The Fort of Young Saplings

dezsoshipl-1416877278-67.jpg

The Fort of Young Saplings

A writer’s quest to understand her connection to a distant people and their history.

By Vanessa Veselka

The Atavist Magazine, No. 43


Vanessa Veselka is the author of the novel Zazen, which won the 2012 PEN/Robert W. Bingham prize for fiction. Her short stories have appeared inTin House, Yeti, and Zyzzyva. Her nonfiction can be found in The American Reader, The Atlantic, GQ, and Medium, and was included in the 2013 Best American Essays anthology.


Editor: Charles Homans
Designer: Gray Beltran
Producer: Megan Detrie
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Riley Blanton
Illustrator: Andrea Dezsö
Audio: Emily Kwong and Richard Nelson
Other Images: The Alaska State Library Historical Collections, the Alaska State Museum, the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley, and the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University

Published in November 2014. Design updated in 2021.

One

In 1972, in Juneau, Alaska, my father was adopted into the Kiks.ádi clan of a native Alaskan people called the Tlingit. This made me a clan child of the Kiks.ádi, a relationship that would bewilder me for years.

To be clear, the Kiks.ádi didn’t take me home to live with them. I was tangential to an honor conferred on my father, a community organizer for the Model Cities program—one of Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty initiatives—who had built friendships among the Tlingit while working alongside them on the Citizens Participation Committee in Juneau. None of this would be my story to tell except that when they adopted him they also got me, and all my earliest memories are of totem poles and Native faces, of wandering in the constant rain at beach picnics listening to the Tlingit language, and of the Raven and the Eagle, icons of the primary cultural divisions of the Tlingit, which I saw everywhere—on coffee mugs and ritual drums, on tourist T-shirts and the regalia of Tlingit dancers at the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall—and were the first representations I knew of a larger, ineffable world.

There was never a reality, though, in which I would be Kiks.ádi. Tlingit are matrilineal, and my mother was not adopted. My parents split up, and my mom took my brother and me back to Houston. Whereas my Tlingit grandmother’s house had been full of bric-a-brac and stuffed frogs, my maternal grandmother’s house was full of plastic-covered furniture and large wooden lamps shaped like pineapples. Nana had a three-inch-thick harvest gold rug that she raked in one direction daily. I lay in the shag like it was a field of wheat and watched Ultraman. While I might have been recognized as Kiks.ádi yadi—child of the Kiks.ádi—by my father’s clan, my own clan was the Rug Raking Plastic Sofa Bridge Players. We had locusts instead of ravens.

The year my dad left Alaska, my mom moved to New York. By then I was nine and had already lived in seven different states. I knew what kids who move a lot know: try to be invisible or try to be impressive, which is why on day one of my new fourth grade class I loudly proclaimed myself the sort-of-daughter of a proud Tlingit warrior tribe that no one ever beat. Sadly, we did not move again.

By now it was the late Seventies in Greenwich Village. Boys at my school were grabbing girls and pulling them into unseen corners of the playground, pushing them down and dry-humping them in a game called “rape.” Half our parents were dealing or doing cocaine. The rest seemed to be drunk. The vigil flame of syndicated television burned, for many of us, around the clock.

But I could not let the Tlingit go. Even though I was mercilessly teased as an “Indian princess,” even though my father had stopped talking about the Tlingit and my mother got uncomfortable when I spoke of the adoption, I remained faithful in the belief that I belonged to a family of great and unbeaten warriors who would someday welcome my return. In the summers, when my brother and I went back to Alaska and he played with friends, I attended adult-education classes at the Alaska State Museum. I was not the only white person in the Intro to Tlingit Culture and Language course, but I was the only eight-year-old. I had been imprinted at just the right age. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, I wanted to be real.

Still, eventually I had to admit that I probably was a delusional liar and a troubled child. Even at 11, I could see the telltale signs. I was living amid the wreckage of a fourth marriage and a fifth school. My classmates were right. Real Indians rode horses, and we had already killed them all. If there were any left, I wasn’t one of them.

Two

The Tlingit don’t fit stereotypes of Native Americans. They’re more like Vikings. Or maybe they’re more like Maori. A fiercely martial people, terrifying in their samurai-like slat armor, their bird-beak helmets, and their raven masks, they never surrendered to a colonial power, never ceded territory. When Russia sold Alaska to the United States in 1867, the Tlingit argued that the Russians held only trading posts and that the rest was not theirs to sell. The protest was unsuccessful, but it was the beginning of a narrative: The Tlingit had never signed away their land, had never sold it, had never moved.

It was an argument the Tlingit would make, nearly a century later, in the courtroom. In 1959, the Tlingit sued the federal government in Tlingit and Haida Indians of Alaska v. United States and demanded fair compensation for their stolen land. The Tlingit turned out to be as strategically brilliant in the courtroom as they were on the battlefield. They won a pittance but kept their claims alive, navigating difficult legislative waters and, in the 1960s, joining a statewide native movement seeking a settlement. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 would award the state’s indigenous people nearly $1 billion and recognize native ownership of 44 million acres of prime forest, 22 millions acres of mineral rights, and 16 million acres of subsurface mineral rights. At the time it was signed, the bill was the gold standard of indigenous settlements.

The huge infusion of cash lessened the economic pressure for Alaska Natives to abandon tribal lands. As a result, Tlingit still live today where they lived before European contact and make decisions with little or no interference from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. A friend of mine told me once of a Tlingit elder no more than five feet tall who was unpopular at powwows because she liked to walk up to the biggest Lakota or Crow she saw, jab her fingers in his or her chest, and say, “You lost! We won!” It was terrible diplomacy—the Tlingit are not famous among other tribes for their modesty—but she was not necessarily wrong.

It was true, of course, that the Tlingit could not escape the profound suffering that came from European colonialism. Epidemics devastated the population, and those who remained suffered from all too familiar oppression. But economically and culturally, one could argue that no tribe fared better. If, as historian Shelby Foote once said, the psychology of the American South holds within itself the identity of a defeated nation, then perhaps the Tlingit psyche holds within it the opposite—faith in its ability to fight and win. It was easy to see why my dad was drawn to them.

My father shared a rural sensibility with his Tlingit friends. They certainly shared a distaste for pacifism. A former Marine from Texas, he had spent time in Brazil and cowboyed in the Texas panhandle. After taking a job with Model Cities, he was sent to a small border town populated by Mexicans and run by whites, and after that to Alaska.

