Dynamics of Russian Colonialism in Alaska

Artist Statement

Much of my past work has been art that teaches about the Dakota language, culture and history of Minnesota. Often times, I feel like my peoples’ rich history is not taught in schools or even talked about at all. So when I was given this opportunity, I was excited to research this time period in American history that is not often told about either. The similarities between Russians and Alaskan Natives relationships at times reminded me of European interactions with my own people in the early days of Minnesota history, so such feelings I could convey on canvas easily: the adoption of new technologies, the tragedies that led to innocent lives lost, the loss of cultural knowledge and the fight to keep endangered languages alive. Yet, there are differences I can cherish, such as the Russian Orthodox defending the Alaskan Natives from the abuses of the Russian fur traders. 

There is much to appreciate and much to learn from the impact of people from two different sides of the world meeting. From these histories, one can see how culture is a source of strength, a kind of symbolism of survival that still influences the people of Alaska today. Put yourself in these artworks, how can you and your family history personally relate to the stories shared in this exhibition?




Map of Alaska – Art work

The Mystery of Chirikov’s Lost Men
Vector illustration print on metal, 30″ x 20″, 2021

In June of 1741, Vitus Bering (Captain of the Sviatoi Piotr/St Peter) and Alexei Chirikov (Captain of the Sviatoi Pavel/St Paul) set sail from Petropavlovsk (“City of Peter and Paul”) and headed east. The two ships became separated six days into their journey and never saw each other again. Even though Bering is given credit as the first European to visit Alaska, Chirikov had arrived two days sooner and had the first European encounter with the Tlingit people.

On July 15, Captain Chirikov spotted land (near Surge Bay, west of Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska). Needing freshwater, Chirikov sent a group in a longboat to shore to find a suitable anchorage. Soon after departing, there was no sign of the men. Waiting a week, Chirikov finally saw large bonfires along the coast and sent another group to investigate, yet they did not return either.

The next day, two canoes of Tlingit men ventured out in front of the ship, signaling the Russians to come to land. The Russians waved white flags to signal that the Tlingit were safe to board their vessel. However, the Tlingit returned to land. Chirikov concluded in his journal that the Natives must have killed his men and that was their reason for refusing to come aboard. However, Tlingit oral traditions state the Russian men escaped from harsh treatment aboard their Russian ship and had married into the Tlingit village. Their offspring would become the more prominent families in the village of Klawock. Near Surge Bay, there is also a petroglyph that closely resembles a Russian sailing ship, perhaps serving as a memory of this first encounter of Russians and Tlingit.

Massacre at Refuge Rock
Vector illustration print on metal, 20″ x 30″, 2021

Alutiiq (Aleut) people would traditionally build temporary stockpiles on rocky, cliff-bound islands to protect their families from raiders. The most famous of these types refuges is connected to a dark history known as the Massacre at Refuge Rock, Awa’uq (literally translated as Numb).

In the mid-1700s, Russian fur traders (known as Promyshlenniki) fought for a foothold in the Aleutian and Kodiak islands against the Indigenous people. In 1784, trader Grigori Shelikhov and his Shelikhov-Golikov Company moved to end the impasse with the Native people and impose Russian will by force. Taking refuge at Awa’uq, as many as 3000 Alutiiq men, women and children were slaughtered, with stories of women jumping to their deaths rather than be taken hostage. The Russians suffered no casualities during the massacre.

All the surviving Alutiiq men were forced into slavery, becoming hunters and mercenaries that served the Russian fur traders. The women and children would become hostages and taken to Three Saints Bay on Kodiak Island, which was the first permanent Russian settlement in Alaska, founded by Shelikhov in August of 1784. As a result of the massacre, the Alutiiq people on Kodiak lost political autonomy and their tribal sovereignty was extinguished for generations with widespread epidemics from European diseases further decimating their people.

Sea Otter & Northern Fur Seal Animal Spirits
Vector illustration print on metal, 24″ x 24″, 2021

Russia’s foray into Alaska was driven mainly by economic purposes — There were never more than 700 Russian colonists occupying Alaska. They relied heavily upon the labor of the skilled Alaskan tribes to provide the furs that they would sell to China and Europe; they obtained this objective through enslavement, marriages and bartering. They would eventually “sell” Alaska when the fur trade became unprofitable. 

