ANGOON — Dozens of small hands and one large pair held a firm grip on the 30-foot-long dugout canoe they pushed down Front Street despite their shoes slipping on the rain-soaked road.
Neither the potholes on the road nor the rain that drizzled Wednesday morning seemed to discourage the more than 50 Chatham School District students and Angoon residents from pushing what was the first dugout canoe made in Angoon since the U.S. Navy bombardment exactly 140 years ago. The bombardment destroyed all but one of its fleet of dugout canoes and burned the village of Angoon.
When the U.S. Navy opened fire on and burned the village of Angoon, it resulted in the death of at least six children and “countless” more due to its impact during the winter which left the people of Angoon nearly starved to death, according to Sealaska Heritage Institute.
The bombardment was in response to a deadly confrontation by village members with a private whaling and trading company, according to the Navy’s Naval History and Heritage Command. The confrontation between the company and the Alaska Natives came after bombs used in whaling accidentally exploded and killed an Alaska Native crew member from Angoon.
In response, the village of Angoon demanded 200 blankets from the private company as payment for the death, along with “seizing the whaling-boats with their equipment, and holding two of the white men prisoners until the amount should be paid,” explained a letter from the Navy ship Corwin’s commander, M.A. Healy.
But, instead of payment, the private company reached out to the U.S Navy, which then dispatched ships with marines to Angoon. According to the letters, the hostages were immediately released when the ships arrived but as “punishment” the U.S. Navy Captain E.C. Merriman “demanded twice the number of blankets demanded by the Indians, and threatened, in case of refusal, to destroy their canoes and villages.”
But it was more than the village could provide in the end, 40 of the village canoes were destroyed, leaving all but one that was away at the time and only five houses survived the burning.
“Once again, Angoon has a dugout, — It took 140 years to bring it back — this is the beginning of your survival, your dances, your culture.” said Tlingit master carver Wayne Price, who spent over a year with the students creating the canoe from a red cedar log shipped from the Prince of Wales Island into what it is today.
Though smiles radiated from the students and residents as they commemorated the day and celebrated the acceptance of the canoe, for some residents, Wednesday was a day of remembrance of the trauma that still reverberates through the village today.
“It’s bittersweet,” Chenara Kookesh-Johnson, Tlingit language teacher for Chatham School District and Goldbelt Heritage Foundation.
The U.S. Navy has never formally apologized to Angoon for its actions nearly a century and a half ago, something Kookesh-Johnson said she thinks the community deserves and would allow residents to fully heal. She said watching Price work with the students as they carved the canoe over the past year made her realize the amount of trauma that still latches on to even the youngest of Angoon residents who might not even fully understand the gravity behind the village’s history.
“I think it’s brought healing to the kids,” she said. “You never think about them needing that healing because they’re so young, but watching them throughout this whole process definitely gave them that healing we didn’t even realize was needed.”
She said commemorating the day is important because it ensures that each generation of the Angoon can know and remember who they are and where they come from even if that means looking back on the trauma of the past.
“We are still here, we are still thriving given the traumatic events that we’ve been through — want them to know that they do belong here, and this is their home and we’re going to do this even after an apology comes,” she said. “We can’t keep mourning, we can’t keep being sad, we have to take what life gives us and make the best of it — and I think that’s what we’re doing today.”
Rebuilding what was taken
Inside the school’s gym, people sat at white tables with turned heads as the Chatham students young and old gathered at the front of the gym to sing and dance in remembrance of the day.
Dressed in traditional regalia, many students were also holding paper art made to represent the blankets the village couldn’t give to the Navy to stop them from destroying the village.
Steps toward a formal apology seemed to be coming to Angoon when Air Force Lt. Gen. Tom Bussiere, Commander of Alaskan Command visited the town in February of 2020.
Meeting with Native leaders, they discussed U.S. military violence in Southeast Alaska and the legacy that comes with it. Chenara Kookesh-Johnson, Tlingit language teacher for Chatham School District and Goldbelt Heritage Foundation, said though the pain still runs deep in Angoon, it is a shared experience across other Southeast Alaska communities. In 1869, the U.S. military also destroyed villages near what is now Wrangell and Kake, according to the Sealaska Heritage Institute.
But, more than two years after Bussiere’s visit, the community of Angoon remains empty-handed with no apology.
The U.S. Navy did not return a message seeking comment.
Healing from the past
“Our goal was to have a canoe in Angoon — and now we have it,” said Frank Jack III, an Angoon resident who was the emcee of the commemoration ceremony.
Jack said though the day is a grim reminder of the past, he said the canoe “is just the beginning” of reviving more of the village’s culture.
“It was carved by Tlingits, by Tlingits — it’s a Tlingit canoe,” he said.
Price said he hopes the canoe can be a medicine for the village and symbolize a new beginning of healing for the students and residents. He felt proud, honored and humbled to be the boat builder for such a significant task.
“It belongs to all of you,” he said during his speech at the ceremony.
Price has been a carver since 1971, and over that time has created 15 dugouts, 10 of which are healing dugouts. In his speech Price shared a story about his past struggles with alcoholism and drug use, and spoke of the moment 19 years ago when he was called by “the creator” to use his craft to heal others.
“The creator that keeps me sober told me, ‘Wayne, you have to make a healing dugout, you have to make a healing totem.’ But, I said ‘I made a lot of dugouts, how do I make a healing one?’” he said. “The creator told me, ‘As you are making the dugout, each chip represents a life we lost to alcohol and drugs, but from all these chips that come off this dugout there won’t be enough.’”
Kookesh-Johnson said now that the canoe has been handed over to the school, the students will decide what its name will be and announce it in April when the canoe will be launched into the water for the first time. She said the school is working with other Southeast Alaska communities and would like to invite other dugout canoes to join the waters on the day of the launch.
The canoe will permanently stay at the Chatham School where Kookesh-Johnson said the students will be able to use it for cultural activities throughout the many years the school hopes to use it.
A new beginning
At the end of the ceremony, students walked to the front of the gym where they gifted Price a painted wooden paddle they made for him as a gift to say thank you for all his time, effort and knowledge that he shared with the students.
“As my grandfather would say, “Your presence means everything to us,” said Kyle Johnson, a junior at Chatham School District.
Price ended the event with a traditional dance in response to the gift while the students and residents in the gym sang and danced along.
Price said he hopes to come back in April to join the students on water with his own canoe, saying he hopes the canoe can serve as a new beginning to the community like the only surviving canoe in 1882 did for the community back then.
“Go stand up and be counted — when the journey is up I will see you on the water,” he said.