Local History should be taught to our students

by Robert Okitkun

I would like to see more emphasis on the history of the people that have resided in this area during the past millennium. I would like students to know that the Russian militia first came to the Yukon River from fort St. Michael in an attempt to coerce the natives to hunt and fish for them. Their discussion lasted late into the night and everyone retired. When the Russians arose, the natives were all gone. Attempts to find them were futile so they returned to St. Michael.
Other attempts were unsuccessful as coastal residents forewarned the Yukon people of the Russians’ encroachment. This dilemma created a stalemate and the Russians were befuddled. They finally decided to establish communication by sending a Russian Orthodox priest by dogsled during the winter. The priest spent many months opening a dialogue with the natives. He finally convinced the locals that if a trader were allowed that their livelihood can become easier. The trader can bring guns, traps, pots, pans and other amenities in exchange for fur.
I would like to have the students become aware that the cessation of Alaska was in fact a contract between Russia and the United States. There were four basics parts to this contract. The first was the exchange money; the second, demarcation; third, citizenship; and the fourth was land settlement.
The United States Bureau of Land Management delineated the boundary lines of Alaska after purchase. Those Russians that wished to remain in Alaska with the aboriginal tribes would automatically become U. S. citizens, otherwise the Russians had three years to return to their motherland.
As for lands claimed by the tribes, it is written that the United States would have a land settlement with the indigenous people of the land. This settlement is yet to be realized. Most think that ANCSA was the settlement. I ask why all the tribes in Alaska have no land base, except, perhaps the land that their office is upon.
I would like students to become knowledgeable about the first census and lands used by the tribes. The reverend Sheldon Jackson became the first administrator of all Alaska. He started the census enumeration in Southeast Alaska and tried to find out how much land the tribes used. When he ran out of funds, he asked the Presbyterian Church to assist since he was a minister in the Church. They obliged.
Jackson went back to congress to request for more funds and to ask the aid of Churches. Congress at first refused claiming that it was unconstitutional because the Church and State need to be separate. But they realized that Alaska was so enormous that they made an exception for this data gathering.
Different churches were assigned to different regions of Alaska. To my knowledge, the churches continued getting government funds until the 1950s or 60s. They were allowed to not only build their church buildings and orphanages but also assist the needy with clothing, food and necessities. They were also obligated to teach only English in their schools and prevent native dances and potlatches. It was a classic collusion to colonize the native Alaskan.
Although General George Custer was deceased, his seventh cavalry was sent to St. Michael. I would also like to see students learn that during the gold rush the 7th Cavalry distributed clothing and blankets contaminated with Influenza and small pox to the indigenous people of Alaska. Our friend, Harold Napoleon, of Hooper Bay referred to this as the “Great Death”. And it was, since thousands died which included entire communities. The gold miners were now free to roam native lands without repercussions.
Our grandparents that survived were instructed to pretend that it did not happen and were to attempt normal living. The effects of the “Great Death” have led to abnormal behavior which included alcohol and drug abuse. The term “epigenetics” is now being used as a description of the cause and effects being passed to the generations through the genes. Our children and grandchildren are still under the effects. I’d like to challenge the young people to solve the problems of our area and stimulate healing and good healthy living.
I would like to see the teaching of the form of government that the aboriginal people of Alaska used. Dr. Paul John of Toksook Bay, Alaska once stated that people came from elsewhere and brought with them, their rules and laws which were not compatible with the native morals and beliefs.
Our people in this area have never been conquered, but they were surely decimated and the resources as fur, fish and minerals were extracted for the benefit of others. I would like to see the students taught about tribal sovereignty. Thank you.
Robert Okitkun resides in Kotlik, Alaska.