Eye of the Beholder

Eye of the Beholder

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March 29, 2012

History, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Sometimes, though, the mind’s eye distorts our historical “vision” and memory to suit other purposes.

In 2005, my friend Juli posted a letter from the Ayn Rand Institute to the U.S. Senate opposing the idea of a formal apology to the American Indians for all their suffering at the hands of our ancestors. (You have to read the letter.) Coincidentally, at the time of her post, I was reading the novel Storm Riders by Craig Lesley, in which he recounts a story told him by Tlingit Indians in the Alaskan community of Angoon, which has made numerous requests for an apology from the US for the 1882 naval bombardment of their village.

My curiosity roused, I did a quick google search on the topic, and came up with three similar but distinct versions of the tragedy.

United States Coast Guard records show the U.S. Revenue Marine Steamer Thomas Corwin was commissioned in San Francisco and sailed for Sitka, Alaska on 30 July 1877 where she made annual cruises. In 1882 she participated in the bombardment of the village of Angoon while under the command of Revenue Captain Michael Healy.

On 22 October 1882, says USCG, a Northwest Trading Company whaleboat chased a whale into the waters near the Tlingit Indian village of Angoon, on Kootznahoo Inlet, Admiralty Island. The whaling gun aboard exploded, killing Tith Klane, a Tlingit shaman who worked for the company. The other natives aboard the whaling boat took two company employees, E. H. Bayne and S. S. Stulzman, who were also crewmen on the boat, hostage in an effort to extract payment from the company for the death of their shaman. They landed at Angoon. There they, along with the villagers, sought payment of 40 blankets. A company representative sought the assistance of the only naval warship in the area, the screw frigate USS Adams, under the command of a Commander Merriman, which was tied up at Sitka. As the Adams drew too much water to get close to Angoon, Merriman sought and obtained the assistance of Healy and the Corwin, which was in Sitka at the time obtaining coal. Healy agreed and the Corwin, with Merriman and 50 sailors and 20 marines from Adams aboard, set sail on 24 October 1882, apparently towing the Company’s tug Favorite along with the Adams’ launch, to the waters off Angoon. Merriman had armed the Favorite with a small howitzer and Gatling gun.

According to the official history of the Adams:

Upon arrival at Angoon, the force collected as many of the Indians’ canoes as possible, and Comdr. Merriman held a meeting with some of the Indians during which he made counter demands for the release of the hostages and a levy of 400 blankets in return for which the expedition would spare their canoes and village. To buy time, the Indians accepted the demands at first and released the hostages; however, after they had an opportunity to hide their canoes and gather their forces, the Indians refused to honor the agreement. Thereupon, Corwin and Favorite took the village under fire, destroying a number of houses. When the ships ceased fire, a landing party went ashore and set fire to some of the remaining houses. At that point the Indians submitted. Comdr. Merriman left a party of sailors at Angoon to insure continued good faith, and he and the remainder returned to Sitka in Corwin to reembark in Adams.

Apparently six children suffocated when the village’s houses were put to the torch and the villagers suffered greatly that winter, having lost their means of livelihood in the canoes and their shelter from the weather. In October of 1982, the U.S. Government paid the Tlingit Tribe $90,000 in damages for the their property that was destroyed in the incident.

Welcome to Alaska dot com tells us that Admiralty Island has long been the home of the Kootznoowoo Tlingit tribe. Kootznoowoo means “fortress of bears.” From the 1700s to the mid-1800s, fur trading was the major money-making activity in the area. In 1878, the Northwest Trading Company established a trading post and whaling station on nearby Killisnoo Island and villagers were employed to hunt whales. Whaling, a BIA school and a Russian Orthodox Church attracted many Tlingits to Killisnoo.

In 1882, a whaling vessel’s harpoon charge accidentally misfired and exploded, killing a Native crew member – a Tlingit shaman, or medicine man.Villagers demanded payment of 200 blankets to the man’s family, as was customary. The Northwest Trading Co. felt threatened and sought assistance from the U.S. Navy at Sitka. The village and a summer camp were subsequently shelled and destroyed by the Navy Cutter U.S.S. Corwin. Native accounts of the attack claim six children died by smoke inhalation. In 1973, Angoon won a $90,000 out-of-court settlement from the Federal government for the 1882 bombardment.