For thousands of years, Alaskan tribes relied upon these animals to provide food, tools and clothing. The toll of the maritime fur trade had a disastrous impact on their traditional way of life and on the animals themselves, with their populations hunted to near extinction. For example, the Steller’s sea cow was hunted to extinction within 27 years of contact with Europeans. The sea otter population was down to mere hundreds by the 1900s, the northern fur seal which numbered in the millions was down to 200,000. Today, both the fur seal and sea otter are on the endangered and vulnerable species list. 

Saint Peter the Aleut
Vector illustration print on metal, 16 ” x 20″, 2021

 Chukagnak, or better known as Saint Peter the Aleut, was a native of the Kodiak Islands and received the name Peter when he was baptized by the monks of St Herman’s missionaries. 

Historians question the validity of martyrdom or if his existence was fully fictional: there are many speculations about how he became a martyr since the details of the recorded stories differ from one another. According to one version of the story, in 1815, the Russian American Company and their Aleut seal and otter hunters, including Peter, were captured by Spanish soldiers, while hunting for seals near San Pedro, California. He was killed after refusing to convert to Roman Catholicism.

Peter the Aleut was venerated as a martyr and glorified as a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia and locally glorified by the Diocese of Alaska of the Orthodox Church in America in 1980. He is considered as the first saint of North American origin and the first Indigenous North American saint.


Saint Herman of Alaska
Vector illustration print on metal, 16″ x 20″, 2021

Grigori Shelikhov requested a mission of Russian Orthodox monks to the Kodiak archipelgo in order to further assimilate the Native people — only Alaskan Natives who were baptized were given rights, thus pushing the foreign religion upon them. However, the monks were not as cooperative as Shelikhov had hoped and would become defenders of the Alutiiq people; the monks themselves were arrested and sometimes abused by the Russians for intervening against the acts of slavery and oppression.

Saint Herman of Alaska was a Russian Orthodox monk and one of those original missionaries to Alaska. He was a defender of the Native Alutiiq Kodiak population from the harsh exploitative treatment of the Russian-American Company, who had enslaved the men and abused the women and children. He ran an orphanage and school for the Indigenous people, cared for the sick during pandemics caused by European diseases. His gentle approach and ascetic life earned him the love and respect of both the Native Alaskans and the Russian colonists. He was officially glorified in 1970, the first canonized American Saint and considered by many as the patron saint of North America.

Indigenous Education in Russian 1, 2, 3, 4
Series of 4 paper cutouts, 12″ x 12″ | 2021

Indigenous education of Alaska included complex understandings of ocean navigation, star knowledge, plant medicines, and animal behaviors. When the Russian fur traders arrived, they needed to rely upon the Alaskan Natives’ knowledge to provide as their labor force; however, despite their dependence upon them, the Russian fur traders would consider them uneducated and uncivilized. Grigori Shelikhov established the first school in Alaska at Three Saints Bay to assimilate the Alutiiq so that they would “know a better way of living”. He also requested Russian monks to Alaska to further “educate” the nearby Indigenous peoples.

The Russian Orthodox monks he requested would translate their religious texts into the native languages of Alaska. They encouraged the use of bilingualism as it was their tradition of maintaining “great respect for the language and culture of the individual”. Saint Herman and his 1794 missionaries played a major role in Alutiiq education with an unbroken history of bilingual education existing from the 1790s to the 1960s as Alaskan Natives would take leadership positions in the Russian Orthodox church. However, the support of bilingualism in the classrooms would not last after the sale of Alaska to the United States with the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ “English only” policy that diminished both the use of Alaskan Native and Russian languages.

Stoonook’s Vision: Battle at Sitka
Vector Illustration print on canvas, l, 24″ x 36″, 2021

In 1790, Alexander Baranov was hired to manage the Shelikhov-Golikov Company, which would become the Russian American Company (RAC) by 1799. The RAC was given a monopoly over trade in Russian American by Czar Paul I and Baranov was promoted to chief manager (effectively the first governor of Russian America). He would establish permanent Russian settlements, including the only land ever purchased from Alaska Natives when he bought a portion of land from the Tlingit to build Redoubt St. Archangel Michael Site (Old Sitka Site). In 1802, the Tlingit would attack and destroy the site, which led to Russians retaliating in 1804 with the Battle of Sitka.

