Native history, Russian culture converge in Sitka

By
|

Sitka, the capital of Alaska during Russias occupation of the territory, is rich in native history and Russian flavor.

That flavor is most strongly illustrated at St. Michaels Cathedral, dominating the center of town with its octagonal tower, classic spire and onion dome.

Inside, dazzling displays of gold and silver icons and chalices are accompanied by descriptive literature. On cruise ship days, interpreters give verbal accounts of the early settlers history and religious practices.

One story recounted the fire that leveled the structure in 1966. When it was evident the cathedral couldnt be saved, townspeople removed its priceless relics for safekeeping until the cathedral was restored.

Attractions

Along the shoreline, Bishop Innocents House was the seat of ecclesiastical power for the Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska during the mid- to late-1800s.

A bedroom in the upstairs living quarters displayed the largest bed pillow Id ever seen. It covered half the bed.

The National Park Service guide explained that back then, people commonly believed it was healthier to sleep in a semi-sitting position.

Another oddity centered on the windows. From the street, they appeared numerous, but from inside, I counted just a few openings.

SitkaIt seems that windows were a status symbol in this remote colony. The more you showed to the outside world -- real or fake -- the more prosperous you appeared.

On the entertainment side, Sitkas New Archangel Dancers perform daily during cruise season. Colorful costumes, robust music and lively steps are authentic, but none of the dancers is Russian, and all are women.

Outside of town, Sheldon Jackson College sits among the Sitka pines, the tallest fir trees this side of Australia. Looking more like a resort lodge, the college runs an elderhostel program and houses the oldest museum (1897) of Indian artifacts in Alaska.

My ultimate goal was the National Historical Parks Governors Walk, a totem pole trail in the woods along Sitka Sound.

Armed with my Carved History booklet, purchased in the gift shop, I walked the mile or so on a pleasant path cushioned by soft pine needles.

Each pole stood almost as tall as the trees, separate from its neighbor. My book detailed these ceremonial emblems in order of their appearance.

Designs carved by the Haida and Tlingit peoples left distinctive tribal stamps. Some had openings in the back where a deceased members ashes were stored to make him one with the spirits.

Eagles were popular, and several poles ended with one or two heads of watchmen in top hats -- hard to reconcile in the Alaskan wilderness.

Lifestyle

While explaining the states thriving salmon business, my hostess at a traditional salmon bake typified Alaskan resilience.

She claimed that locals are often denied the most popular export items, so as a teenager, she was sent to the streams during spawning season to catch salmon eggs with a branch as they flowed past, supplying her family with caviar.

Better grade souvenir shops are found along Lincoln Street, where visitors buy locally made soaps, clothing, artwork and chocolate.

One of the shopkeepers shared with me her ancestry and told me how to differentiate the Haidas from the Tlingits.

Tlingit Indians were the first inhabitants and still thrive here, she said. Inupiats live above the Arctic Circle, while Athabascans settled around Fairbanks. But, please, she added, none of us wants to be called Eskimos.

For more information, contact the Sitka Convention & Visitors Bureau at (907) 747-5940 or www.sitka.org.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

Comments
JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI