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A statue of Seward in Juneau would also honor painful history in Alaska

  • Author: Ross Coen
  • Updated: June 25, 2016
  • Published March 30, 2016

The statue of William H. Seward in Seattle's Volunteer Park may seem out of place to a casual observer. A senator from New York and secretary of state to Presidents Lincoln and Johnson in the 1860s, Seward is certainly a major figure in American history but he has no meaningful connection to Seattle.

So why the statue?

The answer is that in 1909, Seattle hosted the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, a world's fair that, among other things, celebrated the city's connection to gold fields in the North. Fair organizers raised the larger-than-life-size statue to honor the man who in 1867 had the foresight to buy Alaska.

As with all monuments, however, the Seward statue actually says more about the people who put it up than it does about the honored man himself. And in the early 1900s, Seattleites -- not to mention Americans more generally -- saw themselves as the rightful possessors of a new empire that reached across the Pacific Ocean.

The Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, or AYP, came just a decade after the Spanish-American War, which placed Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines under American control. It also established the United States as a world power and gave Americans a stake in international affairs.

Seattle's business elite accordingly convened the AYP in a shrewd (and mostly successful) attempt to establish the Emerald City as the commercial hub of the Pacific. Japan and the Philippines both held trade fairs at the AYP, as did Hawaii and a dozen states from California to New York. The AYP showcased the Pacific rim's valuable resources, a natural bounty just waiting for American businessmen: sugar in Hawaii, timber in the Philippines, fish in Japan, and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of minerals, flora and fauna in Alaska.

William Seward, prescient sage of American expansion that he was, foresaw these developments decades earlier.

"The Pacific Ocean, its shores, its islands, and the vast regions beyond will become the chief theater of events in the world's great hereafter," he proclaimed in 1852. These words are cast in bronze on the pedestal of Seward's statue in Volunteer Park.

In addition, Seward did not plan to stop with Alaska. He made very clear his intention to make the nation contiguous by acquiring British Columbia too. The Crown's territory, he insisted while visiting Sitka on Aug. 12, 1869, "must be governed in conformity with the interests of her people and of society upon the American continent. If that Territory shall be so governed, there will be no ground of complaint anywhere. If it shall be governed so as to conflict with the interests of the inhabitants of that Territory and of the United States, we all can easily foresee what will happen in that case." In the deliberate calm-talk of international diplomacy, that's as close to a threat of annexation as you'll ever see.

Today we recognize that Seward's imperial vision and the AYP's economic appetites were both founded on a belief in white, male, Western superiority. In order to "pacify" the Pacific and make its regions safe for investment, the United States relocated, Christianized, enslaved and/or killed indigenous peoples, all while harvesting the aforementioned natural resources for private gain.

It is for these reasons that I am somewhat troubled by the present drive to erect a statue of William Seward in front of the state Capitol in Juneau. It makes perfect sense in the context of the coming sesquicentennial of the 1867 purchase, and I've no doubt the statue's proponents have the best of intentions. But such a monument cannot be detached from the imperial ambitions that drove the United States to dispossess indigenous peoples of their land and exclude them from the political institutions of the state.

And now, when Alaska Natives and other minorities enter the Capitol building to take their rightful place in Alaska's center of government, we're going to make them walk by a monument to the very colonialism that kept their forebears out?

In many ways Alaska is itself a monument to America's history of imperialism. Do we really need another statue straight out of the "great white male" school of history?

Ross Coen is a historian who writes about the social, political and environmental history of Alaska and the American West. He lives in Fairbanks.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any Web browser.

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