesses, as you can imagine. It was an event of much feasting, and as the “Great Tyee” from Washington, Seward was asked to reconcile a dispute with the Sitka people. Standing side-by-side to Koh’klux, who himself bore significant facial scars, Seward weighed and solved the dispute without bloodshed, through the payment of blankets, and left everyone celebratory because many of them had relatives in Sitka. Then Seward invited clan leaders to dine with him that evening on board his touring ship, the Active. We can imagine how magnificent it must have been for him to host such a group of leaders in their finery arriving in a brightly colored flotilla of canoes.

So Seward had an impressive visit. It really doesn’t get much better — getting to see this Tlingit country, newly part of “Alaska” in its glory — at its best! Possibly even being feasted in Klukwan’s famed Whale House, which has been called “The Parthenon of North American Native Treasures,” and having a total eclipse of the sun thrown in for good measure!

Unlike other white leaders, Seward left with respect. Dan Henry writes: “For instance, he had faced the most ‘feared’ Indian in the territory, and found “Kla-kautch” (Koh’klux) to be an intelligent, hospitable leader whose resources were considerable.” For his part, Henry writes of Koh’kux: “That he tattooed Seward’s name in his arm further demonstrated Koh’klux faith in the Tyee’s word, so much that he finally freed his own slaves in 1883, twenty-one years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.”

Once again, Seward’s early life mission to abolish slavery, resonated — only this time, in Alaska, the territory of his greatest achievement. May our hats be off to the Seward statue committee for letting sculptor Dave Rubin honor the powerful reality of the man, scars and all!

• Tony Tengs lives in Juneau.

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