The sesquicentennial of the Alaska Purchase has come and gone. Speakers have deposited their two-cents' worth, the Alaska Airlines flight attendants have danced their way down the street in Sitka and the flags have been lowered and raised again on Castle Hill in Sitka. Kudos to all who lent of their energy, talents and money to make it meaningful and memorable.
A sterling cohort of visiting Russian scholars, talking both in Sitka and Anchorage, concluded that for Russia, the Russian American colony was a success, partly because it wasn't really a colony. The Russians never intended to establish a permanent, self-perpetuating colony here. The largest number of people from Russia even in Russian America was something less than 600; not even 150 of those were permanent residents of Alaska; and the rest were here on temporary license. The Russian American Co. was not interested in spending any resources – material, financial or human – on anything except generating profit for the company's shareholders. All other considerations were "igoriruyutsya," disregarded.
The company made enormous profits, from which the government took a hefty share, and when Russian America turned unprofitable, they happily sold it to the U.S., before the Americans or British came and took it.
The purchase is viewed as no success by a number of Alaska Native people, especially Tlingit and Haida. This year, perhaps more than ever before, much attention has been given to the Tlingit memory that the Russians never formally acquitted the Tlingit property right, and thus the U.S. had no right to purchase what Russia did not own. In Sitka, three days before Alaska Day, some Kiks.adi Tlingit clan members and others gathered below Castle Hill for a ceremony commemorating the loss of their land in 1867. As sesquicentennial discussions have shown, that emotion is not so keenly felt by all other Alaska Native groups. That does not diminish the emotional trauma felt by some Tlingit.
One hundred and fifty years ago neither the Russian nor American governments, nor their leaders, were in a position to credit the Tlingit assertion, clearly made by some Tlingit leaders at the time, that Russia had not purchased what the Tlingit owned. Assertions of Russian, then American sovereignty over the boundaries of Russian America, defined in 1825 in a treaty between England and Russia, were accepted by both countries in 1867, and by the international community of nations. Mysterious as it may be to us today, the majority, and the leadership of the people of that time, did not take seriously indigenous rights to land, dignity and equality. We live with the legacy of that dismissive, self-serving blindness today, and enlightened leadership strives to acknowledge and redress it.
So, that is the view of Alaska 150 years ago. It's not an Alaska of gold, or copper, or oil, or military engagement, all of which would come later. It's an Alaska of a used-up Russian investment, and a subject Native people.
What might be the view of Alaska 150 years from now? What character will people five generations from now ascribe to this extraordinary land? We cannot know, of course, any more than the people 150 years ago could possibly imagine the Alaska of today, even the most visionary. The gold, copper, oil and military will be part of the story, but what else? Water, perhaps, as that's going to become an increasingly critical necessity, and Alaska has an abundance of it. It won't be manufacturing or agriculture: Economies of scale will continue to make these unprofitable in Alaska.
It will be environment. Alaska has now, and will have then the greatest expanses of unbuilt, virtually unmanipulated land in the U.S. And it will continue to be a marvel to people who inhabit the densely settled and heavily utilized landscapes of the contiguous states. It is inhabited wilderness, to be sure. Alaska Natives have been harvesting its resources for subsistence since time immemorial. But one cannot hike through it, raft down its rivers, fly over it, even drive through those meager portions served by roads, and not be impressed, moved, by the vast, irreplaceable majesty of Alaska's natural environment.
Whatever else is noted about Alaska in 150 years, this will be at the top of the list.
Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
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