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SPRING 2009

Vol. 9, No. 2


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The Face Of Angoon

The face of Angoon


The traditional Tlingit coastal village of Angoon is built in a cleared patch of dense forest, amid rocky hills. It's the only permanent settlement on Alaska's Admiralty Island where brown bears outnumber people three to one. Angoon is a long, long way from big city lights, but you can eventually get there if you're willing to put in a tough couple of days of travel, including an eight-hour ferry trip from Juneau.

Last November, Thomas Riley, an anthropologist and dean of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, made that long trek. His first glimpse of Angoon was a cluster of boats anchored in the small Kootzanoo Inlet, just around the point from the village - so many huddled together they almost blocked the town's smattering of buildings from sight. The people of Angoon are dependent on the water and products of the sea - about 60 of the 450 residents hold commercial fishing permits. The vessels are all kinds. Some are blistered and rusted, while others look as if they were in a showroom only yesterday.

Riley had only seen the village before in old photographs. When he got off the ferry, he was surprised by how the community's main street looked much as it did 50, 75, maybe even 100 years ago. The only real difference seemed to be that the street is now paved. Weather-beaten, wood-framed buildings line Beavertail Road. These are lineage houses, the gathering places for men of the various American Indian clans. Stylized images of orcas or killer whales, in flaking black paint, can be seen on the front exterior wall of one of the lineage houses. Totem poles, which give historical and social context to who gathers inside and why, stand near other structures. The Tlingit understand the meaning of those carved images of beavers, ravens, eagles and bears atop the poles. But Riley, like most visitors, simply marveled at the detail and the quality of the workmanship. Then he pondered his family heritage and the tragedy that connects him to this remote village, which has not forgotten, or forgiven, the past.

That past, for Riley, starts with his great-granduncle - Capt. 'Hell-Roaring' Mike Healy. Back in the 1800s, Healy had a storied military career with the U.S. Revenue Marine, the precursor of the Coast Guard, in the Pacific Northwest. In fact, the Coast Guard's newest and most sophisticated icebreaker is named after him - the CGS Healy. (The vessel, which is partially funded by the National Science Foundation, is considered the U.S government's most technologically advanced research ship.) Healy, for the last two decades of the 19th century, held a variety of positions of power in Alaska. According to his official Coast Guard biography, the captain acted as "judge, doctor and policeman" to native people, merchant mariners and crews of whaling boats. For a good portion of his Alaskan career, Healy was actually considered the U.S. government in that region. He was a well-known figure - and controversial, with a couple of court martials on his service record.

But for all his swagger, there was one thing, which happened early in his career, that he regretted for the rest of his life. That was the bombardment and destruction of an Alaskan village called Angoon.


In 1882, Angoon was as close to the frontier as you could get. Only 15 years earlier, the United States had taken possession of the vast Alaskan wilderness from Russia. The facts of what happened in the autumn of that year are disputed and open to interpretation, Riley acknowledges. But he has researched records and oral history of the incident. This is his version.

On Oct. 22, 1882, a Tlingit shaman, named Tith Klane, was hunting for whales aboard a boat owned by the Northwest Trading Company. Back then California whaling rockets - a handheld weapon that fired a bomb with a time fuse into a whale - were often used. On this unfortunate day, the rocket that Klane attempted to use malfunctioned and exploded. Klane was killed.

The Tlingit tradition called for reparations for their shaman's death, Riley says. So a payment of 200 blankets was requested of the Northwest Trading Company. When the company refused, the other Tlingits also working that day on the boat took two employees hostage.

The situation then took a dramatic, and ultimately tragic, turn. The Northwest Trading Company asked for intervention from the naval warship, the USS Adams, the largest ship in Alaskan waters. The commander, Capt. E.C. Merriman realized the waters offshore from the village would be too shallow for the Adams. Healy offered to assist with his smaller vessel, the Revenue Cutter Corwin, which would be able to navigate farther into the inlet.

When the villagers saw his vessel, Healy reported, they released the hostages. But Merriman apparently concluded that was not the end of the matter. He turned up the heat, demanding 400 blankets from the villagers as punishment for taking hostages. If they did not comply, Angoon would be destroyed.

"The villagers didn't have any blankets. The Northwest Trading Company had all the blankets," Riley says. "What could they do?"

What happened next was probably inevitable. Acting on Merriman's orders, the Corwin fired its Dahlgren gun, while Navy personnel who had come ashore used a Howitzer cannon. Riley's great-granduncle did not issue the orders. But as second in command, he was caught up in it.

The village's traditional lineage houses and the food storage buildings were shelled and burned. About 40 canoes were destroyed. The only canoe that survived was away from the village at the time.

The Tlingit history says six children were suffocated by the smoke from the fires, and winter was coming on, Riley says. Without canoes, the villagers couldn't fish or travel. The Tlingit had a very, very hard winter; many starved. In the words of one villager: "We were left homeless on the beach."

The Tlingit have long memories.

