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.

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