Sunday, June 26, 2011

Naval actions in 19th century Southeast Alaska

Alaska history is in the news in the past couple days, opening some of the deep wounds of Alaska Natives.  On Thursday in Kake, a Tlingit village of around 500 on Kupreanof Island in Southeast Alaska, Air Force bomb demolition experts arrived to dispose of a shell.  It had been fired by the US naval ship Saginaw in 1869.  The village was shelled and the crew of the Saginaw burned and pillaged much.  The shell had been discovered in a tree trunk around 1940, and had been an open secret in Kake and served as a history lesson about the 1869 attack.  Word got out this week, and a demolitions team went to the village.  Many in Kake feared the government was trying to take away what is considered a part of their heritage.  Calls to State and US Senators allowed that the shell will remain in private care and be returned once diffused.  Villagers hope it opens up discussions with the US government about compensation for the shelling.

The news recalls a difficult time in Alaska's history that led to the end of direct US military rule.  Following the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867, Alaska was organized as the Department of Alaska, run directly by the US Army.  Incidents broke out almost immediately between the US military and the Alaska Native inhabitants.  This incident in Kake occurred when the navy killed an Alaska Native from Kake in a scuffle.  The Natives in return killed two miners on Admiralty Island.  In reply, the Saginaw sailed from Sitka and bombarded Kake and small camps nearby.  No one was killed, but the village was not largely inhabited again for many years.  The Saginaw sailed to Hawaii, where in 1870 it struck a reef and sank.  The wreckage was found by divers in 2003.  

USS Saginaw

This incident was followed up a little over a decade later with a more infamous incident.  In 1882, an Alaska Native crewmember from Angoon was killed in an accident aboard a whaling ship.  Angoon demanded reparations in the form of blankets.  The navy responded by shelling the village, as well as setting fires.  Angoon effectively was destroyed, it's residents homeless and without supplies for the long winter.  Many people in the rest of America felt the navy had acted too rash in the bombardment.  Two years later, Congress passed the Alaska Organic Act of 1884, ending 17 years of direct military rule.  Angoon would wait until 1973 for a $90,000 settlement from the US government.

Reactions to the prospect of the shell being confiscated shows how sore the issues regarding the bombardment still are among the Alaska Natives in Southeast.  It proved to many at the time that the US military was not there to protect them, but to suppress them.  The mistrust has lingered to this day among many Alaska Native peoples who view the United States as an occupier rather than a homeland.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Racism and Jim Crow in Alaska

If you have been following the news up here in Alaska, you may have read about the recent redistricting cycle.  The board in charge of drawing the lines has released their proclamation plan, and it will now likely go to court.  One of the interesting aspects of redistricting in Alaska has to do with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  Alaska is one of the few states, along with Arizona and the Deep South, that have been determined to have discriminatory voting procedures in the past and are forced to have their statewide plan approved by the US Department of Justice.  Many people don't think of Alaska when they think of Jim Crow, so what is the history.

Restaurant in 1908 Juneau advertising that there is no Native staff

Unlike the South, there has never been much of a African-American population within the state, and therefore no real discrimination against them at the governmental level.  Alaska Natives have been the victims, despite being a majority of the population for much of the pre-statehood period.  Often they were not served by restaurants and movie theaters, or were forced to sit in segregated sections.  Following the grant of US citizenship to native peoples by Congress in 1924, Alaska passed a literacy test law to limit Native voting.  Native rights organizations caused general concern among some whites that natives would take over the state politically.  Schools also remained segregated, with whites attending different schools from natives.

Students at the all-native school in Stevens Village 1912

During the Great Depression, the tables started to turn.  Groups such as the Alaska Native Brotherhood became more aggressive in demanding equal rights for Alaska Natives.  In 1939, Ernest Gruening was appointed the territorial governor of Alaska.  Sympathetic on civil rights issues, he helped push through a civil rights bill in 1945.  One of the more memorable moments was during the session, after many legislators had made statements to the effect of that Natives would take thousands of years to catch up to white civilization, Elizabeth Peratrovich rose to give testimony.  An Alaska native from the village of Klawock on Prince of Wales Island, she systematically demolished all the arguments for segregation.  The gallery rose in applause, and the bill eventually passed by an large margin.  It was 1945, the first civil rights bill to pass in the United States since Reconstruction and 20 years before the national bill.