The Citizens Participation Committee, which advised on funding for War on Poverty initiatives, was fighting to get federal money flowing to the poorer Tlingit neighborhoods of Juneau. My father was not the first white man hired to work with the CPC; another had been hired several months earlier, causing uproar among Tlingit activists. But at least he had been an Alaskan. My father was a different story. Not only was he a white man, but he was a Southern white man—and, rumor had it, some kind of cowboy who had never even been to Alaska before. The job he took effectively made him chief operating officer of the committee, a position many in the community felt should have gone to a Tlingit.

A year later, for reasons I’m not sure I fully understand—such things are always shaded by time and relationship—Andy Ebona, the Kiks.ádi executive director of the CPC, went to his mother, Amy Nelson, clan mother of the Kiks.ádi, and asked her to adopt my father. She agreed but didn’t say when. Then one day my father got a call from Andy saying he should get down to the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall right away—that Amy was going to do it. He rushed over there, but nothing happened. Later he found out that he hadn’t been dressed right. He was in jeans.

In the end, the ceremony was simple and quick. Amy asked him to stand. In front of witnesses, she held a dollar bill to his head and gave him his name, Aak’wtaatseen, which means “swimming or moving frog” and comes from a story about a man from another culture who brings something needed to the people. Like all great honors, the name was part recognition, part threat. Promise that you will live up to this, it said. But it did not make clear how.

dezsobirdo-1416876886-76.jpg

Three

In 1991, as a young adult, I returned to Juneau—something I had always said I would do. I hadn’t been there since third grade, but my own sense of relation to the Tlingit never fully left. Sometimes I was comforted by the thought of the adoption and other times ashamed to have believed in it at all. Still, one of the first things I did when I got to Juneau was look up my Tlingit uncle Andy Ebona.

Waiting on the corner where we agreed to meet, I half-expected a Miyazaki-like apparition, a giant frog with garnet eyes and pockets full of gold nuggets and salmonberries—so vivid and unsorted were my childhood memories, and so disorienting was it to be back among them again as an adult. Instead, Andy turned out to be a middle-aged man, roughly my height, with a cook’s build, a little round but solid, with thick black hair and a broad face. One of the first things he said to me was to tell my father, “Our mother wants to know why her son doesn’t write.” I wanted to be that letter, but I wasn’t. Neither of us seemed to know what to do with the other.

I ate grilled salmon in Andy’s apartment. I had planned all along to make a grand statement of loyalty—I never forgot about the family, I wanted to say, and I never took off my frog ring, it just vanished in a lake when I was ten, and I can still say “raven” and “shaman” and “thank you” in Tlingit, just in case you were wondering—but I didn’t want to appear entitled. Nor did I want to make him think I thought the experience was exotic. Lost in a fog of cultural sensitivity, I said nothing.

Later we went to a family gathering out on Douglas Island, and that evening I ate herring roe on hemlock and gumboot for the first time and saw my Tlingit grandmother, Amy, for the last time. She was small and gracious, but I don’t think she remembered me. After a few hours I slipped out, convinced I’d done everything wrong. At this point in my life, I know that’s the way 22-year-olds often leave parties, under a shroud of inarticulate failure, but at the time I assigned it to other things. I assigned it to being a collateral relative.

That afternoon I had asked Andy about the Kiks.ádi, and he had spoken of the Battle of Sitka. Going to a bookshelf, he’d handed me a book on the Tlingit written in the 1850s by a German explorer. There weren’t any good books yet, he said, but one was on the way. The Kiks.ádi had beaten the Russians twice, once in 1802 and then again in 1804 at the Battle of Sitka. The battle came up again later that night in passing. It was, I learned, a subject quickly raised once in the company of Kiks.ádi, so bonded were they to those events. The battle belonged to them and they belonged to it. These things are inextricable.

Four

I didn’t see Andy again for over 20 years. Then, in 2011, he sent me a Facebook friend request. There was no message, and it wasn’t a particularly intimate gesture, but it was the first gesture I had received from him that was meant for me directly. Over the following months, a few more requests trickled in from people who knew me as a child, and soon a stream of images began to appear onscreen: snapshots of the Citizens Participation Committee meetings, of my parents and me as a two-year-old, of Andy and other friends picnicking on a rocky beach.

I decided to go to Juneau again. My trip had one purpose only: to connect with my Tlingit family. I wouldn’t tell this to any of them, though; it would be too pathetic. I would be casual. I would pretend I was dropping by the coastal mountain range 1,500 miles to the north of my home.

Wanting to be prepared, I returned to my fallback: study. I started with the Kiks.ádi victory at the Battle of Sitka. I went first to Wikipedia, our era’s greatest repository of received wisdom, where I was stunned to find an account that confidently stated that the Russians, not the Tlingit, had won:

Though the Russians’ initial assault (in which Alexandr Baranov, head of the Russian expedition, sustained serious injuries) was repelled, their naval escorts bombarded the Tlingit fort Shís’gi Noow mercilessly, driving the natives into the surrounding forest after only a few days. The Russian victory was decisive, and resulted in the Sheet’ká Kwáan being permanently displaced from their ancestral lands. They fled north and reestablished an old settlement on the neighboring Chichagof Island to enforce a trade embargo against the Russians.

The word “fled” hit me first, then “decisive.” If the battle was such a clear-cut Russian victory, why had the Kiks.ádi been bragging about it for the past two centuries? I paused for a moment between the two stories. Then, like any thinker with the slightest leaning toward postcolonial critique, I set aside the dead old white man account. If the Kiks.ádi claimed to have beaten the Russians, I would take it as gospel. Instead of asking if it was true, I would ask how it was true. I would prove my loyalty.

letter-1416931590-72.png
The Tlingit settlement at Sitka, 1793. Painting: Sigismund Bacstrom, Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Five

On the afternoon of September 19, 1804, Alexandr Baranov, chief manager of the Russian-American Company, sailed into the Sitka Sound on his ship the Ermak. With him were three smaller armed ships, a flotilla of several hundred sea kayaks, and the Russian Imperial Navy’s sloop-of-war, the Neva. The 1,200 men Baranov brought with him were mostly mercenaries—former Navy sailors and fur traders moonlighting as hired guns—some Aleuts, and a handful of company employees. They were there to send a message to the Tlingit: Sitka belongs to Russia.

Russia first began claiming territory in present-day Alaska in the 1740s, following Vitus Bering’s exploration of the Alaskan coast. Like other colonial powers, Russia wanted to expand its sphere of influence, but its main interest in Alaska was whale oil and fur. Over the next four decades, the Russians hunted along the Aleutian Islands and eastward into the gulf, colonizing as they went. 

The most successful of the colonial-commercial ventures was the Shelikhov-Golikov Company, of which the young Baranov was manager. In 1799, Tsar Paul I, seeking to consolidate his power in the colonies, turned his attention to the SGC. He created from the old enterprise a new, larger company and, after granting it a trade monopoly, invested his and his brother’s personal money in it. The aristocracy soon followed, displacing the merchant investors of the venture’s earlier iteration, and the Russian-American Company was born. 

