By Peter Metcalfe
Tlingit culture was influenced but not fundamentally altered during the Russian era in Southeast Alaska. After the initial armed conflicts of the early nineteenth century, both sides settled into mutually beneficial arrangements. The material changes — the introduction of western goods, tools and armaments — enriched rather than wrecked the Tlingit way of life. The Russian and American merchant-sailors were stagehands for the Tlingit drama, providing the props, sometimes playing a role, but largely bystanders as feuds were pursued, as Tlingit art reached levels that now rank with the highest of human artistic expression, as new wealth infused the status conscious society resulting in ever more elaborate ceremonial events.1
There is no evidence of any campaign during the Russian period against Tlingit language, culture, or society.2
Everything changed in the years following the 1867 Treaty of Cession when the U.S. government purchased Russian interests in Alaska for $7.5 million. The aggressiveness of the Americans, coupled with a severe decline of Native populations, utterly changed Tlingit life.
The pre-contact Tlingit population is estimated to have been about 14,800. After several smallpox and measles epidemics there were in 1835 an estimated 9,880 Tlingit and by 1890 there were about 4,500.
“As epidemics and trade weakened and changed social patterns and structures, the indigenous populations of Southeast Alaska began to lose control over their lives” —Joyce Walton Shales3
At this late date, it is easy to criticize the American missionaries for attempting to eradicate Tlingit culture. The unfortunate truth is that had the Tlingits not adapted to the new social order, extinction was a very real possibility, which some white people of the day wished upon them with a racist fervor.
“Indians are not good for much anyhow. They are lazy, dirty, and shiftless. We shall have to get rid of them some way... Whiskey will do the business better than fighting. We have only to let whiskey come in freely, and in this we shall civilize them off the face of the earth.” - Henry M. Field4
Missionaries wanted to convert, not exterminate, the Tlingit. At first with little government help, with most of their funding raised through church organizations, the missionaries of Alaska made honest efforts to cure the ill, educate the young, and preach the word of God to all.
By the turn of the century, a tide of evangelism had swept through the Native communities of Southeast Alaska. The Russian Orthodox Church, awakened from its slumber following the sale of Alaska, had established new churches in Juneau, Angoon, and Killisnoo. At Sitka, many Tlingits, given a choice, gravitated to the Orthodox Church.
“The refusal of some of the Euro-American Presbyterians to worship with the Indians... demonstrated to the Sitka Tlingit that membership in an American church did not guarantee them acceptance in the American community. (Many) of the Tlingit then settled for membership in the Orthodox Church, which was opposed to segregation and discrimination in principle...” - Sergie Kan5
The offer of education was irresistible for many Tlingit, who were willing to send their much-loved children to live at American missionary boarding schools where Tlingit culture and language were reviled.
“We should let the old tongues with their superstition and sin die-the sooner the better-and replace these languages with that of Christian civilization, and compel the natives in all our schools to talk English and English only. Thus we would soon have an intelligent people who would be qualified to be Christian citizens.” - S. Hall Young, missionary, 1880.
Rudolph Walton was a man whose life story, as documented by his granddaughter, Shee Atiká shareholder Joyce Walton Shales in her doctoral thesis, provides a window into the wrenching upheaval of Tlingit society that occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
“Sheldon Jackson and the Presbyterian missionaries held out to the Native people the promise that if they became ‘civilized’ they would be treated equally in the eyes of the American government.” - Joyce Walton Shales6
Born into a high status Kiks.ádi family in April 1867, a month after the Russians sold their interests in Alaska to the United States, Rudolph Walton was one of the first graduates of Sheldon Jackson School. He often referred to himself in later life as “The first student of Sheldon Jackson School.”7
“I believe Rudolph received perhaps four or five years of education at Sheldon Jackson School at the most and while he was receiving that he was also helping to build the school.” - Joyce Walton Shales8
Pressured by clan elders to marry the widow of his uncle, he refused, yet Walton honored Tlingit cultural dictates when he married a fellow student, Daisy, whose family was of similar status and of the opposite clan, continuing the alliance of the Kiks.ádi and Kaagwaantaan.
“Rudolph, the first boy married in the ‘Home,’ is working in the mines at Silver Bay. The Superintendent likes him very much, he is so industrious and trustworthy. They pay $2 per day and board. He is saving his money to build a Boston house upon our mission land. We feel that he is a credit to our Institution, and we have others like him.” - Presbyterian Home Missionary, October 1886.
The American or “Boston” style houses became known as the Cottages, the homes built by and for the graduates of Sheldon Jackson School.
At the turn of the century, the Waltons were among the founding families of the Cottages. Rudolph and Daisy had four children and were living a Christian way of life in accordance Cottage rules and regulations.
“The principle that would give the cottage residents the most trouble was the promise to never participate or countenance heathen festivities or customs... Most of the residents and students had one foot in each world; they had strong relationships with their family and kin in the Tlingit community and they were trying to meet the demands of the Presbyterian missionaries who felt that the Tlingit needed a complete makeover.” -Joyce Walton Shales
Rudolph Walton straddled two worlds - the cottages where he and other “civilized” Tlingits lived - and the village of his unassimilated relatives one mile up the coast. Walton was a “beloved elder” of the Presbyterian church and, as he grew older, an ever more important elder of his clan, the Kiks.ádi. But even though the Waltons were admired by their fellow Presbyterians as a model family, living moral and upright lives in a model cottage, they were without rights.