Signing of the bill.  From left to right, Nome Senator O.D. Cochran, Elizabeth Peratrovich, Ernest Gruening, Nome Representative Edward Anderson, Ketchikan Senator N.R. Walker, and Roy Peratrovich (future Klawock Senator)

So if Alaska Natives were equal under the law in 1945, why is Alaska a covered jurisdiction under the Voting Rights Act.  It had to do with the extension to language minorities in 1975.  Alaska was not a covered jurisdiction during the first 10 years of the Act.  Over the objections of both Alaska senators and the governor, the Act was extended to include language minorities.  Alaska was determined to have not effectively made voting provisions for Alaska Natives who do not speak English as a first language or at all.  Ever since, two things have happened.  Alaska has need preclearance from the Justice department for all voting laws and election districts, and the debate has continued over whether the state does enough to provide for Alaska Native voters.  Recently, the case of Nick et al. v. Bethel et al. tested the notion that Alaska is violating the law by not providing Yupik election materials.  The ruling came down that Yupik is not a historically written language, so only oral help in Yupik is required.  This fight, like the fight over redistricting, will no doubt continue into the future.
 Voting in Point Hope during the 1950s

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Overrated/Underrated: Historic Trail

I am introducing a brief posting that I will go with from time to time called Overrated/Underrated.  It will examine places, people, and events in Alaska history that have generally been regarded as more important than they should be or have been ignored and forgotten.  In today's installment, trails in Alaska history.

Overrated:  Chilkoot Pass Trail

It is one of the iconic images of Alaska history.  A stampede of miners heading up over the Chilkoot Pass separating Alaska from the Gold Fields of the Klondike.  The image adorned the Alaska license plate for a while a few years back, and many consider it the real start of the Americanization of Alaska after decades of official neglect following the Alaska Purchase.  Still, the Chilkoot Pass trail has been oversold.  It was only used for a couple years before the railroad at White Pass was built.  Dyea, the boomtown at the Alaska end of the trail, quickly died out while Skagway, start of the railroad, continued on.  The Canadian government required so much equipment be brought in that most all miners hired help ferrying their gear over the pass.  The route is 33 miles, about half of that downhill.  The Chilkoot trail is now a popular hike for those who wish to retrace the prospectors of '98, but it has been oversold. 

Miners hoping to strike it rich head over the Chilkoot Pass into Canada

Underrated:  Telaquana Trail

In Alaska, with numerous systems and rivers and mountain passes, many of the historic trade routes of Native Alaskans are determined by geography.  Many of the highways follow these old Native routes to get between river systems.  Used for centuries, it is difficult to pick among these trails.  Still,  among these Telaquana stands out.  Located in Lake Clark national park, this trail was used for centuries by the Dena'ina Athabascans as part of a trail system connecting the villages and camps on the Alaska Peninsula.  The trail combines the gorgeous scenery of the Alaska Peninsula with the history of native peoples.  While the trail fell into disuse following European contact and diseases, there has been an effort to have Dena'ina elders impart their knowledge of landmarks of the trail for preservation.  These routes and trails of Native Alaskans still do not get the recognition they deserve, but hopefully that will change.  A great website is: 

In the area of the Telaquana Trail

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Alaska Books: Fifty Miles from Tomorrow

I have not posted in over a week, but during that time I read a book dealing with a crucial turning point in recent Alaska history.  The book is Fifty miles from Tomorrow, by Willie Hensley.  For those who don't, Hensley is an Alaska Native former state legislator from Kotzebue who was instrumental in building the foundation for native political and land rights.  His book, which is a year or two old, is an excellent look at the story of his life. 

