Like the history it examined, the weekend’s history conference at Kenai Peninsula College was many things to many people. For Michael Skinner, who gives summer tours of Old Town Kenai as the Kenai Historical Society’s sole employee, the gathering was “a Woodstock of local history.”
“There’s all these people that I’ve read and seen videos of, and they’re all here speaking in the same place,” Skinner said.
Attendees at the conference ranged from academic historians to amateur history buffs, with several, like Skinner, falling somewhere in between. The focus was on the 1867 U.S purchase of Alaska from Russia — 150 years ago this year.
About 120 people attended, the result of an inherently interesting subject and a low admission price of $50, enabled by a state grant, organizer Shana Loshbaugh said.
“We stopped advertising fairly early on when we got this great surge of interest,” Loshbaugh said. “Some of the people who came, I have no idea who they were and how they even found out about it. There were people coming out of the woodwork to attend this… The Kenai Peninsula really is a very fascinating area, and anyone who’s spent any length of time there gets curious about it and realizes there’s a lot to it.”
Kenai Peninsula College anthropology professor Alan Boraas made a case for regarding the 1797 attack on the St. Nicholas Reboubt as a major turning point in Alaskan history. In that incident, Dena’ina angered by the economic exploitation and sexual slavery that Russians practiced upon Alaska Native women, killed the roughly 100 Russians living in the fort. In the aftermath of the battle, Russian official Alexander Baranof passed over Kenai when searching for a mainland capital. Boraas calculated that because of their dependence on imported food, Russian America never had more than about 800 people, and the choice of Sitka over the agriculturally-viable Kenai Peninsula contributed to the Russian American Company’s ultimate economic failure.
Russian-born historian Andrei Znamenski probed into the religious aspect of Russian-Dena’ina relations, arguing that the spread of Russian Orthodoxy among Alaska Natives owed less to the Orthodox Church’s missionaries — none of whom became fluent in Dena’ina, preaching instead through Dena’ina translators — than to self-conversion by Dena’ina reacting to the chaos of smallpox and the disrupting transformations of their traditional culture.
Loshbaugh said Znamenski’s subject may have been “unfamiliar material to a lot of people in the area, because there’s been a problem with Russian language materials.” Though Znamenski has published English translations of Russian Orthodox missionary journals, Loshbaugh said he estimated in a post-conference conversation that only 1 percent of the Russian-language documents related to Alaska have been translated to English. The documentation of Russian activity in Alaska remains scattered through Russian Orthodox Church archives in Kodiak, at various Orthodox churches around the state, and in Russian American Company records transferred in the sale to the United States and now warehoused in the Library of Congress.
For local scholars in the audience, one of the most exciting talks may have been from Library of Congress Historian and Content Manager Michael Nordlander, who works on the Library of Congress’ Meeting of Frontiers project, an effort to digitize and post online historical documents from both the Library of Congress and archives in Russia. Having primary sources on the internet “really helps scholars, especially if you live in a rural place out of the mainstream, such as Alaska,” Loshbaugh said.
Historical action, modern reaction
Lillian Elvsaas, a Homer resident who said she lived most of her life among the Alaska Native community in Seldovia, said the conference had “talked” to her and felt “very spiritual.” However, she had a wish for future history conferences.
“I would have loved to see more Native people express their experience from their ancestors, from their elders,” Elvsaas said. “Hopefully when you have this again, you’ll have a younger generation come up and know more about the transition.”
This is also the hope of Joel Isaak, a leader of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe’s Language Revitalization program who spoke at the conference on the present state of the Dena’ina Language. Isaak is considering pursuing a PhD degree.
“We as Native people need to take the initiative to participate in the historical arena and the academic arena,” Isaak said. “… There’s some Russian history that we should delve into and actually write from our side, from an indigenous perspective.”
Isaak devoted part of his talk to countering what he called mistaken notions of pre-Russian Dena’ina civilization: that Dena’ina society lacked social cohesion and moral strength. He later commented on the danger of focusing too narrowly on the Russian minority in Alaska, while leaving the historical activity of Alaska’s much larger Native population as blank spaces in the story.
“Environments where you’re dealing with issues of colonization from a Western perspective are very hostile-feeling for indigenous people,” he said. “You’re dealing with a lot of identity issues, because some people have Russian and indigenous blood — so you’re reconciling the dichotomy between feelings. It’s going to be difficult for people to represent indigenous views, or even the reconciliation between the two cultures, when the topic is so personal and we haven’t processed it yet.”
Znamenski said he usually puts the word “Russians” in quotes when writing about Russian America, as “a reminder to myself about the fictitious nature of this expression, Russians.” Those referred to as Russians in contemporary documents and in most modern discussions, he said, actually had much more confusing mix of identities. Zmanenski estimated that there were only about 12 native Russian speakers in the Kenai settlment in the early 1800s.
“The rest of them were creoles — the offspring of mixed marriages in Kodiak and other Aleutian Islands, or Siberian natives,” Znamenski said. “So we always have to be careful when we say this word ‘Russians.’”
The melding of Russian, Native, and later American cultures into the stew of contemporary Alaska was a first-person experience for many conference attendees — one that occasionally made for uneasy experiences. Writer McKibben Jackinsky comes from a Russian family in Ninilchik and spoke in the conference’s concluding panel discussion.
“This conference… brings up something for me that I will probably be struggling with all my life,” Jackinsky said. “On my father’s side of the family, there’s Alutiiq. I hear about what happened to the lives of the people who lived here when the Russians came — the negative impacts. When I hear it, I get angry. I get defensive. I feel the hair on the back of my neck start to stand up. Then I hear about what happened when the U.S bought Alaska, and the next wave came. That makes me mad. Then I hear about the battles between the Russians and the Natives when the Natives won the battle, and then the Russian in me gets angry about that… And I hear us badmouth the Lower 48, how they come up here, but that’s my mother’s side. So there’s a reconciliation that needs to take place within me. And within us.”
Others felt their place in the world more unified by history than divided by it. Carol Ford, a Homer resident and friend of some of the scholars who presented, took Dena’ina language classes at Kenai Peninsula College with Peter Kalifornsky during the late 1980s, and has devoted much of her time since to telling Kalifornsky’s Dena’ina stories. Listening presentations at the conference, she said, helped her stitch the stories of history into a greater narrative.
“I think what this has done for me is it’s tied a lot of stuff together that I sort of knew, or was interested in, or kind of knew a little bit about, and it started to make more and more sense — so it feels like it’s quadrupling my knowledge by connecting things that I already knew,” Ford said.
If you missed last weekend’s Kenai Historical Conference, some of its material will soon be available in other forms. Loshbaugh said the conference’s website will stay up and its proceedings will be published in a book alongside historical columns that Loshbaugh has written for the Peninsula Clarion, which she said will likely not be printed until the end of the year. Videos combining audio from each presentation with slides will also be available. Other conferences, less extensive in scope, may follow.
“After everything is evaluated and the follow-ups are done, I hope that the historical societies in the area would consider doing things that are somewhat like this, on a more modest scale, maybe moving from community to community — having a Seward History Conference, a Homer History Conference — every few years, and try to bring in some of these guest speakers and bring in the community,” Loshbaugh said. “Because it seems like there really is a hunger to know more, and there’s still more to be said.”