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Case Study: Sitka National Historical Park: Documenting Cultural Landscapes in Southeastern Alaska

Arnold R. Alanen
Professor Emeritus, Department of Landscape Architecture
, University of Wisconsin-Madison


Executive Summary

During the mid-1990s staff members in the Alaskan Regional Office of the National Park Service (Anchorage) invited me to prepare both a landscape history and cultural landscape report (CLR) for Sitka National Historical Park (SNHP). This would be the first of Alaska’s NPS properties to receive attention for its significant cultural landscape history, and to serve as the subject of a CLR. In addition, the project was one of the initial landscape assessments undertaken at any NPS site that included a significant historic and contemporary Native American presence. As a cultural geographer and landscape historian holding a faculty position in the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I was fortunate that we had well trained and highly motivated students who could work on the project. Of special importance was graduate research assistant Holly Smith [Middleton], originally an English major from UC-Berkeley who, through later education and experience, had acquired skills as a landscape designer, horticulturist, and botanist; during her tenure in our department she also became an excellent landscape historian. Also active in the early documentation of the site was Brenda Williams, ASLA, a landscape architecture graduate student who later would become a prolific producer of CLRs for the NPS while in the employ of a private consulting firm. Undergraduate landscape architecture student Julie Goodman, ASLA, prepared many of the illustrations and maps, while a few other departmental students helped with report production and layout. The UW-Madison, at that time a Certified National Park Service Unit (CPSU), was responsible for contract management. Supervising the project from Anchorage was NPS architect Steve Peterson, AIA, whereas other NPS staff members provided direction and assistance: Katarina Solovjova, a Russian-trained architect (Anchorage); folklorist-anthropologist Timothy Cochrane (Anchorage); and anthropologists Sue Thorsen (Sitka) and Gene Greer (Sitka). The project was undertaken from 1996 to 2000, while the implementation of certain recommendations has occurred from that time onward.

Landscape architects have dominated the CLR arena from the time the first reports were prepared during the early 1990s, and they still produce the largest number of NPS-sponsored documents. (Indeed, most CLR procedures were developed by landscape architects, both within and outside the NPS, who worked for several years in preparing overall guidelines and specific bulletins that define the process. The Alliance for Historic Landscape Preservation, a small organization with an active inter-disciplinary membership of people engaged in landscape preservation, served as a forum for much of this effort.) Other individuals with interests in landscape, public, and architectural history are often called upon to offer assistance in the preparation of CLRs; and when needed, additional specialized expertise may be offered by anthropologists, folklorists, architects, botanists, geographers, geologists, photographers, and other professionals from related disciplines. The SNHP study was fortunate to have a folklorist (Cochrane) who served as one of the project managers, but our on-site team did not include anyone with this background--even though the work and goals often intersected with folklore interests. Had funds been available, for example, a folklorist could have engaged even more closely with the Tlingit than we did when seeking nuanced and insightful views of how the SNHL landscape was and is still used and perceived by native and non-native populations. In addition, the public meetings that we organized to present our findings and solicit comments from a full range of Sitka’s citizens were only marginally successful; a folklorist may very well have been able to generate more interest by engaging in intimate and meaningful dialogue with key citizens and groups. The documentation and interpretation of several extant and non-extant forms of material culture—e.g., totems, gravesites, a fort site, small vernacular buildings, and so forth—would have been richer and more complete had we been able to employ a folklorist.

Totem detail, Sitka National Historical Park, 2009. Photo courtesy of Arne Alanen.

Sitka National Historic Park

Located in coastal southeastern Alaska, Sitka is accessible only by water or air. Initially protected as a federal site in 1890, SNHP is Alaska’s oldest NPS property. Unlike Alaska’s other national parks, which cover huge sections of land and water, SNHP comprises only 132 acres, making it the state’s smallest NPS unit. Despite its diminutive size, the SNHP site has accommodated some of the most important events in Alaskan history—e.g., a major battle between Russian sailors and the Tlingit in 1804; the celebration of Alaska’s first American Independence Day event in 1868; designation as a federal public park in 1890; the erection of a historic totem pole display in 1906; the establishment of a national monument in 1910; and the development of a military defense system intended to deter a possible Japanese invasion from 1941-45. As a non-wilderness site, SNHP has many more parallels with historic parks and monuments located throughout the lower forty-eight states than it does with other Alaskan NPS properties.


