Arts & Culture

"Take Them All Down": Statues spark discussions about colonialism in Alaska


Alexander Baranov was the first executive director of the Russian-American company, and the statue of him was erected to honor the role of commerce in Sitka's past. (Photo by Katherine Rose / KCAW)

In St. Paul, Minnesota, leaders of the Twin Cities Native American Movement orchestrated and helped overthrow a statue of Christopher Columbus in the state capital's grounds.

Videos of the event went viral and helped initiate a conversation about what statues of Confederate war figures, as well as Columbus and others, mean today.

The names of settlers and explorers can be found everywhere in Alaska: streets, cities, buildings and statues – all reminders of the colonization of Alaska and the effects on the indigenous population.

"Take them all down," said Yéil Ya-Tseen Nicholas Galanin, a Tlingit and Unangax̂ musician and artist who works primarily in Sitka, Alaska.

He specifically talks about statues, but Galanin's art often speaks to the traumatic history that Alaskan and other Indians face every day.

One of his most popular pieces is a polar bear carpet that looks like it has partially come to life and could attack at any moment.

Before the coronavirus pandemic hit the world, Galanin was working on a piece for an international arts festival – the Sydney Biennale, Australia. Galanin's play is called "Shadows in the Country, an Excavation and a Bush Funeral".

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The visual artist Yéil Ya-Tseen Nicholas Galanin from Tlingit and Unangax̂ is standing in his earthwork on March 13, 2020 for the Sydney Biennale entitled "Shadows in the Country, an Excavation and Bush Burial", part of an exhibition on Cockatoo Island , Australia. (Photo by Rhett Wyman / SHM, courtesy Nicholas Galanin)

"data-medium-file ="×380.jpg "data-large-file =" -434×650.jpg "class =" wp-image-195115 size-medium "src ="×380.jpg "alt =" Tlingit and Unangax̂ visual artist Yéil Ya – Nicholas Galanin stands in his work of art, an outline of a grave dug for a statue "width =" 253 "height =" 380 "srcset ="×380 . jpg 253w,×650.jpg 434w,×453.jpg 302w, https: // media / 2020/06 / shadow_on_the_land-554×830.jpg 554w, 683w "sizes =" (maximum width: 253px) 100vw, 253px "/> The visual artist Yéil Ya-Tseen Nicholas Galanin from Tlingit and Unangax̂ is standing in his earthworks on March 13, 2020 for the Sydney Biennale entitled "Shadow on the Land, an Excavation and Bush Burial", part of an exhibition on Cockatoo Island, Australia. (Photo by Rhett Wyman / SHM, courtesy Nicholas Galanin)

His play is on Cockatoo Island on Sydney Harbor. The perfect silhouette of a Captain Cook statue is dug out of the earth. The exhibition looks like an excavation site with cordoned off areas and heaps of earth.

"It's an archaeological dig of the shadow of the Captain Cook statue in Hyde Park and in Sydney," Galanin said. "I was just talking to my partner this morning about how this project could not have fallen in a later time."

In Alaska, petitions are calling for statues to be removed in at least three cities in Alaska, including Galanin's hometown of Sitka.

The land that came to be known as Sitka served as the base for the Russian-American company in the early days of Russian colonization.

And since 1989 there has been a life-size bronze statue of Alexander Baranov in the city center. More than 1,000 people have signed the petition demanding their removal.

A similar petition calls for the removal of a statue of Captain James Cook in Anchorage. Cook's name can be found all over town – a hotel, local indigenous company, and tribal organizations, even the bay that connects Alaska's largest city to the sea is named after Cook.

The Dena & # 39; ina name for the area is Tikahtnu – or "great river of water," which you can find around town as well, but not with the same frequency as Cook.

Aaron Leggett, who is Dena’ina Athabascan, is president of the hometown of Eklutna, in the Anchorage parish.

Leggett is also the Curator of Alaska History and Culture at the Anchorage Museum and has done a lot of research on Cook.

“He was a pretty brilliant seafarer,” said Legget. “What he did is an achievement in human history. There's no way around it. And could someone else have done it the way they did? No."

