Juneau, Alaska (KINY) - Clan Elders and other tribal members from Angoon, Kake and Wrangell participated in a historic meeting this week with Alaska’s senior military leader to discuss bombardments on the three villages waged by the United States in 1869 and 1882.
Lt. Gen. Thomas A. Bussiere and his aides met with tribal members at Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI) on Wednesday to discuss possible ways to reconcile and to heal. “What might be a path forward in opening the dialog with the purpose of healing and a deeper understanding?” Lt. Gen. Bussiere asked tribal members.
The meeting was often emotional because the suffering of the ancestors still feels raw today, said some attendees. Representatives from Angoon said they grew up with the story of the bombardment by the U.S. Navy that destroyed their village, canoes and winter food stores and led to terrible hardship that winter and in the years that followed.
The Angoon story has persisted for so many years, in part, because it was never resolved. The U.S. Navy has never apologized, despite many pleas by the grandparents, great grandparents and great-great grandparents of people living today.
“The last group of people from Angoon who traveled to DC to meet with the Navy were met with silence and no responses of any sort,” said a tribal member from Angoon. “It might sound like it happened a long time ago, but the echoes of that day still can be heard and felt today. Getting some sort of resolution is something that would be very good for all of our people.”
Members from all of the communities thanked Lt. Gen. Bussiere and his team for initiating the meeting in hopes of finding a resolution.
Lt. Gen. Bussiere said he first heard about the Angoon bombardment a year ago when SHI President Rosita Worl gave a lecture at a military event. After, he researched the bombardment and realized all sides might be able to potentially do something that would help heal the people affected. Then he approached Worl about setting up a meeting. “I was astounded when a military officer approached me wanting to understand the bombing of Angoon. We took it upon ourselves to have him in our clan because this is an honorable man,” said SHI President Rosita Worl, a Thunderbird.
The Thunderbirds adopted Lt. Gen. Bussiere into their clan and gave him the Tlingit name Litseeniḵáa. Worl later recommended that the military also consider meeting with Kake and Wrangell about the attacks that occurred there.
Members from all three communities said they saw the meeting as the beginning of a process that would lead to a reconciliation. They said they wanted any outreach to come from the branch of military that waged the bombardments. Although Lt. Gen. Bussiere cannot speak for all of the branches that led the attacks, he said he felt confident that he could facilitate positive discussions.
Tribal members also said they wanted any ceremonies held in connection with the bombardments to happen in the villages where the attacks occurred. “We’re in the weeds of intergenerational trauma,” said Dawn Jackson, executive director Organized Village of Kake. “We want our whole community to witness it. It’ll take five generations from me to heal what has been done.”
Some tribal members raised the idea of monetary compensation, which would be in keeping with sacred ceremonies. For example, about a year after a clan member dies, the deceased person’s clan holds a ceremony called a ku.éex’, which are sometimes known as payoff parties. During the ku.eex’, the sadness is lifted and the host clan pays cash to clans of the opposite moiety for helping in their time of grief.
“A big part of our culture is when we have a ku.eex’, we wipe away our tears. We pay off the people who have helped us in our time of need,” said Joe Zuboff of Angoon.
One member from Kake said the military could sponsor culture camps there where the history of the bombing could be told. Another representative from Kake suggested the military could commission a monumental piece of art to commemorate the story and the process of reconciliation.
The meeting was preceded by a ceremonial greeting in the morning, during which four clans brought out at.óowu owned by the Shangukeidi, Teikweidí, T’akdeintaan and Deisheetaan. The sacred objects were placed on a table in the clan house and in front of Lt. Gen. Bussiere and his staff. Worl opened by telling the military the significance of this gesture and how fortunate they were to witness it. The clan leaders were dressed by the opposite side and gave impressive oratory.
