Noel and I had never taken a cruise before on either a small or large ship. The closest we had come to cruising was when we booked freighter passage back to Japan from Taiwan in 1972 while Nixon was in China. We were the only passengers. There wasn’t much to do other than read and chat it up with the ship’s purser who was transporting money and valuables out of Taiwan for folks who were scared the mainland Chinese would invade. For our Alaskan journey we booked a small ship passage on Alaskan Dream Cruises because its boats’ small sizes would allow us to get up closer to the marine mammals and glaciers than possible on the large cruise ships and because its Alaskan Native owners promised lots of cultural activities.
Alaskan Dream Cruises is operated by Allen Marine which has been providing day boat tours in Southeast Alaska since 1970. The company specializes in building high-speed passenger catamarans which are generally used as ferries. Five boats built by Allen Marine participated in the so-called “miracle on the Hudson” in 2009 when 115 passengers and crew were rescued from a downed plane in New York City’s Hudson River. Allen Marine has offered its overnight cruises for only four years, so it is relatively new to the cruise business.
Interestingly, since 1971 Alaskan Natives have been organized into corporations after Congress passed the Alaskan Native Claims Settlement Act which settled the land and financial claims of the native tribes. Unlike Native Americans in the lower 48 states, Alaskan Natives are not living on reservations. As a side benefit (in my view), you won’t see casinos with Vegas-style gambling in Alaska, only a few bingo and pull-tab games. Among Alaskan Natives there does seem to be an emphasis on entrepreneurism and an embrace of technology while at the same time preserving Alaskan Native cultural roots and values. Allen Marine embodies these characteristics.
Our cruise was to embark from Sitka, Alaska, on Baranof Island where Allen Marine is headquartered. Sitka is a wonderful small town, totally walkable, and seems to pride itself on not being “corporate.” By that, the folks there mean that the town is not dominated by the big cruise ship companies like Holland America. Most of the businesses are locally owned. There are only two franchised fast-food places – McDonald’s and Subway. We opted to stay in Sitka two nights before the cruise and two nights after. It was a good decision because there is plenty to do and some really good shopping.
I was quite impressed by the quality of the items in the gift shops. There are the usual inexpensive souvenirs but also quality native carvings, baskets, and textiles. We came across quite a unique little shop called Indian Village Artists run by an Alaskan Native named Boyd Didrickson. His inventory seemed a little low, but what he had was top quality. He was a carver but his eye sight started to fail so he had to stop. He specializes in work from St. Lawrence Island which is forty miles from Siberia in the Bering Sea. It is populated mainly by Yupik Eskimos, many of them fabulous carvers of walrus ivory. The morning before we boarded our ship, we spotted a Yupik couple, John and Arlene Waghiyi, from St. Lawrence Island in front of Didrickson’s shop selling beautiful ivory carvings. I bought two, but I would have tried to buy them all if I still had my physical gallery.
[Boyd Didrickson, the owner of Indian Village Artists, died in October 2016. To the best of my knowledge the gallery is now closed.]
The Tlingit people settled what is now called Sitka more than ten thousand years ago because of its temperate climate, superb fishing, and the abundant wildlife and edible plants in the surrounding Tongass rain forests. The Russians started exploring the area in 1741 and built a fort and trading post in 1799, naming their outpost “New Archangel.” They were primarily interested in sea otter furs which were referred to as “soft gold” and were more valuable than sable.
The Tlingit destroyed the Russian outpost in 1801. Knowing the Russians would be back, the Tlingit built their own substantial fort strong enough to withstand cannon bombardment. Inevitably, in 1804 the Russians returned and the Battle of Sitka ensued. The fort held but the Tlingit had run out of ammo by day four and strategically retreated under the cover of darkness to Chichagof Island from where they continued to harass the Russians until 1821 when the Russians invited them to return.
In 1841 Archbishop Innocent of the Russian Orthodox Church arrived in Sitka to minister to the Tlingit. Later known as St. Innocent of Alaska, the archbishop was quite a remarkable man. In addition to the dubious distinction of bringing Christ to the Tlingit of Sitka, he became not only fluent in the Tlingit language but he also developed a written phonetic alphabet for it and translated the Bible into Tlingit. He is also credited with helping to save the Tlingit during a smallpox outbreak.
The archbishop integrated the language, the people and their customs such as the potlatches into the church. The National Park Service now offers tours of his house in Sitka. The Russian Orthodox Church remains a major Christian denomination in Alaska. Downtown Sitka has a Russian Orthodox Cathedral originally built by the archbishop that was rebuilt by the entire community when it burned down in 1966.
In 1867 two years after the end of our civil war, the Russians sold Alaska to the United States in a treaty signed on March 30th at 4 in the morning by Secretary of State William Seward for $7.2 million or about 2 cents an acre. The Alaska purchase became known as “Seward’s folly.” One American historian of day called the purchase “a dark deed done in the night.”
With the acquisition of Alaska by the United States came American Evangelical Christian missionaries, dominated by the Presbyterians. Their missionary methods were quite the opposite of those of Archbishop Innocent. Acculturation, not integration, was the goal. The Tlingit were forbidden to speak their language, carve their totem poles, live in their long houses, and have their traditional potlatches.
