Alaskans driving the Seward Highway may have an inkling that the namesake for that road was a 19th century anti-slavery politician who structured the deal to buy Alaska from Russia in 1867. What Alaskans may not know is that William Seward, like most Americans of European descent of his time, considered America’s Native peoples “inferior savages” and advocated aggressive expansion across America by “superior” white people.
Likewise, Alaskans may have a faint idea that the name “Baranov,” which adorns Juneau’s dominant downtown hotel and many streets in Alaska communities, comes from Alexander Baranov, the first manager of the Russian-American Company. What most Alaskans probably don’t realize is that Baranov was a ruthless administrator, who led Russian colonizers as they commandeered Unangax and Alutiiq labor and forced women into sexual relationships, leading to the decimation of Native populations from disease, hardship, and starvation.
What these two historical figures, and others such as British explorer James Cook, have in common is that their contributions to Alaska are honored with prominent statues. Today, many Alaskans say those statues should be removed or at a minimum, put in a fuller context. How, who and what to recognize about Alaska’s history is part of a national debate about racial injustice and cuts to the very heart and ideals we as Alaskans hold dear. Is Alaska history one of “manifest destiny,” colonialism, and the expropriation of Indigenous land? Is it the story of intrepid pioneers who settled in a faraway land to secure a better life? The answer to both of these questions is yes.
Therein lies the complexity and urgency of history. Perspective and a diversity of viewpoints matter. And any historical debate must be informed by evidence, a close engagement with primary sources, and an acknowledgement that history does not always present clear cut answers and easily identifiable heroes and villains. It does, however, present a singular opportunity to think critically about the past, celebrate moments of triumphs, and reckon with injustice. In doing so, history promotes understanding and empathy; it expands our vision for change and enriches our public dialogue.
The Alaska Historical Society, a volunteer-based nonprofit organization dedicated to the promotion of Alaska history and education of Alaskans about their heritage, encourages this debate. We believe Alaska’s history should be broadly discussed and much better understood. We encourage our fellow Alaskans to enter discussions of history based on these principles:
Alaska’s history should be understood in full context and always based on the best available evidence. For example, instead of dismantling or moving a statue from public view, consider adding information to more completely explain the subject’s life, positive and negative, from both today’s perspective and from the time the person lived.
Because most of Alaska’s written history has been told from the point of view of white men, our understanding of history is profoundly incomplete. A better understanding of the past requires seeing it through a much wider perspective, including the understanding of Alaska Natives, and of African-American, Asian, Filipino, Hispanic, Pacific Islander, and every other population of people who have been part of Alaska’s story. History is also incomplete without the contributions of Alaskans of all genders.
We should preserve structures and settings which played a key role in Alaska’s history. If a community decides to move a statue, we encourage it be preserved with proper context rather than be leveled. Also, aging buildings with invaluable historical context are being destroyed rather than preserved, mostly for lack of funding. We encourage local and state decision-makers to dedicate resources to preserve these structures.
The Alaska Historical Society believes today’s debates over racial injustice offer an invaluable opportunity to elevate the study of the past. To advance understanding, we advocate the following:
We recognize there are more ways to facilitate the teaching and learning of Alaska history, but these are impactful actions we could take today. We hope you will join the Alaska Historical Society in its call to action. Alaskans deserve the opportunity to learn our history. In fact, it’s our duty.
Alaska Historical Society
P.O. Box 100299
Anchorage, Alaska 99510-0299