By Rosita Worl
President, Sealaska Heritage Institute
In recent days, we have received complaints about an opinion piece published in the Alaska Dispatch News titled “Russian extremists want Alaska back.” The piece, written by Dr. Steve Haycox, professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage, included some statements that appeared to be outrageous mischaracterizations of historical events that involved Alaska Native people.
Upon reading the piece a few times, I surmised he actually was attempting to depict a Russian-centric distortion of history. This was confirmed after I corresponded with him. I had hoped he would print a statement in the paper that clarified his intended meaning with regard to the statements. When he declined to do that, I penned the letter-to-the-editor below, as I was afraid the statements would be interpreted by readers as an accurate reflection of history. I offer it here, especially to people who read the piece and first flagged it for us: ”
My deepest respect for historian Dr. Steve Haycox was severely challenged with his recent opinion piece, ‘Russian extremists want Alaska back.’
I had to read the piece twice as it was not clear whether the following statements were his own or meant to depict a Russian-centric distortion of history:
‘The Russian fur trappers, who first encountered the Natives of Alaska in the Aleutians and later in the Alexander Archipelago treated them with compassion and benevolence, nurturing their values….’
‘The Natives were too incompetent to fend for themselves and only the instruction and leadership they received from the Russians allowed them to survive and ultimately prosper as they did under Russian tutelage.’
I believe Dr. Haycox to be a creditable historian and assume it is an interpretation of Russian extremist sentiment. However, I am compelled to respond lest readers think the statements are an accurate reflection of history.
The historical facts affirm that under the Russian administration, it was not benevolence, but rather Russian barbaric treatment towards the Aleuts that resulted in their near extinction and reduced their population from nearly 15,000 to just over a 1,000.
Furthermore, the ability of Southeast Alaska Natives to keep the Russians contained with the use of American weaponry is also well known in history. The historic battle of 1802, during which the Tlingits famously drove the Russians from their settlement in Sitka, is thoroughly laid out in the award-winning book Anóoshi Lingít Aaní Ká: Russians in Tlingit America, The Battles of Sitka 1802 and 1804, which was edited by Nora and Richard Dauenhauer and published by Sealaska Heritage Institute.”