In 1998, the Alaska State Legislature announced the Senate unanimously passed a Senate Joint Resolution 38 urging the United States government to apologize for a naval attack on the village of Angoon in the early territorial history of Alaska.

The action was caused by a dispute between the village and a whaling company over the accidental death of a tribal member in the company’s employment. In the early winter of 1882, the U.S. Navy interceded by shelling and burning the village and its foodstores. The attack resulted in serious injuries and the death of six children. In the aftermath, the residents of Angoon struggled to survive the difficult winter without adequate shelter or food supplies.

“Memories and recollections of the injustice are still very much alive among the residents of Angoon,” Senator Mackie stated. “Almost every family was deeply affected in some way by the death and destruction.” From talking with elders in the village, Mackie said it was felt that a simple apology from the U.S. Government would go a long way to bring closure to the incident. The resolution urges Bill Clinton, President of the United States, to formally apologize to the village of Angoon.

In researching his novel, Craig Lesley acknowledges the Tlingit people of Angoon for their assistance with his project. In his story, the community is celebrating their survival. Their version:

Over a hundred years ago,the United States Navy came to destroy our village. Our brother Keechklain, a shaman and village leader, died in that whaling boat when a harpoon gun exploded. Out of respect for our dead brother, it is our way to leave that boat on the beach for a year.

But the whaling people were greedy and did not honor Keechklain. Every day, his widow and children saw that boat go out to hunt more whales, and every day their grief became stronger. So six young men from our village seized that boat. They told the whaling company they could have it back only if they showed respect by giving that widow and her children ninety blankets.

That company went to the Navy in Sitka and told them the Raven people at Angoon had pirated their boat. Then the Navy anchored its gunboats offshore and demanded four hundred blankets from the village. Most of the able-bodied men and women were off at summer fish camps, getting more salmon for winter. Only the children and old people and the sick stayed behind in the village.

By the next day, the village could produce only ninety-four blankets. So to subdue our people, the Navy gunboats began shelling the village. First, they destroyed our canoes, so we couldn’t travel or gather food. Next, they blew up the storehouses where we kept our salmon and meat, the dried berries and roots to feed ourselves and our children through the long, cold winter. When the storehouses were all shelled and burning, the Navy started firing at the clan houses along the waterfront. The big shells from the gunboats destroyed the houses, the totems, the crest screens, all our people’s heritage. Women and children ran along the shore to escape the shells and burning buildings. They were mowed down by a Gatling gun. Sailors broke out rifles from the ships’ munitions and fired at the people running on the shore. They killed seven old people and wounded many more.

Some young children were too afraid to run, so they hid in their clan houses where they thought they were safe. Six of those children were burned up in the fires. Three in the Killer Whale house, two in the Dog Salmon. One in Bear.

When all the clan houses were burning, the Marines landed and stole whatever treasures were left–the ancient ceremonial masks, the dancing sticks, the screens, tunics, Chilkat blankets. Anything they could carry. The rest they piled on the hungry fires.

Now a hundred years have gone by since the Navy destroyed our village. Because of that destruction, many Angoon people died in winter. They starved without their food supplies; they grew weak from the cold, the long dark days, the rain and snow. No one knows the death count.

You see old Wendell standing there. In 1957, he was a younger man and went to the U.S. Navy in Washington, D.C., seeking an apology for our village. Three days, the Secretary of the Navy kept him away from his office. Finally, he sent out a lieutenant with that hat as a souvenir. But he refused to see Wendell or apologize for the Navy’s action.

When a country is young, just like when a man is young, he might be making some mistakes. When he gets older, and a little ermine starts coming into his hair, maybe his eyes don’t see well, but his mind sees clear. That man should admit the mistakes he made when he was young and say he’s sorry. If he’s an honest man, he should apologize to the people he’s hurt. For a hundred years, we’ve been waiting for the Navy to admit their mistake and apologize. Right now, we are giving them that chance again.


* The U.S. Navy never apologized, but in 2008, Thomas Riley, a descendent of Naval Captain Healy, traveled to Angoon to apologize on behalf of his family.

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