Fortunately, the Reverend Dr. Sheldon Jackson, Presbyterian missionary and the first General Agent of Education for Alaska, had a touch of the collector in him. He amassed a large collection of Alaskan Native objects. The collection and the community center he built to house the collection were purchased by the State of Alaska in 1984 and opened as the Sheldon Jackson Museum in 1985. The museum is wonderful and regularly features native artists actually producing work in situ. When we were there, Tlingit artist Teri Rofkar was demonstrating basket making. Under the glass display cases of artifacts are exhibit drawers that you can actually pull out to see more objects. The gift shop is small but has a good selection of books and objects to purchase.
Down the road a bit from the Sheldon Jackson Museum is the Sitka National Historical Park, well-known for its Totem Loop Trail. Noel and I spent an incredible afternoon strolling along the trail, studying the 18 totem poles and house posts, and marveling at the beauty of the rain forest that surrounds the trail. The temperate rain forest is inexpressibly lovely with every possible shade of green from the ferns and mosses, Old Man’s Beard lichen hanging off the cedars and hemlocks, downed tree trunks as expressive as the totems, and gaudy mushrooms, many edible, puncturing the forest floor. Parts of the trail smelled of rotten fish because of the dead and dying salmon that seem to swim up to spawn in every free-running stream of water we came across in Alaska. The trail also passes by the site where the Tlingit fought the Russians in 1804.
Totem poles are not religious idols (something the Presbyterians didn’t understand) but are public records of the lives and history of the native peoples. It is likely that the earliest poles were structural interior house posts that evolved into exterior corners of clan long houses. Europeans recorded seeing totems in the late 18th century. The late 19th century was the golden age for totems. They have four different functions – crest poles that illustrate the ancestry of a certain clan, history poles that relate a clan’s history, legend poles that relate a folk tale or a real story and finally memorial poles that honor an important person living or dead.
The poles are often erected as part of a potlatch. Potlatches are huge parties that go on for several days, given by a wealthy member of the clan on the occasion of an important event like a birth, death, wedding, etc. where the guests are given substantial gifts. The status of an individual or family is measured not by the amount of wealth the entity has but by how much wealth it gives away. A potlatch is, in effect, the redistribution of wealth in the community.
The poles in the park were donated by Native Alaskans mostly from the Haida tribe through the efforts of John Brady, the 5th territorial governor of Alaska, around the turn of the last century. The National Park Service struggled for two decades to preserve the poles from deteriorating without much success. In the 1930’s the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) took up the task of restoring the poles in Sitka and other Southeast Alaskan communities. The CCC hired native carvers who patched and painted what they could and re-carved new poles to replace the ones judged too decayed to repair. Many of the totems along the trail are copies of the originals.
There were many ineffective attempts over subsequent decades to preserve the original poles and even the CCC poles which had started to decay. Finally, in the 1990’s the National Park Service began to employ more effective preservation and installation techniques. In 2002 the new Totem Hall was completed which now provides a secure indoor exhibit space for the surviving original totems secured by Governor Brady.
The struggle to preserve these magnificent works of art raises some thoughts that I have been having lately. Does an art object have to last forever? Isn’t there beauty in its deterioration? Indeed, much art is made with deterioration in mind. I think of the conceptual art movement of the 1960’s with artists like Dennis Oppenheim and the ephemeral shapes he sculpted in the ice and snow fields of Maine. Japanese ikebana or flower arranging is an art form based on transient beauty. Aesthetic experience and form intertwine for a period of time leaving memory. Nevertheless, there is certainly great cultural value in preservation. The Totem Loop Trail gives us both transience and preservation.
I should mention the weather in Sitka and Southeast Alaska. We were there for two weeks including Labor Day weekend and we had only two days of sunshine. Most of the time, the days were overcast with drizzling rain. But that didn’t interfere with outdoor activities. The standard garb that everybody who lives there seems to wear most of the time is high rubber boots, rain pants and rain jackets. The cruise company provided us with rain gear on the ship for which we were very grateful. Our waterproof hiking boots also served us very well. The temperature hovered around 60 degrees during the day and 45 to 50 degrees at night. We were not troubled by biting insects, but maybe that was because it was too late in the season or because we were on the coast. In any case, it was a blessing.
We stayed at the Westmark Sitka which is located in the middle of the downtown, close to the commercial fishing harbor. We were pleasantly surprised by the hotel which has lukewarm reviews on Trip Advisor. It has recently changed management and the new management is in the process of initiating a lot of improvements at the hotel. We were quite pleased with our accommodations and the service. Noel was particularly happy to make the acquaintance of Ramon, the bartender, who happily informed us that the restaurant had a terrific new executive chef who was revamping the restaurant menu and the offerings in the bar. Noel claims he had the best Manhattan of his life there. The cocktail is aged in an oak barrel for seven weeks and served over ice infused with hickory smoke. The cosmos are good, too.
We had one particularly interesting dining experience. We were looking for a place to have fish and chips for lunch, but for some reason the restaurant we chose hadn’t received any halibut that morning, so we left to find another place. As we were walking back to the hotel, a man gave us a flyer promoting the fish and chips being offered that day at the local Alaskan Native Brotherhood hall. We stopped by the hall and put our order in. When we picked it up, we asked the cook if he also sold beer. He didn’t but he recommended that we take our food over to the Pioneer Bar across the street where the owner would sell us beer and didn’t mind if we brought our food with us.
“The P Bar,” as some of the young crew members on our ship called it, is a fascinating place. Basically, it’s the local fishermen’s bar and apparently it can get really rowdy at night. We enjoyed just listening to the conversations among the young fishermen who looked a lot like pirates. The fish and chips were really delicious, too, not beer battered, but breaded.