The Battle of Sitka would be the last major armed conflict between Russians and Alaskan Natives. The shaman of the Kiks.ádi Tlingit, Stoonook, knew the Russians would return. K’alyáan heeded Stoonook’s prophetic vision and urged his village to build a new fortification (known as Shís’gi Noow, the Fort of Young Saplings) at Noow Tlein (known today as Sitka, Alaska) that could withstand cannon fire from Russian ships. The battle lasted for 4 days, with the Tlingit (led by K’alyaan) evacuating their elderly, women and children on the third day. On the final day, the Russians extended offers of peace, which were rejected. That night, a large Russian contingent of troops landed to secure the fort, but found none of the Tlingit warriors, who had escaped under the cover of darkness to begin what they would call the Kiks.ádi Survival March.

Baranov would build Castle Hill at the site of Noow Tlein, later renamed to Novo-Arkhangelsk by the Russians, which became the central headquarters for the RAC. In 1867, it would be the location where Russian Alaska would be formally transformed to the United States.

Kiks.ádi Survival March
Vector illustration print on canvas, 12″ x 36″, 2021

After the aftermath of the Battle of Sitka, the Kiks.ádi Survival March was a planned escape route to a former village of the Tlingit on Chichagof Island. They established a trade embargo against the Russians in Sitka, urging other clans of Tlingit against trading with the Russian American Company.

Land Ownership – Totem
Series of 4 digital prints on wood, 10″ x 10″ each, 2021

In Tlingit society, totem poles represent oral traditions and emblems of a family or clan, serving as a reminder of their ancestry. They designate how clans came to own their lands and designated their boundaries. When Russia “sold” Alaska to the United States, both sides disregarded Tlingit and other tribes’ rights to their ancestral lands, reaffirming Western legal traditions over the legal rights represented by totems.

A single line ties the imagery of this totem together. Beginning with the raven hat of K’alyaan, the Kiks.ádi warrior who led the Tlingit clan in the 1804 battle of Sitka it connects to the imperial Russian double-headed eagle medal that was given in a peace talks afterwards, to represent brotherhood between the Tlingits and Russians.

Next is the K’alyaan aayi tákl’, the hammer of the warrior K’alyaan, which was originally a Russian blacksmith’s hammer that was captured during the Tlingit’s 1802 attack on the Russian fort at Old Sitka, and subsequently used by the Kiks.ádi warrior K’alyaan during the 1804 Battle of Sitka. To the Tlingit Kiks.ádi clan, it represents the loss of life and resistance to domination from outsiders. St. Michael’s Cathedral in Sitka reflects the continued legacy of Russian influence in the region that some Alaskan Natives would embrace while others would actively resist it.

Degradation: have you ever thought of becoming a new & better person?
Series of 3 vinyl prints, 18″ x 24″ each, 2021

During the 1800s, the Russian American Company (RAC) governed the Russian colonies in Alaska and needed civilians to fill administrative roles. The children of Russian and Alaskan Native marriages were known as Kreoli (Creoles) in Russian. They were given special privileges of basic civil rights under Russian governance. Considered a distinct class, they performed many of the vital administrative functions in the colonies. Their status was hereditary, passed from Russian men to their children: they had a right to an education, free from taxation and could move to Russia at the expense of the RAC after ten years of service in Russian America.

After the sale of Alaska to the United States, these people lost their privileged status and were not granted American citizenship. They also would lose touch with Russia as the traces of the RAC faded with their departure from Alaska. In the years afterward, the European-Americans they encountered would appreciate neither their Russian nor Native heritages, treating them with the same discrimination that they showed towards Alaskan Natives and Native Americans.

Place holder image

Visiting Ninilchik, Alaska
Animation, 2021

In the isolated Russian-Alutiiq village of Ninilchik, Alaska, there is still a distinct dialect known as Ninilchik Russian being spoken by the elderly. Russian and American linguists have documented and cataloged this dialect. Using some of the work by linguist Wayne Leman, who was raised there, this animation features three different recordings including one that was passed down to him from his father. Wayne Leman notes: “My father would often sing the bird song to me when we would hear a certain bird sing it. My father never told me which bird it was. In our family we just called it the Seegowee bird because that’s what’s in the Russian song. One of my aunts told me it’s the sparrow that sings this Russian song.”

According to linguist Conor Daly, “Ninilchik Russian is associated in the minds of its speakers with peasant culture and a subsistence lifestyle.” That simple lifestlye is often connected to the dialect’s simplification – it has lost many of the complex structures of standard Russian, including trademark grammatical features such as gender, there is a lack of words for modern technologies and anachronistic terms for others compared to Moscow Russian. There is a Ninilchik Russian database and dictionary online that preserves this unique dialect as a reminder of Russian America.

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