To Do: Migrate

This paper is part of the Proceedings of the Maritime Cultural Landscape Symposium, October 14-15, 2015, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Jessica Perkins
former Tribal Attorney, Sitka Tribe of Alaska[1]

Sitka is in the Southeast panhandle of Alaska, also known as the Alexander Archipelago. It is on the outer coast of an island and you can only get there by ferry or plane.  It is also within the traditional territory of the Tlingit, and known by the Tlingit as Shee Atika, or Sheet’ka. The Tlingit are nicknamed the people of the tides.  Not a lot of archaeology work is conducted around Sitka, but local radiocarbon dating confirms humans were living near Sitka for at least 5,000 years. It was also the capital of Russian America from 1804 to 1867 and currently it’s an isolated fishing and tourist community with a year-round population of about 9,000.

As I was researching this topic, I found a National Park Service publication that described the National Historic Landmarks in Sitka. This is a fairly decent rundown of Sitka’s historic milestones, but it is missing recognition of the first people of this land: the Tlingit.  Is this because the Tlingit have done nothing of national significance, or because the Tlingit history is under-represented in the National Register program?

Chronology of Sitka’s National Historic Landmarks

I think the Tlingit history in Sitka is nationally significant.  When the Russians first arrived in Sitka in 1802, the Tlingit attacked the Russians and the Russians left. The Russians came back two years later and they battled again.  In 1804, the history books say the Russians won.  But, did the Tlingits lose?  The Tlingit retreated. That 1804 battle was an important point and the Russians took over Sitka harbor.  But, the Tlingit survived.  From 1804 onward, the Tlingit people endured—first attack and occupation of their land by the Russians, and then, after 1867, the United States.  Despite the attempts by the governments in power to eliminate the traditional ways of living of the Tlingit people, the Tlingit people and culture have endured, even if not recognized.

Typical Tlingit fish camp (circa 1890-1920).

After the 1804 battle with the Russians, the Tlingit traveled north on foot to a seasonal fish camp on the north part of the island at a strategic location. You can only get to Sitka safely at that time through the Inside Passage. They set up camp along one channel you need to pass to get to Sitka, and staged an embargo. They stopped all ships from entering or leaving Sitka. The Tlingit relied on the sea for food, travel, spirituality and clothing.  They define a maritime culture.

In about 1825, the Tlingit returned to Sitka.  The Russian approach to dealing with the Tlingit was a segregated approach. The Russians built a wall separating the Tlingit Village from New Archangel (the Russian name for Sitka).  The wall had guards in blockhouses and cannons pointed at the Tlingit Village during the time of Russian rule (1825-1867).

Starting in 1867, the American government did not treat the Tlingit any better.  When the United States government took over control of Alaska, the American way of life was brought to the Tlingit people.  Sanitary laws were used to tell the Tlingit people that they needed to rebuild their houses. All the old houses were burnt, and new ones ordered to be reconstructed according to American standards.

In 1904, then territorial governor, John Brady allowed for what they called the last great potlatch. “In 1902, several members approached Governor Brady, a former Presbyterian missionary, and requested that he issue a proclamation that would command all Natives to change and that if they did not they should be punished. Like other missionaries and governmental officials, Governor Brady considered the potlatch a practice that perpetuated prejudice, superstition, clan rivalry and retarded progress. He was committed to breaking up the offensive clan system and replacing it with the independent family unit, but he was not eager to impose legal sanctions. Therefore, in a dramatic gesture, Brady decided to endorse one last potlatch at Sitka.”[2]  From 1867 through 1924, the Tlingit were not permitted to own any land because they were not citizens. The Tlingit weren’t recognized as US citizens until 1924. They were not permitted to vote until 1945.

The Sitka Indian Village 1889.

The Tlingit culture is a matrilineal society that is built by clans, so you have parity, you have a raven and an eagle, and then a raven would marry an eagle and then you inherit your lineage through your mother. My husband is an eagle, so his father’s clan, the Kik.sadi, which is a raven clan, adopted me and then my children, who are Alaska Native, are part of that clan.  We have all been adopted through traditional ceremony and given Tlingit names. My house is called Sh’teen Hit, which is the steel bar house. The house was so named because it had a steel bar. The Sh’teen Hit was located so close to the stockade wall, a steel bar was necessary to protect the house. The clan house in traditional Tlingit culture was the seat of traditional government. Traditional law was that you would bring things to the clan house and the clan leader, and they would decide things and use their own way of dealing with things. The village here is the location of the Sitka Clan houses.