“Whether ‘civilized’ or ‘uncivilized,’ Indians were not citizens. As a consequence... no Indian who discovered gold could keep it... Of equal importance was the fact that, because they were not citizens, Indians who lived in Juneau and Sitka and the other white towns could not vote in municipal elections...” - Don Mitchell, historian11
Until 1905, the educational system in Alaska, as inadequate as it was, could not legally discriminate - children of school age were to be educated without reference to race. The Nelson Act, passed by Congress in January 1905, provided that Native and White children in Alaska would be educated in separate school systems. “Mixed blood” children could attend White school so long as they and their parents lived a “civilized life.”
“The order establishing the School District of Sitka was dated January 27, 1905, and the first election of school board members was April 15, 1905... Native people in Sitka were not given the opportunity to vote for school board members.” - Joyce Walton Shales12
At the beginning of 1906 the new Sitka School Board closed the public school to Natives. By this time Walton had buried his wife Daisy13 and two of their four children, and had remarried. The circumstances of his second marriage, to the recently widowed Mary Davis of Hoonah, was the subject of great controversy in the councils of the Presbyterian elders. They accused Walton of marrying in the “heathen custom.” 14
“According to Tlingit social custom, Mary Davis, the second Mrs. Rudolph Walton, was an appropriate second wife for Mr. Walton because she was a widow and a prominent Kaagwaantaan. Rudolph Walton was Kiks.ádi, and the Kiks.ádi often married into the Kaagwaantaan clan... but the marriage was apparently arranged according to ‘heathen custom’ or according to Tlingit tradition, which is why the Presbyterian Church officials were so upset about it.” - Joyce Walton Shales 15
The conflict led to a breach of several years between Rudolph Walton and his church.
According to the records, the children of Mary Davis, Dora and Tillie, were of “mixed blood.” Adopted by Walton, the children attended the Native school until it closed, and were then enrolled in the Sitka public school.
“The circumstances which led the Walton family and others to enroll their ‘mixed blood’ children in the newly formed Sitka Public School were related to financial problems in the Alaskan educational system. These problems resulted in the closing of the native school which the children attended.” - Joyce Walton Shales 16
Dora and Tillie Davis were “enumerated” (counted) by the Sitka School District for “the public or white school after the Native school closed.” 17 This was to heighten the hypocrisy of their rejection from public school, since the school district received funding for the Native children they would not accept. To be fair to Presbyterians, it should be noted that the venerable Sheldon Jackson himself was outraged by hypocrisy. It appears that the early missionaries truly believed that with education and adoption of white values, citizenship for Alaska Natives would follow. Their successors were not so enlightened.
“It must have been quite a shock when (Rudolph and Mary) sent their children to school and were told they were not welcome... the teacher informed Mr. Walton that his two step-children, Dora and Tillie, would not be allowed to attend school with the white and other ‘civilized’ students.” - Joyce Walton Shales 18
The resulting court case, Davis v. The Sitka School Board, illustrates the no-win situation the graduates of Sheldon Jackson School faced: no matter what they did, no matter how impressive their success, they could not overcome the taint of their Indian blood.
“The case of Davis vs. Sitka School Board proved that the promises of equality made to the Tlingit by the Presbyterians would not automatically happen no matter what they did.” - Joyce Walton Shales19
Walton and the Native community lost Davis when the court determined that “each generation must decide for itself what constitutes the civilized life...”20 The dominant White community, including prominent Presbyterians, had testified against the Native parents. Their decision was clear: people of Native blood, whether mixed or not, were by their very nature uncivilized.
“Rudolph Walton and many others like him became educated in the beliefs and values of the Western world, and used that education, along with their knowledge of Tlingit culture and tradition, to lead us into the New World.” - Joyce Walton Shales21
Decided in 1908, “Davis” made clear that litigation was an uncertain road. Government policies continued to discriminate against Native Alaskans. Individuals could not expect to change such policies by themselves. It would take collective action.
“As the history of the ANB illustrates, and the results of the collective action on behalf of Alaska Native rights and land claims bear out, it was those Alaska Natives who were educated, andwho understood the Western system, who were ultimately able to effect change. - Joyce Walton Shales
1 The distinctions of Tlingit ceremonials (koo.éex’), commonly referred to as the “potlatch,” are explained in the introduction to Haa Kusteeyí, Our Culture: Tlingit Life Stories, Nora & Richard Dauenhauer, 1994, pages 33-35.
2 Dauenhauer, page 35
3 Rudolph Walton: One Tlingit Man’s Journey Through Stormy Seas, Sitka, Alaska, 1867-1951, Joyce Walton Shales, 1998, page 65.
4 Shales, page 64, quoted from “Some Biased Observations on the Christian Missionary,” Ted Hinckley, 1979.
5 Memory Eternal: Tlingit Culture and Russian Orthodox Christianity through Two Centuries, Sergie Kan, 1999, page 235.
6 Rudolph Walton: One Tlingit Man’s Journey Through Stormy Seas, Sitka, Alaska, 1867-1951, Doctoral Thesis, Joyce Walton Shales, 1998, page 176.
7 Shales, page 75
8 Shales, page 86>
9 Shales, page 92
10 Shales, page 99
11 Sold American, The Story of Alaska Natives and Their Land, 1867-1959, Donald Craig Mitchell, 1997, page 193.
12 Shales, page 178.
13 Daisy died of tuberculosis in 1904 at the age of 36. Shales, page 112.
14 Shales, page 151
15 Shales, page 151
16 Shales, page 179
18 Shales, page 178
19 Shales, page 203
20 Shales, page 202
21 Shales, page 215