Story last updated at 11/27/2013 - 2:11 pm
In 1804, the Tlingit Kiks.ádi clan and Russian fur traders fought at Indian River in Sitka. The Kiks.ádi were led by K'alyáan, a man whose weapon of choice was a blacksmith's hammer. The Russians were led by Alexander Baranov.
Now, the site of that battle is the Sitka National Historical Park. The hammer is on display, its metal head well worn. Eighteen totem poles rise above two miles of trails in the park. Across from Indian River - the battle is also known as "the battle at Indian River" - there's a Russian memorial.
The Russian and Tlingit battles of 1802 and 1804 still loom large in Southeast Alaskan history. That's something the park, with its varied perspectives, attempts to communicate.
"I think the most important thing about the historical park is that it tells the story from different vantage points. Obviously here, we're focused on Tlingit culture - the totems, of course, but the battlefield is - that's really our reason for being, is that this is where the (1804) battle happened," said Dave Barak, Student Conservation Association intern. "It's obviously contentious; it still is. But that's sort of our raison d'etre."
The park is 113 acres, with two miles of flat, accessible trails. It's a popular place for Sitkans and for out-of-towners, with a cell phone walking tour that tells "the stories of the Totem Loop Trail," another way of learning about Southeast Alaskan history.
Many of the poles, both Tlingit and Haida, are replicas of those donated by village leaders around Southeast Alaska between 1901 and 1903, placed in the park in 1906.
The Haida crest Frog/Raven Pole, for example, carved by George Benson and John Sam, is a replica of a pole donated by Edward Scott, who lived in the Kaigani Haida village of Klinkwan.
Others poles are more recent.
Haa Leelk'u has Kaa sta heeni deiyi Pole, carved by Will Burkhart, Wayne Price and Tommy Joseph, represents the first Tlingit people to live around Sitka. According to the park's website, its name translates to "our grandparents who were the very first people to use Indian River and the other people who were here too."
Bicentennial Pole, carved by Duane Pasco, represents Pacific Northwest Native history and culture over the past 200 years, including the arrival of Europeans and Russians.
Inside, the visitor center offers a video about Sitka from Tlingit, Russian, and American perspectives, and hosts more than 154,000 Tlingit ethnographic and Russian American historical and archeological items, historical photos, and more.
The park was designated a Federal Reserve in 1890, making it the oldest national park "unit" in Alaska.
Anóoshi Lingít Aaní Ká: Russians in Tlingit America, a book edited by Nora Dauenhauer, Richard Dauenhauer, and Lydia T. Black, funded by Sealaska Heritage Institute, incorporates written Russian histories and oral Tlingit narratives of the Sitka battles of 1802 and 1804.
"For the Tlingit of Sitka, the battles of 1802 and 1804 were a watershed. Our view is that these events were a turning point not only in Tlingit history but in the multicultural history of Alaska, and ultimately of American history," the editors write in the book's preface.
According to a plaque next to one of the totems in the park: "The Kiks.ádi men and women sought to preserve and protect their land and its resources for this and future generations. At this point, the Kiks.ádi mark the beginning of the Survival march and the dawn of a new era."
For more information about the park, as well as its varied totem poles, visit http://www.nps.gov/sitk.
For a truly fascinating look at Southeast Alaskan history, see Anóoshi Lingít Aaní Ká: Russians in Tlingit America.
Mary Catharine Martin is the staff writer for Capital City Weekly. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.