Cover of the book

Hensley was born in Kotzebue in 1941, during the territorial days.  He speaks of not knowing his biological father, and was taken away from his mother by relatives when he was still a toddler.  His uncle's family takes him in, and he spent much of his youth living a subsistence lifestyle.  His family traveled around from camp to camp, living of what the could hunted and fished.  At 15, he takes up a job with a local Kotzebue white man, who helps to send him down to a boarding school in Tennessee.  From there, he is able to attend college and returns to Kotzebue an educated man, but with no job.

Hensley as a state legislator

The real turning point for Hensley's life happens in 1966, when as graduate student at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, he takes a course on Alaska Law taught by the Chief Justice of the Alaska Supreme Court, Jay Rabinowitz.  Over writing his paper about Alaska Native Land Rights, he has an epiphany.  In the statehood act, the state of Alaska will be able to pick millions of acres of federal land to become state land.  He knows that the state will pick the spots with the best chance of natural resource development, and that Alaska Natives would be shut out if the status quo continues.  The nomadic peoples of arctic Alaska had never had a real concept of doling out parcels of land, and miners and newcomers had taken advantage of this to shut natives out. 

Jay Rabinowitz

Hensley leaves school to make Native land claims his life, writing letters to the editor, speaking with groups, and making everyone aware that the land swap must not go through without settling native claims.  Long story short, once oil is discovered on the north slope, claims must be settled before the pipeline could be built.  Ultimately, this effort by Hensley and others results in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, ANCSA, which lays the foundation for the modern Native Corporations that own the land and send out stock dividends to their native shareholders. 

Anchorage Daily News announcing the ANCSA up for Congressional Votes

All in all, this book is an excellent read, highly recommended.  A real important look at the growth of Alaska native political power and the life of an extraordinary individual.

Willie Hensley

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Greatest Iditarod Finish

Today is the official start of the 39th Iditarod sled dog race in Willow, Alaska.  All eyes will be on Lance Mackey, who is going for an unheard of 5th straight victory.  The grueling race goes 1,100 miles across the Alaska Range, through the Kuskokwim and Yukon River valleys, along Norton Sound to Front Street in Nome.  The winning musher can make the trip in around 10 days with even far back finishers can make it in under two weeks, which was usually the winning time when the race started in the 1970s.  It can be expected that the winner of the race will likely have Front Street to themselves next week when they finish.  A race of this length is rarely close at the end, but there was one exception in 1978.

Official Trail map from, showing the two routes.  This year the race follows the southern route.

In 1978, Dick Mackey, father of Lance, and Rick Swenson, winner of the 1977 Iditarod, raced into Nome neck and neck.  It had been a close race all the way through.  Through the Alaskan interior and along the sea, they had traded leads.  On the approach to Nome, Swenson had led by the length of a sled.  At 100 yards from the finish, the two were neck and neck.  Approaching the finish line, both had got off the sled runners and were running alongside holding on the their sleds.  Mackey's lead dog crossed the finish line first, but then he fell, and Swenson and his sled crossed the line before Mackey.

Dick Mackey sprints with his dog team to the finish line (Anchorage Daily News)

So with this finish, the race official had to decide who was the winner.  No one had ever thought a race of this length would come down to such a tight finish.  Finally, the head official determined Mackey to be the winner due to his dog crossing the line first.  His official winning time was 14 days, 18 hours, 52 minutes and 24 seconds.  Swenson clocked in officially 1 second behind!  Swenson would go on to win four more Iditarods, bringing his total to five.  Mackey would not race again in the Iditarod, but has had two sons win the race, Rick in 1983 and Lance the last four years. 

