Artwork examines 1867 transfer of Alaska to the U.S.
As an Alaska Native artist who grew up in Southeast Alaska, the idea that the land of her ancestors could be bought and sold out from beneath them still baffles Mary Goddard.
“I find it hard to accept that people could purchase land without regard to who it really belonged to and use the natural resources without proper precautions and respect,” she said.
So she did something about it. She created a work of art to express her feelings. “Selling Alaska” is now on display at the Sitka National Historical Park as part of the exhibit Voices of Change: Perspectives on the Transfer of Alaska from Russia to the United States. The artworks on display all depict artistic interpretations of the responses of Alaska Native peoples to the transfer of Alaska in 1867.
The sesquicentennial exhibit was created through a partnership between the Sitka NHP and the University of Alaska Museum of the North. Project manager Karinna Gomez said eight artists responded to the call to reflect on the Alaska Purchase, also called the Treaty of Cession, and the subsequent 150 years of American governance of Alaska Natives.
The treaty explicitly excluded Alaska Natives from the rights and freedoms offered to white inhabitants. Gomez said the artwork conveys a sense of the broad effects this marginalization had on Alaska Natives.
“I was impressed with the historical research, creative insight and emotional response each of the artists put into their projects. They responded with thoughtful projects that together create an exhibit that illustrates the impacts of the transfer,” she said.
Goddard said she wanted her artwork to feel both contemporary and relevant. “Looking back, I can imagine how the Tlingit people must have felt when their land was sold,” she said. “I wanted to tell the story in a way that my ancestors would. I wanted to capture people’s attention but pull them in to really look at the art and discover its message.”
Kelsey Lutz, the Sitka National Historical Park curator, said the exhibit expresses the personal experience of those who were affected by the change and plays an important role in humanizing an otherwise political event.
“At its core, this exhibit carries a message about the cultural diversity that exists in Alaska,” Lutz said. “The exhibit is intended to provide a wide breadth of perspectives about the transfer of Alaska to the U.S. It is important to remember that we are commemorating the anniversary of the sale rather than celebrating it. Not everything that came out of the transfer was positive.”
While many of the pieces in the exhibit capture a feeling of loss, she said, they also demonstrate the vibrancy of Native culture today.
“The exhibit highlights the fact that the treaty impacted all Alaskans, not just the Russian and American delegates,” Lutz said. “Much of the artwork was created by Native artists whose families and cultures have lived through those impacts over the last 150 years.”
The artwork includes paintings, sculptures, digital art, beadwork and metalwork. A Boston-area artist also installed a project on the park’s Totem Loop Trail that explores the legal and legislative response to the treaty.
University of Alaska Fairbanks graduate Erin Gingrich created a work titled “Fragile Wealth” that features five carved salmon hung headless in a row. She said the artwork focuses on the beauty of the state’s natural resources, the meaning that comes with harvesting the fish from her own environment and the understanding that these resources are a gift.
“The exhibit recognizes that Alaska Natives have survived and acknowledges us as a living people,” she said. “My inclusion is important to me because raising awareness about our historical way of life and its evolution to today’s subsistence rights is a key part of my work.”
“Remembering Chief Thomas’ Children, 1923, Nenana,” an oil painting in the exhibit by artist Karen Austen, is notable in that it relied on a black and white historic photograph. She was inspired by meeting the chief’s granddaughters and learning the story behind the picture, which was taken at a potlatch for his children who died from whooping cough.
Austen said she researched the painting using objects preserved in the collections at the UA Museum of the North. “I used samples of chiefs moose hide jackets and beadwork from that time to get the details and colors right. What luck that the gorgeous dress Martha is wearing is actually on display at the museum.”
The Voices of Change exhibit is installed in the park visitor center in Sitka, which was designed to resemble a Tlingit clan house. The space is filled with sacred totem poles and house posts held in trust by the park for local Tlingit clans. The exhibit planners decided to integrate the artwork among these historic objects.
Sitka NHP is the only national park in Alaska commemorating the sesquicentennial this year, in part because it is the only national park tasked with interpreting the Russian America period. Established in 1890, Sitka NHP is Alaska’s smallest national park but also its oldest. The park preserves the site where the Tlingit people were finally defeated by the Russians in 1804 after defending their wooden fort for a week.
Voices of Change will be on display at Sitka NHP through most of the sesquicentennial year. Lutz said it will be available to the public until the end of November.
“We hope the exhibit will generate dialogue about the hardships of the past as well as the healing that needs to happen for the future,” she said.