The (Bermerton) Sun, Sunday, October 24, 1999

In Sitka, Alaska, Russian Heritage Blends with Native Roots

©1999 Valerie Kreutzer

Russian dancers in Sitka, AlaskaHalfway between Seattle and Anchorage lies Sitka on Baranof Island, the former capital of Russian America.  Surrounded by forests, mountains and the ocean, Sitka's 9,000 residents continue to celebrate their unique history and native culture--and not just for the tourists.

There are plenty of us at the Sitka Hotel, a downtown box done up in Victorian garb.  During the summer months it's usually fully booked, says Toni who juggles the reservations and prefers to withhold her last name.  "Charter boat fishermen mostly who come for three to five days and leave with a ton of fish," she explains. 

And then there are those of us who walk around Castle Hill and the Russian Cemetery with a copy of James Michener's Alaska, comparing facts with fiction.  Turns out that Michener stuck mostly to historic facts in describing the Russian settlement of Sitka in 1799, the battles with the native Tlingits, and the 1867 transfer of Alaska from Russia to the United States.

Michener lived in Sitka for several months between 1984 and 1986 while doing research for his best-selling novel.  "I knew him," says Park Ranger John Hallum.  "We saw him all the time walking on the streets.  But he kept a low profile."

Guiding a tour at the Russian Bishop's House, Hallum wonders out loud why Michener invented a saintly Father Vasili Voronov in his novel when the legendary Russian Priest Ivan Veniamonov, in fact, looms larger than life.

Veniamonov was the occupant of the Bishop's House, built in 1842, and one of the few remaining original structures in Sitka.  From here he served the largest diocese in all of Imperial Russia (it included California), later became Metropolitan of Moscow, the highest position in the Orthodox Church, and was declared Saint Innocent in 1977.  He was an outstanding scholar, linguist, explorer and craftsman who helped design St. Michael's Cathedral, with its onion dome the most photographed landmark in downtown Sitka.

Veniamonov was very respectful of native cultures and encouraged the seminarians living and studying at his house to learn the indigenous languages and to marry native women.  To this day, St. Innocent's legacy of abridging the cultures is evident during worship services at the Cathedral:  half the congregation is Tlingit.

The current priest at the church, Father John Zabinko, leads the congregation with his beautiful tenor voice in chants and songs through ancient rituals doused in clouds of incense.  Old and precious icons decorate the walls, but young worshipers in blue jeans remind us that this faith is also contemporary.

On a typically overcast Saturday in August, the area around the cathedral explodes with street fair activity.  "Are any cruise ships in?"  asks a vendor while setting up his table.  No, not today, comes the reply.  At times, there can be as many as four luxury liners in Sitka's harbor with thousands of passengers overwhelming the historic sites. 

Today's activities are more local.  On long tables vendors offer the remnants of seasonal clothing, household items, and the colorful crafts that can also be found in Moscow and Kiev: matrushkas that house a myriad of increasingly smaller dolls, elaborately painted Easter eggs, and Christmas ornaments of Russian folk figures.  On grills and in large pots simmer foods inspired by Russian and Tlingit cuisine.

A highlight of the street fair is a performance by the New Archangel Dancers, an all-female group that specializes in mostly Russian and Ukrainian folk dances.  Supported by melodies and rhythms from a boom box sitting on the street, the dancers, some dressed as men, tell charming tales of courtship and thwarted love from peasant life of Imperial Russia.  The group started 30 years ago, and when too few men applied, the group decided to stay female.  Now numbering 35, the dancers have entertained thousands of enthusiastic spectators all over the United States, in Russia and in Japan.

A poster shows them twirling and jumping high before the imposing totems that line the path of Sitka's National Historic Park.  Visitors to the park crane their necks to decipher the messages carved into the 18 poles.  Animal heads, tails, and claws intertwine with humans and seem to tell stories of a particular clan or document the heroics of an individual.  At the park's entrance a bare cedar pole laid out under a shed shows that the art of totem carving continues.  This one is almost ready for painting in the traditional muted shades of red, black and blue.

Another spectacular view awaits us at the end of the path where the Indian River flows into Sitka Sound.  Thousands of salmons, some jumping three feet high, struggle against the current to spawn upriver in fulfillment of their biological cycle.  The salmon stream is wide and dense, giving the impression that here mortals could indeed walk on water!

Back at the hotel's lounge, a sports fisherman confirms that the waters are "plentiful."  He caught a 214-pounder, he says, and threw it back.  "You take some, dump some," he says.  He'll fly back to Montana with 140 pounds of fish in his excess baggage.

Don Muller, one of the owners of Old Harbor Books, the only bookstore in town, is critical of the wasteful practices of sport fishing.  "The number of fish is actually down," he maintains.

Like most residents in Sitka, Muller migrated here from the Midwest.  He came almost 25 years ago as a chemist to work at the pulp mill, then Sitka's largest private employer.  He soon realized that the mill was destroying the forest and polluting the area and began to fight against it.  "I like books better than logging anyway," he says with a laugh.  In 1993 the mill closed down for economic reasons and is still paying for a federally mandated cleanup.

At the less picturesque end of town are two canneries.  Their fishy smell envelops the neighborhood of modest homes set above.  One house stands out.  It is fully covered with washed-out paintings of Tlingit motifs and decorations of twigs and bones.  It is another visual reminder that twenty percent of Sitka's population has roots here that predate European settlement by thousands of years.  On a rainy day, the native pastels blend well with the vivid colors of the city's more recent past.