Imagine a man named Mikhail. Long ago, his father had journeyed to a place far away from his native Russia. He was a member of a ship’s crew who traveled for hunting and exploration. Mikhail’s father worked for Alexander Baranov, a man employed by the Russian American Company. In 1799, their ship entered a magnificent harbor called Sitka by the natives. The enormous island that existed behind the harbor was rich with tall fir trees and wildlife and unimaginably appealing waterways. Baranov decided that this location was ideal for a colony. And so, Mikhail’s father sailed the ship that brought a few settlers to a new home.
Of course, the native Tlingit were furious that the intruders had settled upon their land. In 1802, when Mikhail’s father went to sea again, the Tlingit attacked the colony. They destroyed the settler’s homes, killed the men and held the woman and children as captives. Eventually, the captives were freed and Baranov was still determined to establish a colony. Once again, Mikhail’s father journeyed back to Russia. This time, however, he brought a wife to the new world and they settled down to establish a home in Baranov’s colony. Instead of the native word “Sitka”, the Russians named their home New Archangel St. Michael.
And so, Mikhail was born in Russian America. And he spent his life growing up with the new town. He had two brothers who chose to leave New Archangel for riches and adventure. One brother went to sea and traveled the Pacific Ocean to China and South America. Another became rich by hunting seals. After all, so many Europeans craved the warmth of seal skin hats and coats. Mikhail’s sister married a man who was the captain of a cargo ship. After a foundry was established in Russian America, Mikhail’s brother-in-law carried cargo to San Francisco, such as cast iron bells for the Spanish missions of California. But Mikhail had no desire to leave his home. Instead, he chose to build a business in lumber and shipbuilding. He harvested the tall Sitka Spruce trees which were ideal to use as ship’s masts.
Eventually, Mikhail married a young woman named Sofia and watched his family grow to include two sons and two daughters. And throughout the years, as Mikhail became a man of influence in the colony, his life paralleled the joys and sorrows of his home.
In 1836, a tragic smallpox epidemic claimed the lives of many native Tlingits. After that cruel epidemic, Mikhail was influential in providing vaccine to the natives. After all, he had no animosity toward the forest dwellers who shared their island with him. In fact, Mikhail was pleased that the native children were encouraged to attend school. And his own children were taught to speak native languages as well as learn about the native cultures. It was important to Mikhail that the colony rear useful citizens such as navigators and sailors and shipbuilders and men of medicine. So, he used his influence to help establish the best education possible for the youngsters of New Archangel. In 1839, he even promoted the building of a school for girls. Of course, this school was significant to him since he had two daughters.
And then, there were his religious beliefs, a faith given to him by his mother. One day, Mikhail met a dynamic missionary, Ivan Veniaminov. Soon, he was helping the priest to build St. Michael’s Cathedral in the center of the thriving town. It seemed that when each ship arrived in port from Russia, the church received another icon or vestment. These works were all created with beautiful detail and vibrant colors that contrasted the earth tones of his homeland. Mikhail cried when a great fire destroyed his beloved cathedral in 1866. That night, he joined the human chain of people as they saved the treasured icons from the burning church.
And so, joy and sorrow interwove into a steady rhythm during his life. His children were healthy and strong, thriving in the dense woodland that grew beneath Mount Edgecomb. Before he even realized that his life was passing, his beard had turned to gray. His business had grown to prosperity. Every year, more grandchildren arrived at his front door. He had witnessed the birth and growth of a world far away from its native planet. His sons were industrious, mining the copper, iron, zinc and other minerals that were plentiful near New Archangel. They were fed by abundant fish and productive gardens. They were cared for in a hospital that was forever expanding. But although they mingled with the natives and Creoles, Mikhail and his family were Russian. Although they had never even seen their motherland, they were Russians in blood and heritage and loyalty.
One day, however, Mikhail went to call upon the colony director. He had visited the director’s home, Baranov’s Castle, many times. He always admired the two story mansion that stood high upon a hill overlooking the harbor. He marveled at the extensive library and the grand mirrors and the portraits of his Russian monarchs. He enjoyed viewing the museum’s collection of native costumes as well as the exhibits of Russian wildlife. After all, Mikhail was eager to learn all that he could about the place of his heritage. He enjoyed the balls and ceremonies and dinners and events where he met statesmen and nobles and military officers who promenaded with their fashionable wives and daughters. It did not surprise him that New Archangel was known as the “Paris of the Pacific”.
On this particular day, however, Mikhail was contemplative as he traveled through the town. Why? He felt satisfaction as he reviewed the blacksmith shop, the cooperage and tannery. Another shower passed and he inhaled the ocean scent that blew with the fresh, pine breeze. The sail makers were busy with their tasks. He waved to an apprentice who worked in the nautical instrument repair shop. All of these businesses used young Creole apprentices. The young men were being educated in trades and offered attendance at the All-Colonial School. This pleased Mikhail. There would be a grand future. The colony was doing well. So he thought until he spoke to the director.
Apparently, it was all going to end soon. The Crimean War and the over-hunting of sea otters had damaged the wealth of the Russian colony. The entire enterprise was no longer profitable to the Tsar. And so, Russian America, Mikhail’s only homeland, had been sold to the United States for $7.2 million, roughly two and one-half cents per acre. What a price for a lifetime of work and effort. He was depressed and frightened and outraged.
On October 18, 1867, Mikhail cried as the flag of Russia was lowered and a new flag of stars and stripes was hoisted high above New Archangel. He wanted to fight, but was powerless to do so. He wanted to run through the streets and preserve everything Russian, but how could he ever hope to fight an inevitable onslaught of new cultural ways and beliefs? So, he just stood there and thought of his father. So many decades ago, a crew of 22 men had set foot upon a strange, new land as the natives watched, wondering what would become of their world. And now, it was happening to him.
I am an Alaskan native. I was born to the Tlingit people and lived in a place once called Sitka. However, after our home became Russian-America the name changed to New Archangel. My father told me that the curse of our homeland was an abundance of sea otters. The Russians came for this soft gold in masses until they replaced our ancient way of life with their own. In 1802, my grandfather joined in an attack upon the colony of these intruders. All of the Russian men were killed and their women and children were enslaved. However, Russians kept returning until they destroyed our Tlingit fortress. This ended the supremacy of my people.
In fact, I’ve never known life before our land became a Russian colony. Only the silent totems in the forest recall our native past. Carved eyes and beaks and lips tell stories of our people. I’ve always been sustained by salmon that splash upstream in summer, forest animals in abundance and tall trees for tools and shelter. I watch the whales breach near our harbor and the eagles fly upward toward the snow of Mount Edgecomb. I learned to build sturdy canoes from the hides of animals. This land gives all that is needed for life.
I often wondered how and why the Russians are different from us. After all, the sun still shines upon them throughout the night during the summer and travels very quickly across the sky in winter. Although they are harsh intruders upon my native land, they have shown an interest in my people. In 1836 for instance, smallpox killed many in our village, including my parents. After that, the Russians gave us their vaccines to save us from this disease.
One day, I left my forest home and wandered into the village of these people. They asked if I wanted to learn to read and write the words of my people. I did not know what to say. However, I looked at the mills where the Russians grind flour with ease. I saw shipyards where their strange boats are built from the sturdy timber of our homeland. We live upon the same ground… land given to us by heritage; given to them by conquest. We exist together and yet, have such different ways and uses for our little patch of earth. And so, I returned to my forest home, wondering just what it means to truly own the land.