Modeled after the Dutch East India Company, the RAC was meant to be an empire-building machine. At this point, it was sea otter that the Russians needed, that remarkable mammal whose fur so efficiently warmed the wealthy of Moscow and St. Petersburg. It drew them deeper into what is now the Alaskan panhandle, and the ancestral home of the Tlingit.

The Tlingit had always been a problem for the Russians. Letters between SGC managers warned that they weren’t like the other native tribes. Fifty years before Baranov’s arrival in the region, the Russians lost two landing parties to the Tlingit, the second in search of the first. No more were sent.

In 1792, in the Prince William Sound, Baranov himself had been caught up in a Tlingit attack targeting Chugach and Alutiiq natives with whom he was trading, and most of the men with him were killed. In a letter to his employer, Baranov described his Tlingit assailants as “outstanding warriors” who moved with perfect coordination and discipline. “On their heads they had thick helmets with figures of monsters on them, and neither our buckshot nor our bullets could pierce their armor,” he wrote. “In the dark, they seemed to us worse than devils.”

This experience must certainly have been on Baranov’s mind six years later when he arrived in Sitka Sound for the first time. A dark and dense rainforest of cedar, spruce, and hemlock rose up from the water, trees over 200 feet tall with crowns disappearing into the mist (which was everywhere) and the drizzle (ever present).

Sounds of the forest.

As he sailed into the sound, Baranov passed beneath the shadow of Noow Tlein, an ancient fortified settlement, which had been inhabited by the Tlingit for at least a thousand years. Built atop an outcrop of rock that rose 60 feet from shore to shoulder, Noow Tlein was surrounded on three sides by water. Baranov, upon seeing it, wisely chose to sail on. Shipwrecking (something he did a lot) seven miles north, however, he was forced to trade his prized chain-mail shirt to the Tlingit in exchange for his life.

The Kiks.ádi, smart middlemen that they were, struck a deal allowing Baranov to build a trading post. But three years later, in 1802, the Tlingit rose up. K’alyaán, a great Kiks.ádi warrior, struck the initial blow, killing a blacksmith and taking his hammer. (Later he would wield it in the Battle of Sitka.)

sitkanhp-1416933450-8.png
K’alyaán, a great Kiks.ádi warrior, with his blacksmith’s hammer. Photo: David Rickman, courtesy of the National Park Service.

Baranov was away in Kodiak when he got the news that his fort was gone. It took him two years to return to Sitka. It’s easy enough to wonder why he would have bothered to reclaim such a remote colonial outpost. But the Russian-American Company was funded by the aristocracy back in St. Petersburg and backed by the Russian Navy. The geopolitical jockeying for the Pacific Northwest was intensifying; British and American ships were trading in the area, and Spanish ships weren’t far to the south. Sitka was Russia’s most promising foothold in North America, and now it was lost.

Now, imagine you’re a rube like Baranov, a former Siberian glass-factory manager turned company man. You’ve been hacking away in the bloody business of colonization for years. Suddenly, you land a job as the head of Russia’s first joint-stock entity. It’s going to be big, the tsar and his brothers have put their personal funds into the venture, sea otter is going through the roof, and you’re no longer in the sticks but on the vanguard of imperial expansion.

And now you, Baranov, have lost Sitka—the only harbor in southeast Alaska with access to both the sea and the straits leading to the Inside Passage. And your former business partners are now trading their precious fur pelts to the Americans for arms and gunpowder, which they intend to use against you. As Lenin would later say, what is to be done?

If you are the tsar, you send Imperial Navy warships. If you are the Russian-American Company, you send mercenaries and slaves to fight. If you are Alexandr Baranov, you muster your backwoods gumption, put on a fresh chain-mail shirt—because nothing says fealty like chafing beneath 20 pounds of wrought-iron rings—and get yourself down to Sitka and take that post from the Tlingit however you can. 

Six

Baranov himself never wrote of the Battle of Sitka. Many years later, he told the story to a financial auditor for the company; that was the extent of it. Company documents refer to the halo effect of the battle on trade but little else. The only written eyewitness account of the battle comes from the journals of a Russian naval officer, Lieutenant Commander Yury Lisiansky.

At the time of the battle, Lisiansky was only 31 years old but already enjoying an illustrious career. A veteran of the Russo-Swedish War, he had served in the Baltic and had connections to some of Russia’s older aristocratic houses. In 1802, while the Tlingit were busy destroying Baranov’s first fort, Lisiansky was sent by the tsar to England to buy ships for the Russian-American Company. In a precursor of private sector–state alliances to come, he used corporate credit and imperial gold to make a shady deal for two overpriced secondhand vessels, the Leander (rechristened the Nadezhda) and the Thames (the Neva).

Taking command of the Neva, a square-rigged tall ship with 200 feet of deck length and 14 cannons, Lisiansky set out to circumnavigate the globe on what became known as the Krusenstern Expedition. The Neva and the Nadezhda had already rounded Cape Horn, visited the Galápagos, and completed their circuit of the oceans when, in Hawaii, Lisiansky received new orders: Leave the Nadezhda. Forget going to Canton. Forget going to Japan. Head straight to Sitka. Help Baranov win back his fort.

Sounds of the harbor.

“From the moment we entered Sitka Sound and until we dropped anchor,” Lisiansky later wrote in A Voyage Around the World in the Years 1803-1806, “not a human being was to be seen anywhere, nay not even any sign that hereabouts was any settlement. Before our eyes were forests, covering the shores totally everywhere. How many uninhabited places have I seen, but none can compare in wilderness and emptiness with these.”

aslp20077-1416934353-6.png
A map of the Tlingit fortress at Sitka, drawn by Yury Lisiansky, 1805. Image: Courtesy of the Alaska State Library Historical Collections.

Lisiansky hated Sitka and complained of its weather and general gloom. Forced to wait in the bay for a month for Baranov to come, he was ecstatic when the manager arrived. Now they could engage and get it done. But on the first day of combat, the Russians were soundly defeated. Caught in a pincer move on the beach by Tlingit warriors led by K’alyaán with his blacksmith’s hammer, the Russians took casualties, broke ranks, and ran for the woods and water. They lost five cannons, and Baranov himself was seriously wounded.

For the next four days, the Tlingit fort was bombarded from the sea by the Neva as emissaries went back and forth. Both sides raised white flags, sometimes simultaneously. At the end of the sixth day, the Russians were in the fort and the Tlingit were in the forest. On these facts everyone agrees.