Native veterans also participated in the ceremony through statements and the posting of colors. Alaska Natives and American Indians have served in the U.S. Armed Forces in every major conflict since the Revolutionary War and in greater numbers per capita than any other ethnic group—facts unknown to many Americans. During World War II, more than 44,000 Native Americans and Alaska Natives served in the U.S. military. More than 42,000 served during the Vietnam War as well. Today, an estimated 24,000 Native American and Alaska Native men and women are on active duty, and more than 150,000 veterans self-identify as American Indian or Alaska Native.
Tlingit warriors also helped to end World War II. In 2013, the United States awarded silver medals posthumously to Tlingit code talkers Robert Jeff David, Sr., Richard Bean, Sr., George Lewis, Jr., and brothers Harvey Jacobs and Mark Jacobs, Jr. Native code talkers played a pivotal role in World War II. During the war, the Japanese had cracked every code the United States used, but when the Marines turned to Navajo, Tlingit and other Native American recruits to develop and implement a secret military language, they created the only unbroken codes in modern warfare—and helped assure victory for the United States over Japan in the South Pacific.
The destruction of Angoon was precipitated by the accidental death of a prominent shaman, Teel’ Tlein (Big Dog Salmon), of the Deisheetaan Clan and Goon H́it (Spring Water House) on October 22, 1882. Teel’ Tlein, who was working for the Northwest Trading Company at Killisnoo, died as a result of a harpoon bomb which discharged prematurely during a whale-hunting expedition. Under Tlingit law, any injury to a clan member required compensation to be paid by the responsible party, even if accidental. The clan council met and decided to hold the owners of the boat, on which the accident occurred, responsible. The Tlingit took two white crew members as prisoners and demanded 200 blankets from the company in compensation for the death of the shaman. Then the superintendent of the whaling operation sent word to Sitka that the Angoon people were uprising and threatening the lives of the whites. In response, US Naval forces under the command of Commander Edgar C. Merriman rushed to Angoon, demanding 400 blankets and threatening to destroy their village if the fine was not paid.
The Tlingit were able to gather only 81 of the 400 blankets demanded by the Navy, and Merriman proceeded with the destruction of Angoon and the villagers’ canoes. Six children died as a result of the bombing and the people of Angoon nearly starved to death that winter.
In December 1869, the U.S. Army carried out a two-day artillery bombardment of the Tlingit Indian village of Kaachx ann.áak’w located adjacent to Fort Wrangell in what was to become the town of Wrangell, Alaska. The conflict developed out of an altercation at a party inside the fort, during which a white woman was injured, and after soldiers killed two Tlingit men while attempting to apprehend them for their involvement in the affair. When the father of one of these men shot and killed a white man in retaliation for the death of his son, and refused to turn himself in, the Army initiated aggressive artillery shelling of the Tlingit village to force his surrender. The conflict concluded when the Tlingit negotiated a ceasefire and the father was hanged for his action. Instead of passively accepting his sentence, this man lunged forward from the scaffolding in a display of willful action designed to prevent further bloodshed since, under Tlingit law, any injury caused by another party was to be compensated for in kind.
The military action against the Kake Tlingit began in Sitka when armed soldiers insulted three clan leaders—a Chilkat, L’uknax.ádi and an Áak’w Kwáan— and accosted one of them. After a scuffle, the Chilkat leader went away with the sentry’s rifle, which prompted the fort’s commander to send a detachment into the Native village demanding his surrender, with the threat of a military attack on the village. The clan leader surrendered.
The next morning, as three Kake Tlingit were attempting to leave Sitka against the commander’s order, an army sentinel shot and killed two of them. The survivor, a clan leader, asked for trade blankets and goods in compensation for their deaths, but the general refused.
A month or so later, a party of Kake Indians came across four trappers on Admiralty Island. They killed two of the trappers as compensation for the loss of two of their clansmen for which no payment had been made. When General Davis learned of the deaths, he ordered the USS Saginaw to Kake to “seize a few of their chiefs as hostages till they [the accused] are given up” and then to “burn their villages.” In February of 1869, three Kake village sites and two forts were totally destroyed by the military. After the shelling, the soldiers went ashore and found each site to be deserted. They proceeded to set fire to the villages and destroyed all the canoes and food supplies.