Sitka manifests diverse cultures

SITKA, Alaska -- In 1804, nearly a century before the Klondike gold rush, Russian fur traders defeated Alaska's Tlingit Indians in the Battle of Sitka and proceeded to transform the Tlingit's ancestral home into the czar's capital in North America.

On a prominence overlooking Sitka harbor, Count Alexander Baranof built his administrative headquarters and from this wilderness outpost directed Russian activities up and down America's northwest coast.

Shipyards, sawmills and other industry hummed with activity. Russian ships loaded ice, lumber and furs for markets in Europe, Asia and Mexico. Russian nobility attended formal balls and social galas.

All of this ended in 1867, when the U.S. purchased Alaska from the czar for $7.2 million.

Sitka today has a population of about 8,600. The town's island-dotted harbor and backdrop of mountain peaks form one of the loveliest settings of any community in Alaska.

Sitka is not on Alaska's Inside Passage but on the Pacific Ocean side of Baranof Island, about midway up the Alaskan Panhandle.

Large cruise ships approach from the open ocean. Smaller cruise ships thread their way through the Peril Strait and an archipelago of small offshore islands, arriving at Sitka from the Inside Passage.

In modern-day Sitka, Russian and Tlingit mementos, relics and artifacts are carefully preserved. Cannon built in the 18th century still point out across the harbor from Castle Hill, where Count Baranof presided.

St. Michael's Cathedral, built in the 1840s and destroyed by fire in 1966, has been rebuilt and contains dozens of rescued gold and silver icons and oil paintings.

The log blockhouse that once separated Russian and Indian sectors stands as a reminder that the Tlingits did not submit quietly to Russian dominance.

Russian and Tlingit cultures are both preserved at Sitka National Historical Park, a half mile outside of town.

From the park's visitor center, a self-guiding trail leads past totem poles to the site of the 1804 battleground.

The totem collection displays original pieces collected early in the 1900s as well as copies of originals that were lost to time and the elements.

In one wing of the visitor center, Tlingit artists, members of the Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center, teach traditional wood and silver carving.

Another wing houses Russian-American historical and archaeological collections.

Also a part of Sitka National Historical Park is the Russian Bishop's House near St. Michael's Cathedral. Built in 1842, the house is a National Historic Landmark, one of four original Russian structures remaining in North America.

Exhibits on its first floor interpret the Russian fur trade in Alaska and the roles of the Russian American Company and Russian Orthodox Church.

The second floor was restored to its 1850s appearance with original furnishings.

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