PUBLISHED: 3:27 PM on Wednesday, November 30, 2005
The greatest story we hardly know

Artwork courtesy of Elmer E. Rasmuson Library, Shur Collection, UAF.
In the summer of 1802, a flotilla of baidarkas led by Baranof's right-hand man, Ivan Kuskov, put into Dry Bay, just south of Yakutat. At the same time, unbeknownst to Kuskov, coordinated attacks by Tlingits were wiping out his Russian counterparts at Sitka and Kake.

Kuskov and his men, for reasons uncertain, attacked the Dry Bay village, sending the inhabitants into panicked retreat. Emboldened, the Russian war party chased after the fleeing Tlingits, soon gaining on them near the crest of a small hill. One can only imagine the Russians' shock upon realizing it was all a ruse. They had been lured onto a killing field and were looking down the throats of cannons manned by Tlingits. Within an instant, it was the Russians who were running away in panicked retreat.

Tlingits using cannons against Russians? It gets even more interesting. An American double agent betraying both Tlingits and Russians; Baranof bribing Aleut sharpshooters with shares in the Russian American Company; the poisoning of a Tlingit leader; corpse-strewn battlefields - in short, a retelling of the Russian experience in "Tlingit America" reminiscent of Odysseus's adventures following the Trojan War.

  Dick Dauenhauer

  Nora Dauenhauer
Dick and Nora Dauenhauer's "Russians in Tlingit America: the Battles of Sitka, 1802 & 1804," set for publication early next year, will include all of this and more.

The local authors and translators, featured speakers at a University of Alaska Southeast lecture in mid-November, predict their book will turn the story of "Russian America" on its head. For the first time, readers will have accounts of life and events in Southeast Alaska from the Tlingit perspective.

The book is based on oral history, juxtaposed chronologically with contemporaneous Russian reports and diaries, only recently translated and many never before published.

The Dauenhauers and others, like Andrew Hope III, Sergie Kan and Father Michael Oleksa - to name just a few authors who have recently published books - provide the foundation for further studies that making the cultural history of Southeast Alaska ever more accessible to the general public.

Although the indigenous cultures of this area have been subject to much scholarly inquiry, it is amazing how little we know about some basic details, such as when the Tlingit moved into the area, and where the Haida originally came from. It is fairly well established that the Haida were moving into the southernmost islands of Southeast Alaska about the time the first Europeans explorers arrived. The Tlingit were then edging north and westward into the Prince William Sound area.

We can be fairly certain the Haida came from a very different place at a different time than the Tlingit - linguists maintain that the languages are no more similar than English is to Chinese.

The Tlingit oral tradition speaks of traveling down rivers, in some cases under glaciers, after a great flood.

But when the people who came to be known as Tlingit first arrived here is uncertain. It seems likely they displaced the Eyak, with whom the Tlingit share a linguistic connection.

While archaeological evidence is inconclusive about who first occupied Southeast, human presence in the region is becoming increasingly well-documented. Human bones carbon dated at more than 9,800 years old were discovered in the "On Your Knees Cave" on Prince of Wales Island in 1996.

The 5,000-year-old remains of a woven basket, similar to a Tlingit weaving pattern, were found in a streambed on southern Baranof Island. Salmon weir stakes found near Angoon were carbon dated to 3,000 years ago. A salmon basket weir, woven of saplings, was recently found near Juneau that was in use when the first Crusaders were marching towards the Holy Land.

Artwork courtesy of Elmer E. Rasmuson Library, Shur Collection, UAF.
The more we learn about the Native cultures of this area, the more fascinating the story becomes. For instance, it has long been thought that much of the cultural complexity and richness of the Tlingit was due to the super-abundance of salmon resources, which may be true, but up until about 800 A.D., cod was by far the principal source of nourishment. Recent analysis of fish bones found in a midden west of Kake at Tebenkof Bay, a site occupied for more than 4,000 years, reveals that only after 1300 did salmon become the overwhelming dietary source of protein for the people who lived at the village site.

Until very recently, Juneau students could graduate without knowing anything at all about the Tlingit or Haida cultures. That we finally have schools with Tlingit names like Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School and Yaakoosge Daakahidi Alternative High School is a small measure of progress.

Without doubt there are archeological remains yet to found, records from early voyages awaiting discovery, untranslated Russian documents lost in archives and treasure-troves of memorabilia from Native households that some day will brought out, all of which will enrich our understanding of the people who were thriving here when the first Europeans sailed into the region.

Until then, the history of Souteast will remain the greatest story we hardly know.