The Sugpiat and the Legacy of Western Conquest
Sven D. Haakanson, Jr.
The Sugpiat live in south central Alaska, in coastal regions from Prince William Sound to the Alaska Peninsula. Our names include Sugpiaq (spelled Sugpiat in plural form) and Alutiiq (plural, Alutiit), both used today by the people themselves along with Aleut, a term introduced by Russian colonizers. The Kodiak archipelago, at the heart of this area, has always been the most intensely populated part of the Sugpiaq homeland. Archaeological evidence suggests that there were over 15,000 souls living in this large, ecologically rich and varied region in the late 18th century. Then Europeans arrived. By 1810 there were only 5,000 Sugpiat. By 1867 just 1,300 of our people survived. What happened to the Sugpiat? What happened to us?
The past twenty years has been a period of awakening for the Sugpiat. We have begun to explore the events of Western colonization, to understand the losses we have endured, to find the connections between oppression and pain, and ultimately to reclaim our identity through knowledge. Today, as we begin to respect our traditional culture and recover our dignity, we are turning to our history. By learning the truth about European contact—from the conquests of Russian traders to the hegemony of American rule—we empower ourselves to build a better future. Starting in 1784, when Gregorii Shelikhov’s Russian force invaded Kodiak Island, we began to lose control of our families, our resources, our land, our culture and language, and ultimately our future. Our ancestors were forced to suppress their identity and assimilate to Western ways in order to survive. We were forced to adopt a foreign history.
Why does this story matter and why have I chosen to share it? I could paint an idealized picture of traditional life. I could tell you about our reverence for the natural world—for the seal and the salmon. I could write about harvesting resources and raising families in a pristine landscape, about healthy, sustainable living, and respect for our Elders. There would be much truth in this picture, but it would be incomplete. It would not help us or others to fully understand who we are today. No one likes the ugliness of Western conquest. But conquest in an essential part of our story, a critical turning point in our history. In order to regain our own path, we need to reclaim this history and to tell it in our own words. And we need for others to know this story.
Our people suffered greatly under Russian colonization. First Gregorii Shelikov and then Alexander Baranov led a concerted effort to exploit our people. They nearly exterminated the Sugpiaq race. We are still learning about their genocidal practices. In 1991, archaeological excavations at Awa’uq—a remote island where villagers fled to escape Russian attacks—illustrated the carnage of the initial siege. Newly uncovered documents continue to shed light on the ruthless practices of traders—the diseases they spread, the slaughter, the degradation. Our ancestors fought the Russian invaders and lost. We were not cowards. We were overpowered by Western guns and manipulated by enslavement.
Lena Anderson, originally of Chignik Lake, with basket-making materials.
Photo by Carl C. Hansen, Smithsonian Institution.
Russian traders took Sugpiaq women and children as hostages and forced our men into work groups, hunting sea otters and fighting other Natives to feed the Russian appetite for new lands and resources. Family is the most important thing to a Sugpiaq person. Our children are our future and the Russians knew this in 1784. They took control of our families. They only allowed men to see their children by providing another hostage in exchange. If the child was not returned the hostage’s life was threatened.
In 1794 new faces appeared within the Russian ranks, priests and monks. These men brought the Orthodox religion, a new faith that was different yet compatible with our belief system. Once our people were baptized, traders were legally bound to treat them as Russian citizens. Baranov knew this and for several years managed to keep the local priest under house arrest. Eventually, however, the priest prevailed and baptized all the people in the region. By this time, however, disease and enslavement had so ravaged our population that we could not fight assimilation. Nonetheless, from 1810 to 1867 our people began to thrive in the culturally mixed community. Sugpiaq people became high-ranking priests, military personnel, cartographers, teachers, entrepreneurs, and leaders while maintaining many aspects of their traditional way of life.
The tides turned again in 1867, when Russia sold Alaska to the United States. From this time forward, all the Native peoples of Alaska were considered primitive savages with no voice. We were not allowed to own land or to educate our children in traditional ways. Imagine a person of European descent coming into your home and telling you that your way of life was wrong, even though your ancestors had lived the same way for thousands of years. It was during this time that the Sugpiaq language stopped being passed down to our children, and when many of our traditional arts disappeared. Our people began working for wages. Our children entered American schools.
For more than 90 years, Suqpiaq people hid their Nativeness. To avoid the stigma of Native ancestry our great grandparents and grandparents called themselves Russian, Scandinavian, or even Italian. They spoke of the past only among themselves and sought to protect the children by not teaching them the old ways. But the traditions were still there. Stored in their hearts, and in the stories, songs, and memories taught by their parents. It has been a struggle to find and unlock this carefully guarded archive. Many of those who hold the knowledge have died. Others are elderly and still skeptical about sharing. They have personally experienced the shame levied by Westerners. The younger generation is less fearful. The energy of youth pushes us to reclaim the history that has marginalized our grandparents and to turn it to our advantage. By exploring our heritage and sharing it broadly, we are creating a new community dialog and a more inclusive history—once that places us back on Alaska’s cultural map.
Visit our communities today and you will see us dressed in European clothing, living in wood frame houses, driving vehicles, listening to rock music, watching cable TV, and learning essay writing and algebra in American schools. What is harder to see is how much our lives still follow the cycles and rhythms of the seasons. We have adapted in order to survive, but a current of Alutiiq culture remains, one that is growing with a firm sense of history and a strong will to reclaim the dignity of our ancestors. We are now openly sharing and enjoying our traditional dancing and mask carving, singing old songs and creating new ones that celebrate our past, present and future. We are revitalizing our language so we are not ashamed to speak it in public. The Alutiiq people are taking control of their history and future once again.
is an anthropologist and Director of the Alutiiq Museum & Archaeological Repository in Kodiak, Alaska.