During the Carter administration, the United States government paid $90,000 in reparations. Then, in 1982, a century after Angoon was shelled, Assistant Secretary of the Navy John Herrington officially admitted wrongdoing. "The destruction of Angoon should never have happened," he wrote. "It was an unfortunate event in our history."

Still, the Navy stopped short. What the descendants of those who suffered at Angoon wanted was a formal apology. They didn't get it.

About five years ago, Eric Hollinger, one of Riley's former graduate students, brought the shelling of Angoon, once again, back to light. Hollinger works for the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institute. At the time, he was processing long-lost native relics to be repatriated to their original communities or tribes. One such item, a ceremonial hat adorned with an ornately carved eagle, was about to be returned to the Alaskan community of Angoon.

Hollinger saw the village name and recalled an old conversation with Riley about his great-granduncle's involvement in the historic incident. So Hollinger called him up. He was going to Alaska to bring back the eagle hat, he told Riley. Then he asked if there was anything Riley wanted to say. Did he have a message for the people there?

That comment triggered something inside Riley. He felt an old wrong should be righted. "I decided that maybe, as a family, we should offer our apologies for what happened. After all, Angoon hadn't gotten one from the Navy," Riley says. He got busy contacting his relatives, including Mike Healy's great-grandson. They all agreed, and asked Eric to convey the family's apology to the people there. But the proud people of Angoon rejected the family's apology. They wanted to hear from the U.S. Navy.

The story could have ended here with the Tlingit's rebuff of the Healy heirs. But the clan's pride and insistence on justice - however long it is in coming - is matched by a generosity of spirit. In 2007, Riley was invited to a potlatch, an elaborate ceremony to honor the dead, by a Tlingit named Garfield George. Riley had been introduced to George during an archaeology conference in Austin, Texas. Later, Dan Johnson, another Angoon resident with whom Riley had been communicating, extended an invitation to a potlatch being held in memory of Johnson's grandmother. And so Riley embarked on the journey of a lifetime to that small fishing village where he would face its long-held sorrow and wrath and try, in his own small way, to right the unforgivable wrong.

Riley arrived at the potlatch ceremony that day late last fall to find that it was already under way. He was oncerned at being a few minutes late, but he need not have worried. The traditional gathering would last all night and into the following day.

The elementary school gymnasium where the potlatch was held looks very much like any you would find in rural North Dakota. Tables and chairs were carefully arranged, and the evening meal to feed about 200 people consisted of beef, potatoes and all the trimmings. There were bags of candy and cans of Pepsi. Classically American, Riley remembers thinking. And that is exactly where the similarity to any of Riley's previous experiences ended.

Members of the Raven group of the Tlingit people sat at one set of tables. The Eagle branch of the tribe sat at others. A separate space was made for guests and visitors. And then there was yet another series of tables - these attracted Riley's immediate and lasting interest. The Ravens and Eagles had carefully displayed their treasures. Ceremonial hats, ornate clan crests, colorful cloaks, beautifully carved daggers, all items dating back untold decades, were there for participants to see and touch. It was, in many ways, a living history lesson - an opportunity for each generation to sense, absorb and share the past of its people.

Lying among the Ravens' many treasures was the treasure - a canoe's prow board, placed slightly apart as a place of distinction. Carved with the likeness of a beaver, the piece of wood is all that remains of the Tlingit's sole canoe following the 1882 attack.

The canoe's prow board had been returned to the village by the National Museum of Natural History in 1999. That canoe is considered the savior of the Tlingit, Riley says. The board is believed to hold the spirit of the canoe that saved the people. They treat the canoe as if it were a person. They once actually held a potlatch for it.

The next 24 hours were a mix of dances, songs and oratory, with much of spoken word in the language of the Tlinglit. A succession of dancers emulated the animals of the region, wearing hats and cloaks to resemble the birds, wolves, bears and salmon. One dancer portrayed the enemy of the Tlingit. And the enemy wore a U.S. Navy officer's hat from the 1880s - just like the one Riley's great-granduncle wore in some of the old photographs.

When they invited Riley to join in, though, it was not in the dress of his ancestor. Johnson and fellow Ravens clad Riley in a red and black cloak decorated with white buttons. They placed a headpiece carved in the likeness of a beaver on his head, tied it under his chin with a yellow cord, and told him to hold a wooden staff with a bird's head handle. For the next five hours, Riley sang and danced with the Tlingits. He tapped his staff on the floor, beating a cadence as though he was playing a drum, until he was exhausted.

During the ceremony, Riley was told that the devastating 126-year-old incident should be considered over for his family - although they still do want an apology from the U.S. Navy. The most surprising moment, though, came when Riley was adopted into the tribe and given a Tlingit name. Healy will always be considered the enemy, but his eat-grand-nephew is now a proud member of the End of the Trail House of the Beaver Lineage of the Raven Moiety of the Tlingit.

His name is Aanya'a. It means 'the face of Angoon.'

-Steve Bergeson


Student Focused. Land Grant. Research University.