But the more I learned of the battle, the shakier the claim of a decisive Russian victory seemed. The battle was not followed by an influx of Russian trading posts. The Tlingit did not become slaves, as had other tribes. Although the Kiks.ádi abandoned their position, they did not exactly flee, but instead made an organized retreat, covering their people with a rear guard and taking up a new position on the straits. From there they launched an effective trade embargo to cut off the transport of fur to Russia. The following year another Russian trading post fell to the Tlingit in Yakutat and was permanently abandoned.

The retrospective logic seems to be that since the Kiks.ádi do not run the United States today, they must have lost to the Russians in 1804. Native wins are irrelevant. Native defeats are final. The Russians would inevitably prevail, and if not, it didn’t matter anyway. The Battle of Sitka, the lost posts, the embargo on the straits—these were details.

For almost 200 years, there was no published Tlingit account of what happened in Sitka. The Tlingit refused to speak publicly of the battle. Doing so ran against deeply held beliefs. First, talking about a conflict where peace now exists was considered rude and dangerous. Second, stories were considered property, tied to certain places and certain people. If it wasn’t your dead, it wasn’t your story.

There is almost no way to describe the Tlingit concept of ownership without distorting or reducing its complexities. Clans “own” their regalia and their crests, but they also own their ancestral relationships to a place, their songs and dances, their stories and the images that came from those stories. If branding and intellectual property rights were taken to an extreme and merged with the Marxist ideal that people must not be alienated from the objects of their labor—nor from the collective identity arising from that labor—then we might approach the Tlingit sense of ownership. The word for this is at.óow, which has been translated as “a purchased thing.” The Battle of Sitka was a purchased thing. It was paid for by the Kiks.ádi, and it could not be sold out.

Seven

“Even those who bought us, should hear what happened.” —Sally Hopkins

For many years the Kiks.ádi, though reluctant to make their stories public, had been recording their elders telling them for the clan’s own purposes. Sometimes it was little more than a tape machine brought down to the ANB Hall, turned on at a potlatch. Other times the recordings were more formal. In 1958, a Tlingit man recorded a retelling of the events of 1802–1804 for the National Park Service, including an account of the Battle of Sitka.

The woman he recorded was Shxaastí,a Kiks.ádi tradition bearer. Her English name was Sally Hopkins. One of 12 daughters, Hopkins was born in Sitka in 1877. She’d heard the stories as a girl, from elders who were contemporaries of Baranov. Her dialect alone was a treasure for linguistic anthropologists, containing within it the transition markers between ancient and modern Tlingit, an echo of pre-contact speech. She had the sound of ghosts in her voice. Her telling of the Battle of Sitka included over 60 names that otherwise would have been lost to history. Hopkins herself believed passionately in documenting and publishing the stories before they vanished, a belief she passed on to her Kiks.ádi children.

Her story, recorded in 1958, covers the altercations of both 1802 and 1804, but the sequence of events isn’t always clear. Tlingit oral histories are often organized by genealogy, following paths of relationship instead of chronological time. Other Kiks.ádi accounts preserve the 1802 debates between clan leaders, complete with colorful accusations that the sons of the Wolf clan are “sucking on the Russians.” In 1804, though, such debates were either nonexistent or left out of the story by its original tellers; perhaps the stakes were just too high to inflect with humor.

It took 30 years for the Kiks.ádi community to approve the release of these and other elders’ recordings. Finally, in 2008, the University of Washington Press published Russians in Tlingit America: The Battles of Sitka, 1802 and 1804. This was the “good book” my Uncle Andy had said would come all those years ago. In it were new translations of Lisiansky’s memoir by Lydia Black—a noted scholar and translator—along with Russian-American Company documents, Baranov’s personal letters, and, for the first time, a translation of multiple Kiks.ádi accounts of the Battle of Sitka.

My copy of Russians in Tlingit America arrived several weeks before I was scheduled to leave for Juneau. Somewhere between the size of a hotel Bible and Jung’s Red Book, it was 500 pages of dense type. Wanting to be better prepared, I postponed my trip and began to read. No one was waiting for me anyway.

Although the Russian and Tlingit versions diverged in perspective, they agreed on much of the basic flow of events. The battle had never gone as planned for the Russians. They expected to meet the Kiks.ádi at Noow Tlein, the ancient fort overlooking the harbor. According to the commander of the Neva, it was a near impregnable redoubt. But when Baranov and his men arrived, they were met by only a small party of Tlingit. The settlement had been abandoned.

aslp20059-1416942775-64.png
Yury Lisiansky’s drawings of Tlingit masks and other artifacts. Image: Courtesy of the Alaska State Library Historical Collection.

Baranov’s men raised Russian flags inside the empty village. They slept in Kiks.ádi houses. Noow Tlein, where Tlingit had lived for over a thousand years, was occupied without fight or ceremony. This alone must have given the Russians pause. If nothing else, Tlingit are a people of ritual. Their social etiquette rivals the DSM-5 for coding and complexity; they make geisha look slovenly. If they were really intending to give up the fort, they would have danced for days; they would have exchanged gifts and sung. Instead, there was only silence.

According to the Tlingit account, the Kiks.ádi were using Noow Tlein as a decoy. They wanted to draw the enemy out of their ships so they could see how many men they had and how serious they were. They knew all along that the Russians would rely on naval power, so they had spent the interim years building a new fort, Shís’ghi Noow—“fort of young saplings”—specifically designed to withstand naval bombardment. Shís’ghi Noow was built at the high-water line of a gently sloping beach seven miles from Noow Tlein. Gunships could barely get near it, and only during certain tides. If a ship did get in range, the fort’s structure was designed to deflect cannon fire.

These details are corroborated by the Russian version of the story. In Lisiansky’s journal, Baranov complains that the shallows are preventing his ships from getting within firing range of Shís’ghi Noow. He later laments that when they do, his cannonballs keep bouncing off the Tlingit fort. It was a mystery to the Russians, but not to the Kiks.ádi. They had watched the way a cannonball’s direct hit shattered seasoned wood. For this reason, Shís’ghi Noow’s walls had been built of saplings whose green and pliant wood offered a certain amount of give. The timbers were also angled and braced to disperse shock down and away, redirecting balls into pits dug to catch them. Coming ashore after the battle, Lisiansky writes that he gathered at least 150 cannonballs from around the fort walls.

It was never a given that the Russians would win the battle; Lisiansky acknowledges this himself at various points in his account. What neither Baranov nor Lisiansky knew, however, was that the Tlingit had already lost the fort before the Russians ever fired on it. 