Sitka's Landscape History

The historic landscape study and CLR for SNHP were closely linked. The historical assessment analyzed both the natural and cultural components that together made the landscape a culturally significant place. This approach, often referred to as the "cultural landscape model,” facilitates the application of preservation methods that take into account the intimate relationship between nature and culture. It also encompasses the symbolic meanings of the landscape, thereby providing a holistic conception of the cultural significance of place. Symbolic phenomena have certainly defined Tlingit attitudes toward the landscape, but they also have characterized the different European groups that inhabited the Sitka area. As landscape historians, we always sought to understand the role of human agency in shaping the cultural landscape and in forming the built environment. (Landscape historians differ from environmental historians who usually place nature at the center of their assessments.) We employed a full range of historical and contemporary sources—written documents, maps, illustrations, photographs, oral accounts, and landscape observations—to gain an understanding of the SNHP landscape.

The primary objectives of the landscape history document were:

  • To document Tlingit accounts of the battle of 1804 and, whenever possible, native use of the landscape prior to that time.
  • To determine the character and use of what is now the park during the period of Russian occupation (1804-67).
  • To determine, to the extent possible, what was occurring at the site during the latter part of the nineteenth century and the very early twentieth century (1867-1904).
  • To determine the landscape setting and context for the site when the totem poles were erected in the park during the early twentieth century, and evaluate the landscape changes that have occurred over time.
  • To document the changes that occurred to the site prior to 1940, during, and following World War II.

Tlingit use of the study site spans thousands of years, whereas European contact did not occur until the mid-eighteenth century. The Kiks-ádi clan of the Tlingit utilized many resources in the Sitka area, especially salmon from the Indian River (the European term for this feature). A number of fish camps were located along the banks of the river and the Pacific beachfront; many other local resources were used seasonally for food and material production—several fish species, shellfish, seaweed, ferns, herbs, berries, spruce wood and roots, hemlock, and alder, all obtained as part of a complex seasonal subsistence pattern that sustained the Tlingits’ rich culture.

When Russian fur hunters established outposts in Tlingit territory during the late 1700s, conflicts inevitably arose between the two groups. A major event occurred in 1804, when Russian vessels bombarded a Tlingit fort with cannon fire. The Tlingit initially held off the attack and drove the invaders back to their ships. Several days of negotiations followed, but the Tlingit eventually abandoned the fort and retreated to the other side of the island; Russian occupation followed quickly thereafter. Most accounts describing the battle and retreat are found in oral interviews conducted by anthropologists and folklorist Cochrane with Tlingit elders of the Kiks-ádi clan. One of the most important stories involves the exploits of Kiks-ádi war leader K’alyáan, who, after hiding in the river with only his Raven Helmet visible, emerged from the water and killed several Russians with a blacksmith’s hammer. Other important accounts describe negotiations between the Tlingit and Russians, which failed because of miscommunications between the antagonists. Unfortunately, the breakdown led to what the Tlingit describe as the "Sitka Kiks-ádi Survival March of 1804.” Tlingit maps of the evacuation trail include descriptions of the tribulations that clan members encountered in their journey: many young warriors were killed, numerous Tlingit children and elders died, and much clan regalia disappeared. Russian descriptions of the battle, although much more extensive than Tlingit accounts, give primary attention to the actions and valor of the Czar’s sailors, and differ in assigning blame for the unsatisfactory negotiations. While we obviously could not make any decisions regarding the veracity of these differing accounts, we were asked to assess landscape conditions associated with the battle and its aftermath. Included among the phenomena that we documented were descriptions of the Tlingti fort and its surrounding area (vegetation had been removed to offer a better view of the approaching ships), the distance and direction of Russian cannon fire, and the routes of the survival march.

Soon after the battle the Russians established their Pacific capital at Sitka (New Archangel). The Tlingit continued to maintain a presence in the area, especially along the Indian River. This feature also served as the "favorite place of amusement” for Russian, Finnish, and other European groups residing in the settlement. Vestiges of the old growth forest remained during this period, but trees were removed for building material and firewood, and land was cleared for small gardens and farms. Bridges and trails, including a "Russian Walk” to the Indian River, were used by the European colonists. The destination was just far enough away from Sitka to serve as a special place where residents could retreat from the constraints of town life.

Artists employed by the Russian government illustrated the rain forest environment at Sitka
during the 1840s. Photo courtesy of Arne Alanen.