Sitka Tribe of Alaska had a small historic preservation grant from the National Park Service. This is one of the many projects I worked on at Sitka Tribe. I put together the possibility of the village being a historic district. I did my best, but it was hard, because if you look at this picture, you can tell that there is all sorts of development there. You can see the traditional houses, but you can also see fish processing plants, and you can see lots of boats in the harbor and these other uses.  I put together the district nomination, but it was definitely a discontiguous situation. It never felt like I was doing the right analysis. I knew in my heart this was a historic place that should be recognized and protected. I knew in my heart that I held a lot of history that was important to a lot of people. The words I had to use on the paper to match up with that history was a disconnect.

A Kaagwaantaan and L’uk’nax.adi Clan House.

Each of the clan houses in this photograph has been determined eligible for the National Register individually.  They stand on what’s called restricted Indian property. These properties are transferred according to western inheritance rules—to your surviving children typically. That means the traditional clan people and the clan members of those houses are not the current owners. What you have is based the individual family unit.  The house on the left suffered, the foundation had some issues, and so we had to do some repair work and during that time we went through the Section106 process and it was determined eligible. The house on the right was owned by a L’uk’nax.adi clan (raven) leader when the deed was issued in the 1950s.  When he died, the house went to his children, who were Kaagwaantaan (eagle), they inherited it. As time went on, there are now 47 different owners who do not get along. They are not from that clan, and so it’s hard to get a mass of folks to agree that this is what we want. Some folks want to take it down and put something different up. Some folks want to preserve it as it was. Some folks don’t even want it.  Originally, 43 clan houses were within the Sitka Indian Village.  Due to lack of sufficient resources, and impending health and safety concerns, the Tribal Council has had to take down two clan houses since 1995. These houses are 2 of the last 9 standing clan houses in Sitka. It has almost become too complicated to save some of the most important history that still exists in Sitka.

In the end, it is clear to me that the village has significant historic resources. The historic district designation doesn’t feel like the right fit, but I can make it fit, by turning this word into that word and checking the boxes. I think a maritime cultural landscape should include the natural resources and the cultural resources, because where there is a herring house, there are people who associate with the herring. Even in the village, we have something that is a very old ceremonial place for the Kik.sadi people—herring rock. It is truly a maritime cultural landscape. It contains all the elements of ethnographic landscapes, as well as those of vernacular landscapes. It is also part of the larger Tlingit maritime cultural landscape.

A look at the bigger picture cultural landscape around Sitka.

There is also a larger cultural and natural landscape to be preserved. Alaska is still a lot like the new frontier. If you look at Tlingit country as a bigger picture, you have the area called the Sheet’ka K’waan (the traditional territory of the Sitka Tribe). Through the interviewing process of folks who still speak Tlingit, the anthropologist we had on staff at the time was able to collect place names. Every red dot on that map is a place name. To me, that documents a connection to the natural and cultural resources throughout the region. When I think about cultural landscapes and I think about scale, I think about how each of the rivers that flow out into the ocean was its own individual landscape, but, back in the day when you would go from place to place, it was one big landscape. We have evidence of oyster farming, canoe haulouts, and individual village sites throughout the area.  There is a lot of development that folks think is still coming. Yes, it’s currently a national forest, but that does not mean it will always be a national forest.  There is a small scale approach and a big scale approach. You can tie landscapes together, or you can look at them as small. I think in both cases, the types of resources there are important for preservation. Based on the tools available today, the Sitka Indian Village and the greater cultural landscape of the Sheet’ka Kwaan are difficult to preserve.  But, with diligence and perseverance, I am hopeful the history of the Tlingit in Sitka is preserved for generations to come.

[1] Jessica grew up in rural Rhode Island and obtained her BA in sociology with honors from the University of New Hampshire. Jess received her Juris Doctorate with a certificate in natural resources and environmental law with a specific focus on American Indian law from Lewis and Clark Law School. After law school she worked 11 years with the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, serving as realty officer, resources protection director, and tribal attorney. During this time Jess spent many hours researching and pursuing Tlingit land claims throughout the Sitka area. She also married the son of a Tlingit clan leader and became a member of the Kik.sadi clan. After a short stint away from Sitka, she returned to work at Sitka National Historic Park, which was created to commemorate two important pieces of Sitka’s history: the 1804 Tlingit-Russian battleground and the 1843 Russian Bishop’s House.


National Center for Preservation Technology and Training
645 University Parkway
Natchitoches, LA 71457

Email: ncptt[at]
Phone: (318) 356-7444
Fax: (318) 356-9119