Thursday, July 5, 2012

Welcome to Sitka, AK

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June 26-27th- We arrived in Sitka at 6:00 am and headed to the Starrigavan Campground, a forest service campground about a mile from the ferry and about 7 miles outside of Sitka. Overall, we have been really happy with the forest service campgrounds. They are inexpensive (and half of that price with a senior national parks pass) and quite nice. Most have wooded campsites and several nice hiking trails. They do not have hook-ups (electric or water), but we manage just fine without them, especially with the generous generator hours. We set up the camper, had coffee and breakfast, then headed into Sitka to do some sightseeing.

We saw Sitka in what is typical weather for them……misty rain to drizzle, with temps hovering between 50-55 degrees. It continued like this for Tuesday and Wednesday, and while we were getting ready to leave on Thursday. We are getting a lot of use out of our rain jackets! We are trying to keep a positive attitude….and getting about, really, with no problems, as the rain stays mostly at a mist to very slight drizzle. But, to be honest the cool and constant damp as well as the dreary skies tends to ‘dampen’ the mood……But, we keep reminding ourselves that THIS really is seeing the ‘real’ Alaska….weather and all…..

Sitka is a smallish community of about 9,000 people. It has an interesting history with a Tlingit native population and  the Russians who came later, and the Americans who came after that.

The Tlingits were drawn to this area for its abundance……the forest, the rivers and the sea provided all that they needed for a thriving existence.

The Russians were attracted to this area for its abundance as well. Only Russia was interested in fur, sea otter pelts, in particular. The Russians made no secret of the fact that they came to exploit the resources they found. They enslaved the native Aleuts and forced them to hunt otter for them, and they fought with the Tlingits, before settling into a rather uneasy co-existence with them. In 1804, Alexander Baranov became head of the Russian-American Fur Company. 

After 6 decades, when the sea otter had been hunted almost to extinction in this area, the Russians lost interest in the community they called New Archangel, and sold Alaska to the United States. In 1867, Alaska became a US Territory with the ceremony held in New Archangel, now renamed ‘Sitka”.

With the sale of Alaska to the US, most of the Russians who had been working there moved back to Russia, and the United States moved in with there own changes. The Presbyterian Church created a mission in Sitka, but they were far less tolerant of the Tlingit traditions and way of life than the Russian Orthodox Church had been. In the 1960’s after decades of assimilation and population decline, the Tlingits began to reassert their culture.

What we saw in Sitka seems to reflect a desire to find an identity, and to rediscover and hold onto those traditions which reflect their history.

The Russian Orthodox Church had a real and positive influence in Sitka. The first Bishop of Alaska, Bishop Innocent, came  to Sitka in 1841. Bishop Innocent was an inspired cleric and a gifted educator with a talent for languages. He respected the native populations and quickly gained their trust and affection. For his work with native populations in Alaska and Siberia, Bishop Innocent was canonized a saint in Russia in 1977.


Bishop Innocent’s church was St. Michael the Archangel, which stands in the same place, today. Much of the Russian history in Sitka resides in this Cathedral.


St Michael’s onion shaped dome is a distinctive landmark in Sitka.

Inside the cathedral are many beautiful Russian icons, or paintings.


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Many of the icons are clad in silver, and a votive candle holder hangs in front of them. In the Orthodox Church, the icons are considered to be “Windows into the Kingdom of Heaven” and are given places of honor.

Regular services are held at St. Michael’s, and they have about 50 families that are active members, of which 90 percent are of Tlingit descent. On Wednesday evening, we attended the 6 pm Vespers service and visited with the Priest and his wife (the Orthodox faith allows married clergy).  The service was quite interesting, but the Orthodox faith is VERY traditional, with the prayers and liturgy dating back to the  very first church without change.

Tuesday afternoon, we enjoyed  a performance by the New Archangel Dancers……

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A local, all woman dance group, which has been working to preserve the traditional dances from Russia for over 40 years. They reminded me of the Dutch dancers that we have seen perform in Orange City, Iowa.


None of the over 30 women in this group are professional dancers, rather they are young women and mothers and community members who happen to enjoy dance. Interestingly, none of them are Russian, either, but all of them feel invested in preserving the Sitka heritage. The dances highlighted a number of different Russian folk dances, often telling a story with the dance.

Tuesday, we also toured around the downtown area, which was easy enough to do on foot. There were a number of shops, some dedicated to Russian made souvenirs, such as the nesting dolls, or lacquered boxes. They were all beautiful, but the stores were the usual cruise ship variety, and none really had any ‘local flavor’.

Wednesday afternoon, we caught a performance of the Skeet’ka Kwaan Dancers at the local Tlingit Community House.


The community house features the largest carved panel ‘house screen’ in the Pacific Northwest. This building is used for many different events within the Tlingit community.


The dancers that we saw were a group of young boys and girls, ranging in age from about 4 years old to older teens. This particular group affiliation has been together and holding organized dances for about 20 years. This dance group really felt like a community led effort that is trying (and succeeding) in involving its young people in the customs and traditions of their heritage. And, the dancers were really very talented!



The dancers dress in traditional ceremonial costumes, and the dances are accompanied by drums and chanting. Each dance tells a story and has its origins in each of the different Haida or Tlingit traditions. We were told that they learn and perform many other dances, but those are reserved for tribal ceremonies.


The last dance of the performance is an ‘invitational’ dance, with everyone being invited to join in.

The Tlingit heritage is also preserved and celebrated at the Sheldon Jackson Museum with the largest collection of Alaskan Native artifacts in the state……..


And along the Totem Pole Trail, a beautiful collection of totem poles that are spaced along a nice walk through the rain forest.

Another bit of ‘culture’ that we were in town for was the 41st Sitka Summer Music Festival. Throughout the month of June, Sitka invites classical musicians from around the country to come and perform at a number of free community concerts and events including ‘brown bag lunches’, and ice cream socials, and all you can eat crab fests, with the mission “….to make classical music accessible and to educate communities on why this music has been around for hundreds of years and is still celebrated”.

Sadly, we missed the crab fest and ice cream social, but caught a wonderful string quartet fresh form Julliard, at a local downtown café.


Wednesday evening, after the Vespers service, we  stopped in for dinner and to listen to the music, and almost did not get a seat! The placed was PACKED!  Who knew……in Sitka, Alaska…..

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