On the eve of the battle, a Tlingit canoe was blown up as it passed between islands just off the coast. Both sides record the event, though with discrepancies. Some say it was a Russian shot that caused the explosion, others that it was carelessness among the young Tlingit men in the boat. Some say there were survivors, others that the entire crew was killed. The incident earns only a few lines from Lisiansky. Later, however, the Russian commander would come to realize its importance: The canoe carried the entire stockpile of Tlingit gunpowder.

The explosion was the moment the Tlingit lost the fort. All of their deft evasions and defensive tactics had been in the service of an offensive, prepared over the course of years, which the Kiks.ádi now knew would never come. And the canoe held more than gunpowder. Also inside were the future clan leaders of each Kiks.ádi house. All of them were killed.

The story became a song, “Sooxsaan,” which is one of the two anthems of the Kiks.ádi. The story in “Sooxsaan” is told through the eyes of a mother who loses her child when the canoe he is sleeping in drifts away. She sings out her grief for him to his uncles, those who were lost in that other canoe. It is a song that marks the passing of different futures. Even reading about it, I worried that I was treading on forbidden terrain. This, more than anything, was a purchased thing.

Eight

The Fort of Young Saplings was empty when the Russians walked in. They had expected people, negotiations, but there was no one. It was not the victory they had imagined. It didn’t say: You’ve won. It said: We are not done yet.

That winter in Sitka, without goods to trade—or anyone to trade with—and afraid to hunt in the forest, the Russians sent delegations across the snow to the Tlingit asking them to make peace and come back. The emissaries were turned away.

The Russians eventually abandoned the Fort of Young Saplings, decamping to Noow Tlein, which was vulnerable from the sea but less so from the land. Obviously, it was not the ships of rival colonial powers the Russians feared but Tlingit incursions by land and longboat. In Glorious Misadventures: Nikolai Rezanov and the Dream of a Russian America, Owen Matthews describes the colony at Noow Tlein as having two towers and a stockade “ringed with cannon—pointing not at the sea, but towards the endless threatening forest around.”

Nothing in the details of the battle and its aftermath showed it to be anything but a strategic withdrawal by the Tlingit. The Kiks.ádi tested the Russians at one fort while they moved their people to another; when the munitions were blown, they dragged out the surrender, faked a chain-of-command breakdown to create diplomatic chaos, and got their people safely into the woods. The Russians couldn’t follow because the Tlingit rear guard kept them engaged near the fort. Over time, they were effectively trapped behind the palisade of Noow Tlein, sending envoys out into the snow.

The story of the Battle of Sitka in Russians in Tlingit America struck me as curiously familiar. It took me a few days before I realized what it was. It was Napoleon. It was Moscow. Perhaps, if I hadn’t read so much Tolstoy in my early twenties—particularly if I hadn’t read War and Peace five times—I wouldn’t even have looked at the Battle of Sitka and thought about the burning of Moscow. But I had and I did. The Tlingit strategy was really no different than what the tsar’s forces would do eight years later when facing Napoleon on Russian soil.

After the Battle of Borodino in September 1812—that valiant last stand where the Russian army suffered horrendous losses—Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov did the unimaginable, the un-European thing, stepping aside and letting Napoleon have Moscow. Moscow! The Russians had been there almost as long as the Tlingit had lived at Noow Tlein. How could they abandon it? Yet in the era of saber rattling and charges, amid emerging virulent nationalism, this is exactly what Kutuzov did. And what did he say as Napoleon marched toward Moscow? “I aim not to defeat, but I’m hoping to deceive him.” What deception could he have meant?

L’Empereur marched into the metropolis expecting dignitaries, expecting rituals. He got none. Despite wanting to be gracious, he could find no object for his magnanimity. Napoleon in Moscow, like Baranov in Sitka, alone and far from home on the edge of winter, waited on a surrender that would never come. I have Russia, said Napoleon. No, said the tsar from St. Petersburg, you have Moscow. I have Sitka, said Baranov. No, the Tlingit said, you have the fort.

Both the Tlingit in 1804 and the Russians in 1812 had withdrawn from the field when they were unable to defeat the invaders, and they had regrouped elsewhere. Both created confusion through diplomacy and sent mixed messages to stall the enemy’s approach. Both evacuated their people without surrender, leaving the enemy no one to negotiate with. And, to this day, both the Tlingit and the Russians inhabit their ancestral homelands. Yet somehow, what Kutuzov did is remembered as a brilliant strategy that saved a nation, while what the Tlingit did is considered, by nearly everyone but the Tlingit, an unequivocal defeat.

I began to wonder how Russian Kutuzov’s strategy really was. How great was the psychological distance between 1804 and 1812, between St. Petersburg and Sitka, Kutuzov and the Kiks.ádi? And in the periphery of my mind was also the drumbeat, the unvoiced thought: What a gift to bring.

aslp2014214-1416933769-91.jpg
An 1805 drawing of the Russian-American Company outpost at Sitka. Image: Courtesy of the Alaska State Library Historical Collection.

Nine

The line between passionate curiosity and total fixation is thin. At first I had hoped simply to acquire some conversational fluency on the Battle of Sitka, but now I could think of little else. It seemed at first like historical heresy, but really, why couldn’t Kutuzov’s response to Napoleon have been inspired by a battle in the colonies? I knew I couldn’t prove a connection between the strategies. I was after the possibility.

The obvious first thing to establish was how Kutuzov could have heard about the Battle of Sitka. Lisiansky had published a memoir. I looked up its publication date: 1812, the same year that Kutuzov abandoned Moscow. But both men lived in St. Petersburg; their social circles could easily have overlapped. I considered it equally likely that there was some connection through the Russian-American Company. The tsar and the aristocracy had all invested in the venture, and it seemed plausible that Kutuzov—who had served three successive Romanov monarchs—would have as well. That would have given him a direct interest in the happenings in Sitka, if nothing else. A list of early investors in the Russian-American Company should show his name. 

What I needed was a Russian-speaking researcher I could afford. Impoverished, unemployed, and with time on their hands, it turns out they’re not so hard to find. Since I needed someone who knew how to do academic research, I contacted the Russian department at my former college. Given a list, I chose a young man named Auden and sent him out onto the Internet to dig up everything he could for $200. He was to look for social ties between Kutuzov, Lisiansky, and Baranov—anything that would make a conversation about the Battle of Sitka a reasonable proposition.

Soon he began sending updates. While he wasn’t able to find a list of investors, he had come across some kind of company lady’s auxiliary, of which both Kutuzov’s wife and her half-sister were members. The company also had a ship called the Kutuzov. Ships, like buildings, are often named for war heroes—but just as often for investors. Perhaps the field marshal was both.

