“Converging Empires: Citizens and Subjects in the North Pacific Borderlands, 1867–1945″
By Andrea Geiger; The University of North Carolina Press, 2022; 368 pages; $27.95.
Alaskans think of themselves as occupying an edge, not a borderland. It’s a notion reinforced by world maps, usually centered on the Atlantic Ocean, which place Alaska in the upper left-hand corner. Friendly Canada lies to the east, while the map ends to the north and west.
Reposition the center onto the Pacific, however, as historian Andrea Geiger suggests, and things look different. Suddenly an arced stretch of islands strides atop the world, where two continents nearly touch each other. It’s here where imperial designs have been pursued for centuries by at least five nations. All have had strategic and material interests in the region, prompting them to take possession of large stretches of territory. Along the edges of these lands, demarcation lines have slipped back and forth between these nations, through negotiated agreements and sometimes war.
Common among the imperial powers that sought gain in the region was a general dismissal of the claims of Indigenous residents to lands they held for millennia. People who never ceded those lands to the invading powers. They had their own maps of who belonged where, maps that might not have existed in paper form or been hammered out in treaties, but maps that were well understood and that directed the movements of Indigenous residents across landscapes and seascapes bisected by professional mapmakers in capitals thousands of miles away. Bureaucrats who drew lines that made little if any effort at accommodating the peoples on the ground. Or even their right to be there.
It’s this complicated history that Geiger explores in “Converging Empires,” and it’s a theme captured in the book’s subtitle: “Citizens and Subjects in the North Pacific Borderlands, 1867-1945.”
The empires, of course, are familiar. Among the European powers, Spain made the first forays into the North Pacific but couldn’t hold on. Britain sent ships that charted coastlines, while Russia claimed Alaska and built commercial outposts along its shores (Russia’s colonialism was economic, not expansionary; full settlements never emerged, easing its ultimate sale). The United States, meanwhile, was barreling across the continent, with hopes of grabbing what is now British Columbia and the Yukon. England, determined to prevent this, expanded its own presence, bringing B.C. into the Canadian Confederation. Meanwhile, after a long period of seclusion, Japan shifted course and began taking over nearby islands including Hokkaido and the Kurils.
Geiger explores the commonalities and differences in the ways America, Canada and Japan treated the Indigenous populations who found themselves suddenly beholden to outside rule, as well as the ways regional emigrants navigated the area as they sought economic or personal betterment. Indigenous people were forced to fight even for recognition, while incoming Japanese workers were viewed by the governments and original inhabitants of both Alaska and Canada as unwanted immigrants.
So too, could Indigenous people find themselves intruders in their own lands. A lengthy examination of the relocation of Metlakatla from B.C. to Alaska offers insight into this dilemma. The Tsimshian village was originally located in Canada and was populated by people who had embraced Christianity and largely abandoned many Native practices, living a generally Western lifestyle instead. But despite doing what the British and American governments insisted Native peoples do, their land had been taken anyway.
Archaeological evidence unavailable at the time indicates the Tsimshian people lived around the southern tip of Alaska’s Panhandle and nearby parts of British Columbia for 5,000 years. Yet when the English arrived, the Tsimshian were declared British subjects and their land claimed as property of the Crown. They were offered a tiny reservation, insufficient for their subsistence needs.
Led by English lay minister William Duncan, residents of Metlakatla petitioned the United States government in the 1880s for permission to transfer the community to Alaska, hoping to gain a large enough reservation to meet their needs. Again, this is on land they had always considered their own. America was willing to take them in and did, but due to glitches in the laws, did not recognize them as “Indians,” the legal status required at the time for a reservation to be carved out. Meanwhile, they weren’t white, so they were also barred from American citizenship. In B.C. they were subjects without land. In America they entered legal limbo.
It was a conflict in understanding over who owned the land, one best summarized by Charles Russ, a subchief of the Luxgalts’ap people, who is quoted from testimony asking, “How did the Queen get the land from our forefathers to set it apart for us? It is ours to give to the Queen, and we don’t have to understand how she could have to give it to us.”
The plight of Metlakatla is but one of many examples Geiger documents in the book, but it’s instructive. And the Tsimshian weren’t the only ones to have lines drawn directly through their lands. After Alaska was purchased, the Haida ignored international boundaries and continued trading as always, an act the U.S. government viewed as smuggling. Across the ocean, Hokkaido, long subjected to Japanese incursions, was ultimately annexed and used as a launching point into Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands. Japan, in the early stages of becoming an imperial power, was nudging its way toward the Aleutian Islands and conflict with the U.S.
Before World War II, however, the point when this book concludes, racialized justice systems held power over people who sought nothing more than the right to live on lands their ancestors occupied for millennia. It would be decades before the imperfect resolutions we know today would be agreed to. Geiger doesn’t reach that stage of history in this richly detailed book, but with each example, including Metlakatla as detailed above, she shows how the need for such pacts was created in the first place. And she shows that Alaska sits in a region of fluid borderlands, both legal and historic, where modern governance has sometimes turned Indigenous residents into foreigners on their own lands, contained by borders not of their making.