Day 2: The Warriors of the Temperate Rainforest and the Russian Little Bighorn in Alaska

“Go down to Halibut land and fight!”

-A Tlingit Fisherman speaks to his hook.

The Northwest Pacific Coast of North America is home to a variety of Native American tribes with a fascinating history and culture. The Haida, Tsimshian, and Tlingit peoples of the Canadian and American coastline have a particular reputation for beautiful artwork carvings, weaving, and the towering totem poles which are displayed in museums across the world (including a few I saw recently in the British Museum). Mostly fishing peoples who rode the waves in large canoes, the men of these coastal communities had a reputation for toughness and warlike nature. The warrior spirit of Haida peoples of the Queen Charlotte Islands of British Columbia, who captured multiple European vessels and were rumored to have deployed small cannon, is well captured in In the Wake of the War Canoe, a memoir of Rev. William Henry Collison, who described the ferocity of the raiding warriors that he lived amongst as a Anglican Missionary in the 19th century. In their long raiding canoes, the Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian resembled the powerful Maori of the Pacific Islands, and their slaving raids struck terror into the peoples of the Alaskan interior and their enemies up and down the coasts, as far south as Vancouver.

Native peoples with knowledge of metal working, the Haida and Tlingit fought with terrifying iron daggers, clubs, bows, spears, darts, and, after coming into contact with Europeans, with muskets. An impressive sight was that of these people’s armor, made of wood slats, tanned hides, metal strips, and reeds, including elaborate helmets. I was lucky enough to be able to visit museums in Anchorage and Juneau to see original and reconstructed pieces of this armor, especially the Rainforest Warriors exhibit at the Alaska State Museum in Juneau. Standing among these full size models, I could only imagine the terror felt by those facing such a formidable foe. You can see the exhibition online here.

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This summer I worked in Skagway, Alaska at a historical attraction (as resident Gold Panning specialist), in an area once occupied by the Northern Tlingit (pronounced Cling-kit), whose culture group stretches southwards to include the Islands of the Inner Passage. A major center of the southern Tlingit culture is in Sitka, a city located on an island near Juneau.  It was also known as New Archangel to the Russian American Company, who settled amongst the Tlingit and raised a fort at Sitka in the closing years of the 18th century. The company had been making its way eastwards from the Aleutian Islands after Bering’s expeditions of the 1740’s had introduced the Russians of Kamchatka to the rich supply of North American otter pelts, much desired in the markets of Manchu China. This brought the company, under Company Governor Alexander Baranov, into the land of the Tlingit, and gave Sitka’s Baranov Island it’s name  (Sheet’-ká X’áat’l to the Tlingit). The Russians and their employees (including Ukrainians, Finns, Poles, Aleut Natives, and others) ultimately built a fort, company settlement, and Orthodox church at New Archangel, and expanded their hunting activities across southern Alaska’s Inside Passage.

I had known, having once watched a documentary about the Russian American Company, that the Tlingit had resisted the Russians and menaced their small occupation, which violated their fishing and hunting grounds.  I was only to learn this summer that this “menancing” had actually resulted in two battles, in which the Tlingit drove the Russians out of Sitka and destroyed their settlement in 1802 (killing the majority of them), and then resisted Russian attempts to retake it two years later in 1804. Armed with guns supplied by British and American fur traders, Russian competitors, the Tlingit fought the Russians and their Aleut allies off as they made several assaults on a Tlingit fort, in one of which Governor Baranov was wounded. The Tlingit’s warriors stood firm under assault and bombardment from the Russian ship Neva. Ultimately abandoning the fort after several days of resistance (and the loss of a canoe filled with much-needed gunpowder), the Tlingit withdrew to the other side of Baranov Island. After some time, and exchanges of gifts, the Russians and the Tlingit ultimately came to live in relative peace in newly established New Archangel. This seemed fascinating to me, because it was a big battle between Europeans and Natives which I had never heard of. Which is why I was puzzled that I couldn’t find a book on it for the entire summer, even one which mentioned it beyond a sentence or two, not until, by pure chance, I found a bookstore in Juneau with a Source book and Essays on the Battles of Sitka on my last day in Alaska. This book is the only truly extensive source on the battle at Sitka in English, and published very recently as a cooperation between Russian and Tlingit historians.

