A statue of William Henry Seward, former U.S. Senator and governor of New York, Vice President and Secretary of State who negotiated the purchase of the Alaska territory from the Russian Empire in 1867 on Tuesday, June 16, 2020. (Peter Segall | Juneau Empire)

A statue of William Henry Seward, former U.S. Senator and governor of New York, Vice President and Secretary of State who negotiated the purchase of the Alaska territory from the Russian Empire in 1867 on Tuesday, June 16, 2020. (Peter Segall | Juneau Empire)

Opinion: We can’t change the past, except by changing our present

“The removal petition deliberately throws gasoline on the residual embers of resentment…”

  • Friday, June 26, 2020 8:00am
  • Opinion

After Peter Segall’s Sunday cover story on the Seward statue removal crusade both Dave Rubin, the sculptor, and I were left wondering how we had come to be reported as regarding Seward to be “an imperfect figure,” except perhaps in regard to his physical facial scars, which were a big issue for both of us in the creation of that memorial. It is easy to see how interview notes might easily expand on such observations about his physical attributes, toward being a statement about his character, and we think it may have come from a well-intentioned and innocent misinterpretation of notes. Not that Dave and I are not well aware that everyone has imperfections, including ourselves. We know it can be a difficult job writing about gnarly subjects like this, and kudos to Segall for his piece on this emotionally charged story.

Quite simply, the removal petition deliberately throws gasoline on the residual embers of resentment over Seward’s negotiation of Alaska to become an American territory, stoking the resulting flames with outrageous racist claims, and then offers a trendy solution.

I wondered how Jen LaRoe, a white woman and friend, would presume the authority to launch such a crusade, and whether she thought she represented the local indigenous interests more than the honorable Richard Peterson, the President of Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, who in last week’s good interview with Scott Burton on KTOO mentioned many things, including Tlingit & Haida’s support for Black Lives Matter, but did not mention removing the statue as anything on their wish list currently. An obvious answer may be that LaRoe could have something to gain in all this, not just from thrilling her insurgent Facebook fan base, but by pleasing her very employer, Dr. Rosita Worl, the Director of Sealaska Heritage Institute. We might suspect this because her employer is now on record as stating how much she dislikes the very name Seward Street which is their mailing address, and which she regards as a constant reminder of “the past wounds with which we still live.”

We can’t change the past, except by changing our present, which becomes the past. Whatever is done should be done with care for the truth as well as respect for major stakeholders. Yes, there is a the tragic history of white men moving into this territory, and probably nothing can undo the worst of it. That Seward was not a perfect figure is obvious. But he did have his eyes, mind, and heart opened three sizes bigger after his hospitality amongst the Chilkats in Klukwan. He also didn’t live long enough, nor probably understand, the cultural protocol in repaying the hospitality he had received southward bound in Ketchikan. The optics of historical slaveholders going after an abolitionist are not the best, but maybe the Seward statue is the ultimate sacrifice that is needed at this time, and then his head can be mounted on a pike pole for everyone to applaud in celebration.

Tony Tengs is a longtime Juneau resident.


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