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Native memory: Rewriting Alaska history with the word ‘genocide’

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: July 26
  • Published July 26

People flood the Alaska State Library, Archive and Museum as it opens June 6, 2016. (Charles Wohlforth / ADN)

Last of three columns

A generation ago, Alaska's mostly white pioneers and missionaries were heroes of its development story. Now many Alaska Natives say they were guilty of genocide. Even the state's official museum takes that point of view.

But some professional historians are quietly pushing back. They say a black-and-white picture of villains and victims is oversimplified and genocide is an exaggeration.

In 1967, the anniversary of the first century of U.S. control of Alaska gripped the state and left a deep impression. The 150th anniversary last year passed with little fanfare, and even a sense of embarrassment, as many Natives said it was no cause for celebration.

"You hear people talk about how Alaska Natives who fought in World War II were really traitors, because they fought for the U.S. government, which caused so much harm to Alaska Natives," said Steve Henrikson, curator of collections at the Alaska State Museum in Juneau.

There are at least two major reasons this matters.

First, there is the truth. That matters regardless of the purpose history is put to.

Second, there is the role of each of us in this continuing story. All Alaskans have a part in it, whether we like it or not. Without understanding what happened, we can't reconcile and move toward justice.

I think that reconciliation requires recognition of terrible wrongs, but also understanding the nuance and complexity that is always part of life.

My involvement came when I worked with Henrikson on labels for the Alaska State Museum several years ago. The state government had torn down a museum that had told the traditional pioneer history and erected a brand-new building.

Henrikson, who is part of a Haida and Tlingit family by marriage, connected to cultural groups around Alaska and made them responsible for their own stories. I was hired to turn that testimony into cohesive language for the exhibits' signs and labels.

"People universally refer to it as genocide. But we have gotten pushback on that term from historians," Henrikson said this week.

"I do strongly feel that the evidence of genocide is on display. What I really wanted to do was put that evidence out there. The part the government played, the part the missionaries played, and the part American capitalism played — that's what it amounts to," he said.

During the project, I asked for documentary evidence. I worried that Natives' memories cast them too much as victims in a story that was much more complex and also contained non-Native heroes.

But Henrikson countered that Native oral traditions are accurate sources of historical information. He concedes the revision of Alaska history may have gone too far, but said that is a necessary evil in a time of correction.

Did American pioneers commit genocide? And I don't mean cultural genocide, but the intentional extermination of Native people?

University of Alaska Fairbanks professor Terrence Cole, a friend, has challenged me by email on several columns in which I've taken the Native point of view in revising history.

Historians don't discount the horrors that befell Alaska Natives after western  contact, but some stories that have been newly adopted into Alaska's popular narrative simply aren't true. Cole said that goes for genocide, too.

"The claim that missionaries and the U.S. military in Alaska practiced genocide is just not born out by the evidence," he wrote to me in 2016. "If one does say that, then certainly it must be said the Tlingits committed genocide on the Eyaks and the Haidas, for example. And that just debases the word. It is more complicated than that."

Historian Steve Haycox said intention counts. Early missionaries destroyed Native cultures, but most were trying to protect Native people. We may see assimilation policy as evil, but that's because of our modern perspective, Haycox said. Back then even the Alaska Native Brotherhood supported it.

Haycox is concerned that Alaska Native institutions and their version of history have become immune to criticism.

"Any suggestion that would seem to diminish the victimhood of Native American people becomes the target of attack," he said. "I think it is disempowering, and for that reason, I think it will go away. I think in another 20 years it will go away and people will say, 'We really went too far in talking about victimhood.'"

Perhaps. But professional historians no longer control this story, nor do they alone speak with authority.

Genocide is officially defined by the United Nations and what happened to Alaska Natives fits precisely, said Dalee Sambo Dorough. She can cite the provisions from memory.

Dalee Sambo Dorough is an associate professor of political science at UAA. Photographed February 19, 2016. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Sambo Dorough, who is Inupiaq, held high-level U.N. positions on indigenous issues and was elected recently as international chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council. She is also a University of Alaska Anchorage professor.

"I'm not saying, 'Boo-hoo look at this.' I'm saying this is the reality," Sambo Dorough said. "I'm not going to play the victim. I'm going to articulate from my perspective the status and rights and move forward."

Native corporations have become economic powerhouses, Alaska's largest companies. After years of conflict, the state government has begun bowing to the reality of tribal governments, offering to cede education, child welfare and some criminal justice powers. Subsistence is protected by federal law.

The victors write the history, and Alaska Natives have emerged from a century of struggle as a formidable economic, political and social force. Why should they emphasize the good intentions of some members of the group that formerly dominated them?

On the other hand, solving deep problems that are the legacy of that history requires reconciliation. The truth is part of that, and truth cannot be found in a landscape painted only in black and white.

"We need to reconcile, from my point of view, the facts, the history, the truth, from both perspectives," Sambo Dorough said.

But discussing the problems still facing Alaska Natives — suicide, missing women and girls, education, health, to name a few — she was doubtful.

"I would hope, but I would not hold my breath," she said. "I think reconciliation — there is so much that needs to be overcome — I really don't know about that."

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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