Last Dance

Sitka Fine Arts Camp elementary age campers dance with instructor Brendan Jones in their final day of camp today at the Sheldon Jackson College Campus. Middle School Camp, for grades seven thru nine, begins Monday. Registration is still open at 907-747-3085. (Sentinel Photo by Klas Stolpe)

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Daily Sitka Sentinel

Author to Give Talk About Book on Sitka

By GARLAND KENNEDY

Sentinel Staff Writer

A new book detailing the history of Sitka – and challenging some conceptions about the past – is on the shelves and the author, Rebecca Poulson, will discuss it at the Sitka Public Library Wednesday evening.

The narrative of the 52-page paperback book centers on shifting economic, social and political dynamics of Sitka through the centuries, and includes Tlingit, Russian and Euro-American themes.

Rebecca Poulson. (Sentinel Photo)

The book project began in 2015 with research on Presbyterian missionary activity in the early American period of the late 19th century, Poulson told the Sentinel over coffee on Friday.

“It started out, I was really curious about Sheldon Jackson College, did a bunch of interviews, and then interviewed people from the high school, and then started looking into why that school got founded – the Presbyterian missions,” she said. “And when you start looking into 19th century history of Sitka, you find out that what actually happened, and the reasons things happened, have not been recorded. I was finding things that have not been written down anywhere.”

While grappling with the topic of missions in Sitka, she found the reality not to be a simple story.

“It’s just much, much more complicated than that – the idea that missionaries helped Native people. And then you find out that the missionaries were definitely part of the problem… They believed that the problem Native people had was that they were Native,” Poulson said. “They saw Native people being exploited, and without resources, and they believed that it was because of Native culture… So their whole mission was to get rid of Native culture, which was not helpful.”

That idea wasn’t unique to Sitka or Alaska, but rather was a feature of America’s westward expansion through the 1800s.

“The notion that the only problem that Native people had was that they were Native goes back to the whole idea of Manifest Destiny,” she said.

The book tells its stories in an episodic fashion, with short sections discussing topics such as missionaries, Sitka under U.S. Army occupation from 1867 to 1877, salmon canneries and the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. The book opens with a section on Indigenous America and includes a Tlingit pronunciation guide for readers before diving into the importance of the fur trade in the economy of the region. Poulson researched and wrote the book with assistance from her daughter, Cora Dow.

The history of Tlingit people remains at the center of the narrative throughout the book, which opens with a 2017 quote from Saankalaxt Ernestine Hayes noting the deep history of Indigenous societies that stretch back far before colonization. Poulson was grateful for the research assistance received from Daanax.ils’eik Chuck Miller, whom she described as “very generous with his time and information.”

When researching the presence of the Russian Empire in Sitka, Poulson was surprised to learn that the Russian-American Company relied on forced labor throughout its tenure in the region.

“Through the entire period of the Russian-American Company, all the way up to 1867, they were dependent for their profits on forced labor, on labor by people, Unungan people, Aleutiq people, people of Kodiak Island, and all that part of the country,” she said. “It was not a free labor system; these people had no choice but to work for the company, and the company punished them for things like not having a tidy village.”

Despite this reliance on slavery, Russian power in Southeast Alaska was marginal and Tlingit people retained a great degree of political autonomy and control, a paradigm that shifted once the United States purchased Russia’s claim to Alaska in 1867.

“The other thing that I found very well documented in scholarly writings was the relationship between the Russians and the Tlingit – the Tlingit were always in control of Southeast Alaska, which was a real outlier as far as the history of North America at that time,” she said.

The book details the shifting economic scene in Sitka as the fur trade collapsed in the mid-19th century before fisheries took off around 1900.

While the book mostly centers on Sitka’s history before the Second World War, the narrative also includes the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 and ends with sections on the timber industry, Sitka’s Alaska Pulp Co. and a brief note on the town’s newest boom economy – cruise ship tourism.

Looking back on ANCSA, Poulson acknowledged issues with the law but said it’s remarkable that such a bill was passed at all.

“It’s not perfect, there’s a lot of problems with it. And some of it is that they’re for-profit corporations,” she said, referring to the Alaska Native corporations formed by that law. “It’s not an easy thing to work out with people’s cultural and social and human society needs.”

From the start, she said, Alaska Native people have worked to preserve their rights and their land.

“That was one surprise to me when I was researching how Native people, Native leaders were fighting for land, for resources, their right to be compensated for their resources and for citizenship and civil rights,” she said.

Poulson’s presentation is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Sitka Public Library multipurpose room. Admission is free and Poulson is open to comments, corrections and suggestions on the text.

“I’ll mainly just talk about some particular images. And because it’s only a 52-page book it’ll be a chance for, if anybody is wondering about some of the sources (to ask), because it turns a lot of what we’ve learned growing up here on its head.”

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20 YEARS AGO

June 2004 

Advertisement: Mt. Edgecumbe Hospital Caring Employee of the month! Franklin Thomas Hospital Nutrition Services.

50 YEARS AGO

June 1974

Edna Revard is enjoying a much-deserved vacation: she and youngest son Joe are in Italy visiting her older son, Jack, his wife and child. Jack is with the military, stationed in Italy. Edna will be gone a month, the crew at Revard’s Restaurant says.

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