- Historic Sites
Alaska: Morning Of Creation
March 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 2
After Glacier Bay the ship came into a feeding ground called “whale heaven” by one of the rangers, with whales and bald eagles competing for the bountiful fish. The sky was filled with eagles; then slowly, as passengers watched from every deck, the humpbacks gathered. First there were just a couple of tentative spouts some distance off, then a shy arc of body, and finally the rewarding sight of a full span of a whale’s huge tail fin. The whales drew closer; they gathered in groups and for an enchanting hour performed in perfect synchronization, fins rising from the sea as others dipped back into it. Later, in the heat of a city summer, I often thought of them smartly presenting the whale ballet each day to a wildly appreciative audience.
At Sitka, the trip’s last port of call, Alaska’s earlier history came into focus. In a magical setting where the sea meets the mountains and small islands dot the bay, Sitka was first the ancestral home of the Tlingit Indians, then became the capital of Russian America. The first Russian traders appeared in the mid 170Os, and by 1804 the newcomers had changed the town’s name to New Archangel, had built a fort, and had subdued the natives. Secretary of State William H. Seward urged the American purchase of Alaska at a time when the czarist regime was in retreat from imperial dreams. Despite opposition from his own countrymen, Seward prevailed, and on October 18, 1867, the American flag replaced the Russian one on Castle Hill. Today that spot is a steep, grassy rise with a wide view of the harbor.
Its exotic antecedents aside, present day Sitka, with its gray clapboard buildings on the main street and its sea views, resembles a Maine fishing village, lightly touched by the specter of the first Indians. Several museums, most notably the one at Sheldon Jackson College, pay tribute to Tlingit history and art. Sitka National Historical Park, on the forested site of the 1804 battle that signaled Russian dominance over the natives, is a fifteen minute walk from the center of town. Here the scent of hundred-year-old spruce mingles with that of the sea, which lies just beyond the line of trees. Eleven fierce-looking totem poles have been planted on the milelong forest path. This was the notion of a local photographer at the turn of the century who was strongly interested in Tlingit culture. The original totem poles he collected from abandoned Indian settlements began to deteriorate in the outdoors and have been put in storage. What we see now are replicas, but no less powerful for that. Even the question of whether totem poles would in fact have been placed in a forest by the Indians—normally they were found in villages—seems irrelevant. They remind us of whose spirit truly inhabits this place.
There can’t be a more dramatic way to enter Dawson City than by riverboat, as thousands of gold seekers once did.
Walking under the trees, I came upon a woman sitting on a bench, looking out at the water. She turned to me and said, “You know the story of the Russians in Sitka? I’m part Russian and part Aleut. And I was adopted by the Tlingits. This is my backyard. I come down here from time to time just to sit in my backyard.”