From the open sea, you can see Sitka when you are still a
long way off. Although it is both a city and a borough in Alaska, to the eye,
Sitka appears unpretentiously as a large Alaskan fishing village sandwiched
between spectacular mountains and the sea. As you approach, you have to
navigate through a series of islets and an island (Japonski Island) that
protect the inner harbor.
During our approach, we were temporarily confused, and
mistakenly headed the boat towards an entrance in the breakwater that would
have been too shallow for our draft. Patrick realized something was wrong, and
redirected our course to an entrance in the breakwater further east. Once
inside the harbor, we realized that the breakwater entrance shown on our chart
(that we thought we had been heading to) had been filled in and no longer existed.
While we were in Sitka, they also started filling in the entrance we almost
went through by mistake. Sailors should be aware that even the most up-to-date charts may show an
incorrect configuration for the Channel Rock Breakwater. We updated our electronic charts from NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) before leaving Hawai'i; but upon our arrival in Sitka, we found there was a discrepancy between reality and the chart. Patrick has since notified NOAA that the breakwater is being modified.
|A view of part of Sitka with some islets and the Channel Rock breakwater in the foreground|
Sitka has five harbors, and transient vessels are typically
moored at Eliason Harbor, which is right alongside Thomsen Harbor.
Plenty of fishing boats utilize Eliason/Thomsen Harbors as well, so there is always
something interesting to watch between the activity on the docks and vessels
coming and going from the fishing grounds. When the docks are full, it is also
possible to anchor out in the Western Anchorage.
|Mt. Edgecumb volcano as seen from inside the Channel Rock Breakwater: You can see one of the platforms from the old entrance lights where the entrance has been filled (approximately center, top of breakwater) |
I did some hiking around Sitka, and its rainforest reminded
me a lot of being home in the Cascade or Olympic Mountains. However, it was
also different due to the differences in the forest canopy and understory.
Sitka spruce and yellow cedar, rather than Douglas fir and western red cedar, are
the primary tree species, and the understory is composed of Devil’s club and
ferns. Overall, the Sitka forest is much wetter than the Cascades and most of the Olympics.
|A view of the harbor|
Sitka is a vibrant community with a lot of community
activities and a very active arts scene. The Sitka Summer Music Festival was
going on when we arrived in Sitka. It is an annual event focusing on classical
music, and the festival’s board recruits talent from all over the country and
the world. We/I attended two free concerts that were part of the music festival
while in Sitka.
|Sitka forest waterfall with surrounded by yellow cedar, Sitka spruce, and Devil's club|
|The Catalyst Quartet plays an original arrangement of Bach's Goldberg Variations for strings|
Sitka has a rich cultural history. In another story of
usurpation of native lands, the Russians took Sitka from the Tlingit people of
Alaska. The story has a somewhat different twist, in that the Russians
originally negotiated with the Tlingit to set up a fur trading base here; so at
first they were here by agreement if not invitation. (This was after Russian
over-harvesting of sea otters for their pelts in both the Aleutian islands and
Kodiak Island.) The Russians had their eyes on Castle Hill, but accepted a
different base indicated to them by the Tlingit. After living alongside one
another, the Tlingit grew to resent the Russians, and a faction of Tlingits
attacked the Russians. This led to a large scale retaliation by the Russians,
aided by some Aleuts who had become loyal to them. In the Battle of 1804, the
Russians captured Castle Hill and the rest of Sitka (which was called “New
Archangel” at the time), and the Tlingit fled to the outer islands.
Later, the Tlingit suffered another loss when the U.S.
purchased Alaska from Russia and Alaska was annexed to the United States. Now
it was the United States who were exploiting the rich mineral, timber, and
fishing resources that originally belonged to the Tlingit (and other Alaskan
native peoples.) During the Gold Rush, people not only came to Alaska from the Lower 48 to pan for gold and to hunt animals for their furs, but to seek out a life of adventure.
Today, Sitka has a rich cultural heritage acknowledging the
traditions of both the Tlingit and the Russians. Most of the Russian historical
structures have been rebuilt. The most striking of these, St. Michael the Archangel's Russian Orthodox Church, stands in the center of town. Originally
built between 1844-1848, it was a victim of fire and was completely reconstructed in 1966.
looking for the Russian cemetery in which the grave markers had been
constructed of ship’s ballast, and only found two remaining crosses marking the
graves. The crosses appeared to be made of iron, and are probably some of
the oldest artifacts remaining from the Russian period. The rest of the
cemetery may have been swallowed by the nearby forest.
|The reconstructed St. Michael's Russian Orthodox church: Many of the religious icons in the original were saved from the fire|
At the Sitka National Historical Park, we found many
examples of totem poles, both old and new. (Some of the poles in the park were
reproductions of older poles, which were on exhibit in a more protected
location inside the Visitor Center.) Not
all of the totems were Tlingit; many of the poles were collected from Prince of
Wales Island, south of Sitka, and were the work of the Haida. Although I had
seen numerous examples of northcoast native art, I didn’t know that the style
of art was called “formline design,” which utilizes mostly ovoid, u-shape, or
s-curved shapes. I also didn’t realize why the primary pigments you see in this
artwork are red, black, or blue-green. The answer is obvious when you think
about it: These were the primary
pigments available to native people based on what they could take from the natural
mineral world around them. The minerals were mixed with the oil from salmon
eggs to make paint.
|An arresting carving in a totem pole displaying the traditional color palette|
Modern carvers have a wider variety of pigments available to them with which to paint their totem poles.
|The origins of the pigments traditionally used in totem poles |
We learned that there are several different types of totem
poles, used for different purposes.
|Note that the carving in the foundation of this modern pole is painted in the traditional color palette|
One of the most common totem poles is the crest pole. This
pole is symbolic of family history and ancestry. One thing that the Tlingit and
Haida tribes share in common is that they are each divided into two halves,
called moieties, the Raven and Eagle moieties. One function served by the moieties is to prevent marrying someone
too closely related to you. An Eagle has to marry someone from the Raven moiety
|Raven and immature bald eagle|
At the top of a crest pole, there is usually a figure called
the village watchman, and somewhere on the pole will be a carving of the
family’s moiety (Eagle or Raven). There will also be a carving of the family’s
clan (examples are beaver, sockeye salmon, or woodworm) somewhere on the pole.