Mackey (Right) and his sled builder Vern Hill celebrate the victory (Anchorage Daily News)

So we shall see who wins and by how much this year.  Since 1978, the training has gotten better, the technology has improved, and more racers from all over the world now compete.  Still, it will be hard for there to be more excitement than 1978.  Best of luck to all the racers.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Alaska that never was: Seward's Success

Today, in Alaska, there is much debate over building a bridge over Knik Arm from Anchorage to the largely undeveloped Point MacKenzie.  This infamous "Bridge to Nowhere" has garnered national attention for being an example of government waste.  Today, there is very little around Point MacKenzie.  Supporters of the bridge say that this will change with a bridge, which will allow development that will pay for itself.  While the ultimate outcome of the Knik Bridge argument is uncertain, it is interesting to note an idea that sprung from Alaska's early oil days 4 decades ago in the same spot.  This was Seward's Success.

Artist rendering of Seward's Success from Popular Science

Seward's Success was the ultimate futurist idea.  A city of 40,000 located at Point MacKenzie in a glass, climate controlled structure.  Touted as the world's first enclosed city, it was a dream thought up during the rush of money expected from the discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay in 1968.  The idea was developed by Tandy Industries of Tulsa, with designers from Los Angeles.  Seward's Success would feature offices, shops and restaurants, an indoor sports arena, and housing units.  The temperature would be kept at 68 degrees all year round, with natural gas providing the power supply. 

Artist rendering of the inside of Seward's Success (Popular Science)

Transportation between Seward's Success and Anchorage would initially be a high speed tramway across Knik Arm.  Eventually, a monorail would connect the two cities and provide transportation within Seward's Success (cars were not to be allowed in the city).  Within the city, moving sidewalks would allow residents to move around the city.

Artist rendering of housing units (left) and the monorail (right)

So why is there no futuristic city at Point MacKenzie.  Ultimately, the idea was short lived.  In the early 1970s, the building of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was held up in court.  With the expected onrush of people and dollars held up, the subcontractor could not make the payment on the lease.  And the dream of a glass city across from Anchorage fell away.  In all likelihood, the city would have been a failure.  Alaskans (or anyone else) would probably not go for living in what would basically be a gigantic shopping mall.  Seward's Success stands out as a social experiment that would have likely failed.  Still, it is fun to sit look northwest from downtown Anchorage across the two mile strait and wonder.

The Port of Anchorage in the foreground, with Point MacKenzie across Knik Arm

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Alaska Books: Treadwell Gold

In Juneau, drive across the bridge to Douglas Island.  Turn south down the Gastineau Channel and follow the road through the former town of Douglas.  After passing the Douglas Boat Harbor, you come across a large sand beach that looks completely out of place with the rest of the local area.  Today, it is a popular dog walking spot.  But starting 130 years ago, it was Alaska's first major economic site.  It is the former company town of Treadwell.  Nowadays most of what remains is the pilings of the docks, a shell of an old office building, and various "Mayan-like" ruins gathering moss.  Back then it was a thriving community based around the mining of gold.  A new book out last year has brought this community back to life.  

Cover of the book

Treadwell Gold, by Sheila Kelly, follows the town from creation through its heyday and ultimate demise.  Kelly, whose father was born in Treadwell, crafts her narrative around her family.  She tracks the founding of the town, built by a San Francisco businessmen led by John Treadwell.  In an era where most Alaska mining was placer mining on the surface, Treadwell was the site of capital intensive hard rock mining where workers tunneled deep into the ground.  Rock brought to the surface would be crushed in the giant stamps, and gold extracted from the rubble through chemical processes.  In its time, Treadwell was the largest mining operation of its kind in the world.  But in 1917, sea water from the Gastineau Channel flooded in the mine shaft, effectively destroying the site.  Slowly the towns people, including the Kellys, left Treadwell.  In 1926, what remained of the town was destroyed by the a fire which swept through the town of Douglas.

Treadwell in 1908

Kelly's book brings this lost town back to life.  We see how the people of Treadwell lived, spending their days down in the mines, working in the machine shop on the docks, or spending some leisure time at the Treadwell Club swimming pool.  The book is filled with fantastic photos documenting every aspect of town life.  We get to know the miners and foremen, the issues such union rights, and how Treadwell fits in Alaska history.  I highly recommend this book.

The area of the mine collapse