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Culture Clash Undid Early Settlement : How the 'Glory of Russia' Was Sacked

January 24, 1988|SUE CROSS | Associated Press

YAKUTAT, Alaska — Like other native tribes of the Pacific Northwest, the Tlingits carved totems, built plank houses and made long sea voyages in wooden canoes.

They wove blankets out of goat hair and garments of grass, and their artwork is prized by museums and collectors.

No one is sure when they came to Alaska's Southeast Panhandle, but once here, the Tlingits accumulated power by controlling trade routes through the steep coastal mountains, according to Richard Dauenhauer of the Sealaska Heritage Foundation, an Indian corporation in Juneau.

The Tlingits lived off the plentiful salmon and hunted seals for food and skins. Their sea voyages that often took them as far south as present-day Seattle, Dauenhauer said.

Aggressive Slave Holders

The Tlingits were known as fierce warriors, and some of their voyages were slave-taking raids.

The white man began to encroach on Tlingit territory during the 1700s. Among the early settlers were the Russian fur traders who built the fort they called Glory of Russia near what is now the fishing village of Yakutat.

Bill Hanable, a National Park Service historian in Anchorage, said that Tlingits told him of antagonism between the fort and the locals.

At one time, Indians burned a precious Russian ship to get nails. "Then the natives used the nails in coffins as prestige items," Hanable said. "The Russians desecrated graves to get the nails back."

The Russians also cut off access to one of the Indians' best salmon streams. Further confrontations led to the fort's destruction.

One legend has it that Indian warriors hid along the beach until the Russians returned from a day's fur hunting. As they struggled through the surf to come ashore in small, skin-covered bidarkas, the Indians ambushed them.

How Fort Was Invaded

A second story says an Indian boy was sent to the guard at the fort's gate with a present of berries. The guard set down his ax to pick up the berries, and the gate was breached.

The Indians killed the settlers, most of whom were there against their will under Russian masters, and burned the fort.

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