An individual inherits their clan from their mother. Historic photographs of
ancient Tlingit and Haida villages show a crest totem pole next to almost every
|Can you spot the village watchman and the raven in this crest pole?|
Unlike Euro-American family trees, which tend to be more
linear, the figures on a totem pole are not necessarily arranged in a
hierarchical fashion. The moiety crest is not always above the clan crest. We
also noticed that some figures on the pole are carved upside-down. When we
asked about that, we were told that was sometimes how the figures fit best
during the carving of the pole. There may also be a meaning associated with
some of the legends that has been lost.
Another type of pole is called a legend pole, and it tells a
particular story or stories. This legend pole incorporated three different
|An upside-down figure on a totem pole|
The top portion of the pole illustrates the legend of the
cruel father who murdered his children by holding them tight against his fish
spine belt. I heard two versions of this legend while in Sitka. In one version,
after the father killed seven of his twelve children in this manner, the mother
saved the remaining five children by turning them into puppies.
The middle of the pole depicts the legend of the woman who
married a bear:
The bottom portion of the pole describes how the woodworm
clan got their name. The red, segmented figure in the carving represents a woodworm:
Two other types of poles are mortuary and memorial poles. In
both cases, these poles are carved when someone dies; but a mortuary pole is
for an actual interment, while a memorial pole is to honor the memory of
someone who has died.
Here are two views of the same mortuary pole:
Sometimes, mortuary poles contained a hollow compartment in
their backside into which an individual’s remains may be placed when cremated.
After cremation, ashes were placed into bentwood boxes, which might be stacked
in a mortuary pole in the same way related family members are buried in a
crypt. Later, at the Sheldon Jackson Museum, we saw an example of a mortuary
pole with the back carved out for this purpose:
|A compartment carved in the back of a mortuary pole (The two figures to the left and right are parts of different totem poles) |
In the historical park, there was also a memorial pole
dedicated to the Kiks.adi people of the Tlingit tribe, who lost their lives in
the Battle of 1804. At the bottom of the pole, you can see the Raven helmet worn
by the warrior who led them in battle, K'alyaan. (K'alyaan, also known as Katlian, survived the battle.) We saw the actual helmet used in the
battle---which was covered in real raven feathers---on exhibit at the Sheldon
Jackson Museum, but I neglected to take a picture of it.
|A memorial pole commemorating warriors who lost their lives in battle|
A fifth type of pole was the ridicule pole. A ridicule pole
was used within the tribe as a nonviolent means of confrontation and a way to
shame someone into making retribution for a debt or an act of wrongdoing. We
learned that all totem poles are not carved to last. If a ridicule pole was
erected in a village, once the individual at fault paid off the debt, returned
the stolen goods, or otherwise made the situation right again, the ridicule
pole was removed and burned.
A native I met from Kake, who helped staff the Sheldon
Jackson Museum, told me that the ridicule pole didn’t work so well with people
outside the tribe. The pole might be erected, but the debt would not be paid;
so the pole would remain standing. This example of a ridicule pole shows a
white trader at the top.
At the Sheldon Jackson Museum, we saw artifacts from
indigenous peoples throughout coastal Alaska and British Columbia, including
the Inuit, Inupiaq, Aleut, Tlingit, Haida, and Athabascan tribes. The Jackson
Museum reminded us of the Bishop Museum in Hawai’i, in that it displayed the
artifacts from similar cultural groups alongside one another. In the case of
native North Americans, there was much more diversity among the artifacts due
to the varying topography and climate in the north, and to the wider range of materials
available to northwest coastal native people as a result. For example, while pandanus
and coconut fiber were used exclusively for weaving throughout the South Pacific, we saw
that the Tlingit use spruce roots; Aleuts (who live on treeless islands) use grass;
and the Athabascan use willow for weaving baskets and other items. The Inuit
and Inupiaq, who live in a landscape covered with snow and ice use containers
made out of mammal organs like seal bladders to serve the same functions as
The Jackson Museum is a beautifully designed museum. It is
currently housed in an octagonal building, with the large artifacts displayed
in or above three concentric rings of glass cases located around the museum’s
central totem pole exhibit. Beneath the innermost ring of display cases, there
are a series of drawers which visitors are allowed to open. Opening each drawer
is a miracle of discovery, as displayed inside the drawers (under glass and
labeled with a short summary) are the smaller artifacts, grouped together by
type. I loved the thematic arrangement of the exhibits, with all the like
objects grouped together, regardless of tribe or chronology.
My favorite artifacts were examples of actual watercraft
used by each cultural group.
There were also a huge number of artifacts surrounding the
daily living activities of hunting and fishing. (Apologies in advance for the glare and shadow in the photos I took in the museum: I don't have a polarizing filter.)
|Inupiaq Kayak from Cape Espenberg: The model of the paddler is wearing waterproof clothing made of seal skin|
|An early Tlingit garment showing the traditional color palette|
|What a Tlingit ceremonial garment might look like today (note the buttons)|
|I wasn't clear on whether this is a Tlingit or Athabascan garment, but the beading indicates post Euro-American contact|
After spending only a short time in Sitka, I leave feeling greatly enriched by its striking natural beauty and rich cultural history.
|Young raven on the beach|
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