The American period, which began in late 1867, saw the Sitka settlement decline in size and importance, although the Indian River area changed relatively little. In 1890 the federal government designated the property a public reserve, with all maintenance and management performed by local citizens. In 1902, several totem poles and a war canoe were donated to the park by the neighboring Haida people. Further additions brought the total number of poles to fourteen by 1906. When the park and its totems became a popular destination for early tourists who arrived on cruise ships, Sitka’s citizen’s successfully petitioned to have the park designated a national monument in 1910. Limited transitions occurred at the site for the subsequent three decades, but major flooding and erosion commenced along the Indian River during and after World War II when thousands of cubic yards of gravel were dredged from the channel to build a nearby U.S. Naval air station; despite various control measures, erosion continues within the park even today.

By 1930, the totems at Sitka National Historic Park still stood out above the nearby trees. Photo courtesy of Arne Alanen.

Cultural Landscape Report

A Mission 66 master plan, prepared for the park in 1959, led to the construction of a visitor center that opened in 1965, and which now displays Tlingit artifacts and serves as a venue for native arts and crafts demonstrations. Ironically, however, some of the most difficult decisions regarding the park landscape are now associated with the evolution of the natural forest, which has become tall, dense, and structurally more uniform than the former old growth stand. The totems, originally set in openings among immature spruce and hemlock, are now overtopped and overshadowed by the trees that loom around them. This phenomenon serves to illustrate the primary purpose of the CLR: how to protect natural processes while simultaneously preserving the intact cultural features of the park.

By the 1970s mature trees towered over the totems and shrouded them from the sun. Careful and limited vegetative removal, which began during the 2000s, now makes them more accessible to viewers, 2010. Photo courtesy of Arne Alanen.

The CLR, which emerged from the findings of the landscape history, was based on the recognition that the present SNHP landscape is a composite of layers derived from a multiplicity of human activities in the area. The challenge became one of making sound management decisions that protect the dynamics of the natural and cultural environments, while at the same time serving to maintain and interpret the historic features of the landscape. To accomplish this purpose we sought to identify both the tangible and intangible components of that same landscape. We then conducted a detailed survey of each landscape zone within the park, giving consideration to land use, patterns of spatial organization, cultural traditions, and features—including buildings, objects, totems, vegetation, and views. These features were noted on site plans, with each totem pole display receiving separate attention in the form of photography, documentation, and mapping.

Our most important recommendations concerned the totems and trails, since they are now shrouded by the old growth tree canopy. We prepared three management alternatives for each totem and its adjacent trail site: minimal, moderate, and extensive cutting of the vegetation. (One alternative also included the replacement of a totem that had been removed many years ago because of excessive deterioration.) Although most reviewers and commentators expressed a preference for only minimal to moderate vegetation management, although some members of the Tlingit community advocated for more extensive removal of trees and vegetation along the beachfront so as to recreate the open zone that existed at the time of the battle. To date, the NPS has chosen to pursue careful and relatively minor cutting and removal; this practice gives the totems somewhat greater visibility, while simultaneously maintaining the mystical qualities of the rain forest canopy that are appreciated by a large majority of Sitka’s citizens. One of the most important actions that occurred soon after completion of the CLR was the placement of a memorial totem to commemorate all Tlingit clans involved in the 1804 battle. The totem was erected at a location selected and proposed in the CLR: on the former battlefield site and at a point where views of the water are visible through several trail openings.

The Tlingit Memorial Pole, erected during the early 2000s, commemorates the different clans that participated in the 1804 battle with the Russians, 2010. Photo courtesy of Arne Alanen.

Lessons Learned

Even though the reviews of our project and its procedures were positive, the input of other disciplines, including folklore, would have provided an even greater understanding of the complicated sense of place factors that define the SNHP site. Because of contacts identified by anthropologists and folklorist Tim Cochrane, we interviewed several native informants who described the SNHP landscape as a source of subsistence plants, as a playground, as a site for historically important potlatches, and as a place where legendary birds and animals resided. (We also contacted non-native people who had familiarity with the site during their childhood years.) Anthropologists have noted, nevertheless, that most knowledge and information associated with the Tlingit landscape have not been gathered; this is especially problematic since only a very few elders now retain such knowledge. Securing this information, of course, requires significant resources, time, and sensitivity; but had our study included a greater ethnographic component, the landscape legacy of SNHP would have been revealed in more complete and thorough terms.

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