Why had it been so hard to find? First of all because the Russian American Company is not widely known or studied outside Alaska and Russia, so you’re unlikely to see it on national curriculum for K-12 elsewhere, but also because the history has a special significance to the Tlingit people, especially to the descendants of the Kiks.adi clan of Baranov island. Lengthy oral histories and verses commemorating the battle have descended through time and only now, through this recent publication, been made available in English translation. But as the editors note, this is also an incredibly important event for the Tlingit community, and these stories had much to do with essential identity, and which not everyone was eager to share outside the community. Nevertheless, I am glad the Tlingit community on the whole supported the translation effort and helped put the book together, because now I have the ability to see the conflict from the Tlingit point of view, and understand the battle through their narrative. And this is a narrative where the Tlingit won. I understand why the site, the ceremonies of remembrance, and the community that surrounds it, means so much to them even though it happened over two centuries ago. It made me conscious, as a student of history, and a student of war, how much we will never know if we do not have the narrative of combatants from both sides. It is important to know thyself and know thy enemy in equal measure, as Sun Tzu reminds us. Or as a North Vietnamese Officer reminded an American who said that the NVA had lost every battle to American forces: “Yes, but we won the War”.

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(Glainz’s painting of the Battle of 1804. The hammer wielded by the leading Tlingit Warrior was taken from a Russian blacksmith who was killed in the 1802 battle, and is much mentioned in the Tlingit oral histories).

It’s a general truism that history is written by the winners. But at Sitka both sides thought they won in 1804. The Russians considered it a win because they reoccupied their lost settlement of New Archangel. Ultimately the events at Sitka are often a footnote to Russian historians, who considered them minor repulses before achieving a longer settlement. The Tlingits resisted the Russians with great success, and withdrew at their own prompting after running out of ammunition, and to them it is also a victory. Relations between the settlers and Tlingit was mostly peaceful after that time, with the exchange of many gifts between the former foes. In the tradition of raiding warfare and of Tlingit society, organized around vast gift-giving and feasting ceremonies called Potlaches wherein powerful leaders would exchange gifts, this peace was acceptable and honorable. Their warriors had acquitted themselves in battle and peace established by custom. This idea of victory ultimately endured Russian and then American incorporation in poetry and communal remembrance. These are two separate narratives of victory, with two sets of standards and criteria. What a difference, and what consequences it can have.

A Professor of mine, who had been an embedded journalist in Afghanistan, told my lecture class a few weeks ago that Pashtun fighters combating British troops in Kandahar and Helmand provinces had told him they thought the British had returned to seek revenge for their defeat at the Battle of Maiwand. A battle that happened over 120 years before the 2001 Invasion of Afghanistan. To our lecture group of English and American students, most of whom had never even heard of that battle, it seemed ludicrous, but that battle has an immense importance in Pashtun oral culture, and one the Taliban has been known to capitalize on in their rhetoric. 120 years ago is not so far away when it is etched into, for example, the names of your family; Malala Youssef’s namesake is the the heroine of the Battle of Maiwand.

For information on Sitka, now preserved a National Park, visit: http://www.nps.gov/sitk/index.htm

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2 Responses to Day 2: The Warriors of the Temperate Rainforest and the Russian Little Bighorn in Alaska

  1. Camron Conners says:

    This is fascinating. Seriously. I didn’t know any of this.

    • jacobiteboy says:

      Yes, it’s not often spoken about. The tribes of Alaska and Siberia in the northern areas routinely raided each other across the Bering Straits, probably predating the Russian arrival in Siberia.

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