Leggett said Cook was beginning to learn and see what great seafarers the Pacific and Polynesian people were.

“Had (cook) lived? Who knows what could have happened? "

Cook died on February 14, 1779. Native Hawaiians killed him after the explorer tried to kidnap and release the Alii Nui – or King – of Hawaii.

A statue of Cook overlooks the bay in Resolution Park, Anchorage. The park is named after one of Cook's ships that he stayed on while moored in the bay. Cook never technically set foot in the land that came to be known as Anchorage. He never got off the boat.

"He's sending a group from his ship, the Resolution and Discovery, to a headland on the Kenai Peninsula now known as Point Possession," Leggett said. “They go ashore, they plant a flag. They bury a beer bottle full of British coins. And they claim it for the crown on behalf of the British Dominion or the British Empire. They have a little ceremony and they take off. "

Legget recognizes the problems indigenous people have with Cook's legacy. But he doesn't think tearing the statues down would solve anything.

"I'm less interested in dismantling statues, and I'm more interested in raising funds to fund the place-name projects for the places we've identified – the roughly 26 locations across the parish." That would make a lot more sense. "

The place name project would provide signs in English and Dena & # 39; ina – for locations like the inlet and Knik Arm.

Dgheyey Kaq or "needlefish's mouth" is the Dena'ina name for what is now Anchorage. Dgheyaytnu – or "Stickleback Creek" – is the name for Ship Creek, the original city in Anchorage.

“I think even if a statue comes down. He still has Cook Inlet, you still have Cook Inlet Regional Incorporated, ”Leggett said. "I mean, we won't change our names tomorrow. Is this a conversation in 20 years' time or what? Maybe you know, but these things take time."

It is important to have community dialogues on these topics, according to Leggett.

The British Petroleum company donated the statue to the city of Anchorage as part of a bicentenary in 1976. A similar statue can be found in Anchorage's twin town Whitby, England.

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz said during a city briefing that the statue's future was being reviewed but declined to offer too many details about it. He simply said that the protests against Black Lives Matter in the state have been largely peaceful and that he doesn't expect anyone to be too hasty with the statue.

Berkowitz recently said at a meeting of the Sister Cities Commission in Anchorage that the village of Eklutna should decide the fate of the statue.

In Alaska's capital, Juneau, a statue in front of the state legislature building shows William H. Seward, who holds the contract of assignment – the 1867 agreement for the US to buy Alaska from Russia.

It was installed just a few years ago – as part of a privately funded project – and created by two sibling Ketchikan artists.

A town in Alaska shares the name of Seward as does a street in Juneau – in fact, it runs between the Sealaska Corporation, the Southeast Alaska-based regional Native Corporation, and the Sealaska Heritage Institute.

The contract of assignment is a point in history that is politically charged for Native Alaska people.

In a letter to the editor published in the Juneau Empire, Rosita Worl, President of the Sealaska Heritage Institute, says, "Seward embodied destiny manifested."

Sibling sculptors David and Judith Rubin stand in front of their 6-foot bronze sculpture by William Seward, which was unveiled in front of the Alaska Capitol on July 3. (Photo by Jacob Resneck / KTOO)

"As indigenous people from Southeast Alaska and myself personally, we have always despised William Seward and despised him since the assignment agreement of 1867," said Worl, whose Tlingit names are Yeidiklasókw and Kaaháni. “We said if you want to buy Alaska, buy it from its rightful owners. We are the ones who own Alaska. "

A petition requesting the removal of the statue was originally addressed to Juneau's mayor and city administrator. But the state owns the land on which the statue is located – and so the petition has since been revised.

Worl says now is the time to talk about what the statues mean.

"If we want to make the changes in our society that I believe most people are demanding, this is the right time," said Worl. "I don't think we can close our eyes anymore. I think it is time for a society as a whole to try to look at our society now and make these changes, make the changes that I know will be one will create a better world for all of us. "

Worl says they took some small steps in Juneau. You have renamed a corner downtown near the Walter Soboleff building to Heritage Square and want the Seward Street name to be changed too.



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