Finding a reputable military historian willing to entertain the notion was much harder. The idea that the Tlingit might have saved Russia from Napoleon didn’t exactly open doors; it was more the kind of wild postulation used by middle-aged professors to pick up undergrad girls at coffee shops. But I didn’t care. I was opening the imagination to new possibilities, and the imperial myopia surrounding the Battle of Sitka deserved to be corrected. Didn’t it?

In an attempt at rigor, I refined my questions. How unusual was what Kutuzov did? Were there examples of native tactics making there way back into European warfare? What exactly constitutes a victory? These were safe questions. My real theories I kept to myself.

Growing inside, though, was another uneasiness. The more I spoke of the Battle of Sitka, the less sure I was that I had a right to the story in which I was entangling myself. We tend to think of a story as personal property. I own it because I heard it. This strikes me now as a very colonial way to view the world, though also a human one. And as much as I promised myself I would confine my speech on the subject to what the Kiks.ádi allowed to be published, I found I couldn’t stop my imagination. I could not help but explore the story and open it up. When I did, it changed. Something I read in Russians in Tlingit America echoed—“An unauthorized telling constitutes stealing.”

Ten

After some searching, I found my way to a military historian named Niall Barr. A senior reader in European military history at King’s College London, Barr had been engaged by the British Ministry of Defense to teach tactical history to officers. The Joint Services Command and Staff College where Barr teaches is an hour outside London by rail. By sheer random luck, I was to be in England the following week.

It was Armistice Day, and at 11 a.m. sharp the train car fell silent. Texting stopped, pens were laid down, and the cart coming through the aisle with juice and coffee paused to commemorate the dead. In contrast to Veteran’s Day in the United States, there wasn’t a flag in sight, only red poppies pinned to coats and collars.

I was nervous about meeting Barr. I had not told him of my theories regarding Kutuzov, only that I was doing some work on the Battle of Sitka and needed help understanding Napoleonic-era field tactics. There were many ways to eviscerate my idea—I was coming up with quite a list on my own—and I didn’t want to chase him away before the conversation even began.

We met at the train station and walked to a nearby pub. A tall man in his forties with a poppy affixed to his black wool coat, Barr had gentle manners and an elegant mind. He had looked into the Battle of Sitka and was intrigued by the construction of the Fort of Young Saplings, something I hadn’t thought too much about. “Artillery fortification is a highly skilled business,” he said. “You’re working out the angles. People train for years. It’s all about math and geometry, but you really can’t discount native intelligence.”

I told him what I knew of the battle, the abandonment of the fort, and accounts of the peace ceremonies. I asked Barr if that sounded like a victory.

“There are laws of war,” he said, “conventions, some formal and some informal. Professional soldiers know that. By 1812, these conventions in Europe are well understood. When you place a fort under siege, you have certain rights and responsibilities, and the besieged have certain rights and responsibilities. Once a practicable breach has been made—meaning that soldiers can actually get through your fortifications—the governor of the town or fort is to surrender. If he doesn’t, the breach will be stormed. If it is stormed, the assaulting troops are at liberty to offer no quarter. They can kill everybody. So once there’s a practicable breach, that’s when you surrender.”

“But the Tlingit didn’t surrender.”

Barr paused. “It’s a powerful idea, how wars end. Who decides who has won and lost? These are eternal questions. You see”—he leaned in— “it’s this absurd situation. If a garrison commander surrenders, it’s all lovely and nice and everybody marches off. But if the garrison refuses to surrender, it leads to bloodshed and brutality. The very act of surrendering tells you which code is going to be active.”

But the Tlingit didn’t surrender, I repeated. The Russians had to ask for the deal, bring gifts, and go through a four-day ceremony wearing Tlingit adornments. How was that a Russian victory?

“Baranov sued for peace?” Barr considered a moment. “Still, the fort was vacated, and that would have meant victory.”

At this point I rolled out some of my more subversive ideas about Kutuzov and the defense of Moscow. Barr didn’t scoff. Rather, he seemed a little delighted. I asked him how atypical the field marshal’s strategy had been. “At the time, if you occupied somebody’s capital, then it was game over,” Barr said. “You can’t protect your capital, therefore you should surrender. This is where the Russians did something different—something traumatic, because due to the Orthodox Church, there is something special about Moscow in the Russian psyche. They consider it to be the new Rome. The idea that Moscow would be occupied by a heretic like Bonaparte was beyond the pale.”

I asked Barr if he knew of European commanders using tactics in Europe learned in the course of colonial warfare. He did. During the French and Indian War of the 1750s, he explained, the British general Edward Braddock was attacked in the woods near what is now Pittsburgh. As usual, he kept his men in tight formation and had them fire carefully timed volleys at their opponents—a disastrous tactic for wilderness combat. Most of Braddock’s expedition was slaughtered, and the remaining troops were routed. Yet over the years, the regiment that emerged from the experience, called the 60th Royal American, employed the Native skirmish tactics learned in America and used them to great effect in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

So maybe Baranov did consider himself victorious when he inherited his empty fort. Everyone has the prerogative to be wrong. But here was a concrete example of native tactics finding their way onto European battlefields. Barr also confirmed my sense that the abandonment of Moscow was a radical move. On these two rails, I traveled closer to all possibilities.

On my way back to London, I got another message from my researcher, Auden. He had found a possible social tie between Kutuzov and Lisiansky: a naval officer who was close to both men. It was a complex net of relationships, said my researcher, but he had sketched out a kind of diagram and had attached a scan.

Excited and unable to wind down as the landscape streamed by outside, I slipped a DVD lecture on the Greco-Persian Wars into my laptop. Maybe this would put most people to sleep, but for me it’s a minor obsession: I have watched all 48 episodes the Great Courses has to offer on ancient Egypt, their 36 lectures on Medieval Europe and the Tudor Conquest, and 24 lectures on the Age of Pericles. By now I was on to the Persian Empire, and as the train rolled through suburban London I listened as the professor dissected the ancient Battle of Cunaxa.

Eleven

“Be brave, my son. This is where things fail.” —Sally Hopkins

My father didn’t talk much about the Tlingit adoption after he left Alaska. He didn’t know how to handle it. He said he never did anything to earn it, and he wasn’t sure what was expected of him afterward. Not wanting to be yet another white man claiming what wasn’t his, he waited for a signal nobody knew he was waiting for—and, over time, the adoption, which was meant to create a bond, carved out a gap instead.

When he left Alaska, he let the relationships slip. He didn’t bring up the adoption back in the Lower 48 because he didn’t want to get lumped in with all the Dances With Wolves New Agers. Recently, he admitted to me that he’d missed the point entirely. “It’s not whether you deserve it,” he said. “It’s what you make of it.”

For my stay in Juneau, I booked a room through Airbnb on Starr Hill, a place I knew well as a child. The neighborhood’s clapboard houses and metal stairs negotiating steep hillsides had not changed. I had once seen a salmon fall from the sky there and hit the ground a few feet away from me. The eagles fighting for it overhead had let it slip, and one swooped down, snatched the fish in its talons, and climbed, leaving behind just a few silver scales.

Now, under a bank of mist moving down Mount Robert, was the grim little playground next to what was once my school. On the other side of the governor’s mansion was the neighborhood where my Tlingit grandmother had lived. Not far from there was the Alaska State Museum, where I took classes as a child, and the State Office Building, near where my father once worked—a tombstone for urban renewal, square as a child’s building block.

In the little rented room, I spread out my papers. Since I wouldn’t be meeting my uncle until the next day, I had some time. I covered the floor with my notes, legal pads, and printouts with circles and arrows highlighting connections. It didn’t look like historical research. It looked like the hotel scene from The Wall.

Baranov had turned out to be a dead end. My researcher had found nothing to connect the lowly company man with anyone in the aristocracy, much less the illustrious Kutuzov. It wasn’t unthinkable that a man like the field marshal, with a deep financial interest in the fur trade and a military strategist’s mind, would have had enough curiosity to ask, if given the chance—“What happened in Sitka, anyway? Open another bottle of vodka, and bring me a fresh cigar!”—but there was no evidence that such a chance had ever arisen. Baranov was simply too low on the food chain, and his family had no meaningful power to bridge that gap. In Russia, he was a nobody. Even the Order of St. Vladimir medal presented to him got his name wrong.

Kutuzov, however, did seem to have a connection with Lisiansky. As a young man, Kutuzov had grown up in and around the house of his relative Ivan Golenishev-Kutuzov, whose son Loggin Ivanovich was in the Navy and fought in the Russo-Swedish War like Lisiansky. Loggin wrote a book on circumnavigation and is mentioned in a biography of Lisiansky. As Navy men with such shared interests, proximity, and experiences, they probably knew each other well, and Loggin was close with his father, who was close with Kutuzov. It was a plausible social avenue.

But something else had begun to trouble me. My problem was proving that what Kutuzov did was special at all. My problem was Cunaxa.

In 401 BC, a Greek mercenary force invaded Persia. The armies clashed near Cunaxa (now the city of Hillah in Iraq), where the Greeks routed their opponents—but their leader, Cyrus the Younger, who had intended to claim the Persian throne, was killed. Even worse, the army was now deep in enemy territory, with dwindling supplies and no means of getting home. They headed north, hoping to reach the Black Sea and build a fleet. And since the Persians were unable to defeat the Greeks in a frontal assault, they drew them into the snowy mountains as winter set in, harassing them without ever making a direct attack. What the Persians had done—redefining victory and fighting on—was no different than what Kutuzov would do.

“If you occupied somebody’s capital, then it was game over,” Barr had told me. “This is where the Russians did something different.” I clung to that. But it was only the first half of his statement. The second was, “But it’s also about the conditions you find yourself in.” What bound the strategies in Sitka and Moscow was desperation. These were people fighting for their ancestral homeland, and they did what people in that position do. They changed their definition of victory so they could fight on. Who lets their capital burn while their army still stands? The answer is: anyone who must. We did. In the War of 1812, Americans at Bladensburg let the British raze Washington so they could come back against them in Baltimore.

Cunaxa was the spoon tap that cracked the egg. Over the next 12 hours, sitting in my Juneau Airbnb, my whole theory fell apart. I hadn’t wanted to arrive empty-handed. I had wanted to bring victory. And beneath the debris was only my desire to belong.

Something I had dismissed as ephemeral now came to mind. The Neva was one of two Russian ships that circumnavigated the globe. The other was the Nadezhda. Aboard the Nadezhda was a man named Fyodor Ivanovich Tolstoy, Leo Tolstoy’s older cousin. Leo grew up listening to Fyodor Ivanovich’s stories of duels and sailing around the world, and many believe he was the basis for the character of Dolokhov in War and Peace. And who can say if Fyodor Ivanovich then repeated a tale told to him by his compatriots on the Neva, a story about a great tribe of warriors in the colonies. And who can say if the way he told that story seeded in the child Leo ideas that would surface years later when he imagined the invasion of his own country? It is impossible to gauge what children make of what they hear. Often things come to mean much more than ever intended. 

dezsooldtr-1416877686-94.jpg

Twelve

Down the hill from the house where I stayed in Juneau is the pretty little blue-and-white Russian Orthodox church that appears in so many paintings and postcards of the city. Dedicated to St. Nicholas, it was built in 1894 to serve the Tlingit, who were converting in large numbers, just as their relatives in Sitka had done.

The parish is poor, and as I approached the building I saw that it was in disrepair. There was scaffolding on one side, but the work looked abandoned, and the twine securing a tarp had come loose, allowing it to whip in the wind. I entered late and without a headscarf into the small octagonal room, its vermillion-and-gold icons lit by candlelight. The heat was off and it was cold. A young Russian woman wearing a leopard-print scarf and white knee-high boots ushered her children past me, genuflected, and stepped out of my way. The man leading the service, a tonsured reader in a floor-length black robe, was my uncle Andy.

The Ebonas have been Russian Orthodox for many generations, something they take great pride in. I wasn’t sure if Andy would recognize me, but he did. During a momentary pause in the liturgy, he came over and gave me a big hug—I was touched that he had slipped out of the ceremony to do that. “I’ll make us dinner tonight,” he whispered, then returned to his place near the icons.

Listening to the service, which alternated between Russian and Tlingit, I saw something else I had missed in my postcolonial analysis. I’d left no room for the potential graciousness of peacemaking and its role in the cessation of violence. My assumption had been that if the fighting stopped, either the Tlingit or the Russians had to be subjugated. Nowhere in this narrative was the possibility of a peace that recognized equality rather than domination.

Andy lives in his mother’s house, which he and his siblings inherited in 2002 when Amy Nelson, clan mother of the Sitka Kiks.ádi, “walked into the woods,” as the Tlingit say. Amy had been taught songs and dances by her mother, and she embraced the culture and passed it on to her children with steadfast commitment. Her obituary said she had been a cannery worker, a housekeeper, and a nurse’s aide—and Andy, who is known to be a fantastic cook, told me she taught him how to use the kitchen so he could take care of the other kids while she worked.

Walking into Amy’s living room for the first time in many years, I was pleased to see stuffed frogs still hiding in various places. Over the sofa in the sitting room was a print showing the first day of the Battle of Sitka. It captures the moment when K’alyaán, brandishing his blacksmith’s hammer, led his warriors to the beachhead and took the enemy by surprise. In the picture, Baranov is gravely wounded, and the remaining Russians are fleeing toward their ships. It is a day of victory.

In the kitchen, Andy had a large pot of venison marinara going on the stove. He added some spices, then turned it to simmer. Standing by while he stirred the sauce and set water to boil, I talked about the Battle of Sitka and told him my crazy theory about Kutuzov and the Tlingit.

Andy smiled patiently. “That’s interesting,” he said. “Maybe.”

I waited for more, but he just kept stirring.

“Don’t you think it’s good to question these things?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said and handed me a plate of venison pasta.

In the living room we set up TV trays and ate. I asked him about “Sooxsaan,” the traditional lament for the lost canoe. I wasn’t sure if it was polite to ask to hear something like that—the exact nature of at.óow is still beyond my grasp—but Andy was kind enough to find a recording from a Kiks.ádi party in the 1940s. He put the CD on, and a few seconds later a woman began to sing. The song was profoundly sad, but the woman’s voice was astonishingly sweet and agile. It was high but also warm, without a hint of shrillness. She sounded like a young Ella Fitzgerald.

“That’s my grandmother,” Andy said quietly.

The singer was Sally Hopkins, whose vanished dialect had so fascinated the linguists. When “Sooxsaan” ended, another song began, and Hopkins’s voice, which had been full of sorrow, turned darting and honeyed. She started to skip around the melody like she was only flirting with each of the notes.

“What is that?” I asked with a laugh.

“That,” said Andy, “is a love song.”

We finished listening, and then Andy suggested we watch something on TV. We settled on an episode of Game of Thrones, both of us marveling at King Joffrey’s atrocities, and an hour later I went home with homemade bilberry jelly and smoked salmon in a mason jar. The last thing I saw was Andy in the doorway with the print of K’alyaán and his hammer behind him.

The Kiks.ádi cannot be separated from the Battle of Sitka. In some ways, I will never be separate from the Kiks.ádi. I had heard Sally Hopkins sing because my father was adopted. It was not something I earned. It was more than enough.

Thirteen

My father was not the only man Amy Nelson adopted. She also adopted a man named Peter. Peter, an old family friend, is well known and respected within the community, and 85-year-old Tlingit women sometimes call him Uncle, but more often he is known by a nickname they gave him, Bushkaa.

I asked Peter how he saw his adoption. “Well, a lot of people are adopted, from friends to officials at the highest levels,” he told me. “It’s what you do with it. I’m in pretty deep, but I know where I stand. You know how they say everything can be brought back to The Godfather? I’m like Tom Hagen—a loyal and trusted servant. Of the family, not of the blood. There is a difference. You can see the people who take it too far and go around calling everybody brother.”

I’d been taught to say Uncle and Grandmother. Maybe I was someone who took it too far. All along I’d wondered if I was really following my father’s story and not mine. Yet I had been there, too. Does that make it mine? The Kiks.ádi wrestled with these same ideas, because if the Battle of Sitka was a Kiks.ádi story exclusively, then what about their Eagle and Wolf wives and children, their husbands? And what about the Russians? They had also been there. They, too, had paid with their ancestors.

Accounts of the Peace of 1805 say that the Tlingit “made the Russians their relatives,” which probably means they adopted them. It’s reasonable to assume that Baranov, too, was at some point adopted. He never made it back to Russia but died at sea in 1819 from an illness and was thrown overboard somewhere near the Philippines. In an odd coincidence, he died on the same day as General Kutuzov, though several years apart. Stranger still, the Russian-American Company ship Baranov died on was the Kutuzov. It was as close as the two men ever got. 


asmiiir15-1416935591-33.jpg
A bronze crest reportedly given by the Russians to the Kiks.ádi to restore peace after the battle of 1804. Photo: Alaska State Museum.

In 2003, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act returned ownership of K’alyaán’s blacksmith hammer—then on display at a Sitka visitors center—to the Kiks.ádi. The claim states that although the hammer is a Western object, it “took on ceremonial significance in Kiks.ádi memory, symbolizing their loss of life and resistance to domination,” making it at.óow.

The following year, exactly two centuries after the Battle of Sitka, the Kiks.ádi invited a descendant of Baranov to participate in a Cry Ceremony—a ritual laying away any remaining grief regarding a conflict. The ceremony was held on Castle Hill, where Noow Tlein once stood and which is now a state park. It is also the site where, in 1867, the Russian flag was lowered and the U.S. flag was raised for the first time over Sitka.

The forts are gone now, the site grown over with grass. These four acres comprise the only land the Tlingit ever agreed to forfeit. The Russians had a right to sell Castle Hill but nothing else. This was the inextinguishable claim the Tlingit would push through the courts until the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which was, perhaps, the true end of the Battle of Sitka.

It’s unclear exactly how long the Tlingit have been in the Alaskan panhandle. Unromantic evidence like fish traps and basket-weaving techniques place the Tlingit on Baranov Island alone for at least 6,000 years and at Noow Tlein for at least a millennium. The earliest dates put their appearance at 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, and most clans have very specific stories about rising waters and where they went to avoid them. These stories appear to match the sea-level rise in the rock record and, much to the excitement of anthropologists, new discoveries based on paleo-shoreline models. The stories cannot be truly collected or cataloged, though. They are not extinct, just unavailable. They are at.óow.

On the Forest Service tape from 1958, just before Sally Hopkins begins to speak, is the voice of her son. He is inviting her in the proper Tlingit way to tell the story of “how we became human.” And she recounts the Battle of Sitka. It is not the story of a lost homeland but the story of lost ancestors. The Sitka in her story is larger than the fort on the hill or at the river’s mouth. It is the ancestral Sitka, which emanates deep into the woods and well out to sea. This is an idea strangely reflected in modern Sitka, which is the largest incorporated city borough in the United States. At 4,800 square miles in size, it includes all of Baranov Island, as well as Chichagof Island, where the Kiks.ádi spent the winter of 1804. It also includes a large swath of ocean, which, though typically part of the domain in Tlingit consciousness, is somewhat rare in the definition of city boroughs.

In this vast Sitka, Castle Hill is a dot. The town is a small circle. The Russians are the blink of an eyelash in light of 10,000 years upon the land. Along the Southeast coastline, the names—Yakutat, Klukwan, Hoonah, Auke Bay, Klawock, Angoon, Kake, Sitka—are as they were when Baranov first shipwrecked on those shores. Turning again to the definition Barr gave me of European victory, that whosoever vacates the fort at the end of the day has lost, I wondered: How big is that fort? And how long is that day?