Jill Burke | Jun 24, 2011
What in the village of Kake may have at first appeared to be a simple public safety matter has overnight become symbolic of a lingering injustice in Alaska predating statehood. A remnant of U.S. military might from the Civil War era — an unexploded artillery shell — has forced villagers in the remote Alaskan community to seek atonement for wrongs committed against them more than a century ago by the U.S. government. They knew this time would come eventually, but they hadn’t planned to have it happen so abruptly. It had, they thought, been a shelved issue they would get to when the time was right. Through a series of unexpected events, that time is now.
It started when a bomb squad from the U.S. Air Force was dispatched to the village Thursday to examine a 30 pound parrott shell, a relic from a time when the U.S. military was exploring the coastline of Alaska before Russia had even sold the territory to the United States. Times were rough and tumble. The Tlingit Indians of Kake and the surrounding region were known to be strong defenders of their home and society. They’d had run-ins with Russians and Americans alike, which escalated in 1869, resulting in the U.S. Navy’s decision to bomb and plunder village and camp sites in Kake in the dead of winter.
Now, after decades of silence on what it calls “atrocities inflicted” by U.S. forces on its people, the Organized Village of Kake feels it can no longer be quiet. The U.S. has never taken steps to right the wrongs of the past and it’s time to begin the process, said Mike Jackson, a tribal member.
“This is just the fingertip of the story,” Jackson said in an interview Thursday from his tribal office in Kake, explaining that the bombardment in 1869 was just one of several similar episodes in the village’s history.
But for now the community will focus on only this one issue — the destruction of food and shelter for an entire community, dooming its people to either starve and freeze to death or leave. Villagers chose life and left their homes to go live with other tribes, only later moving back to the Kake area but not to the razed sites themselves.
The lone artillery shell — 4 inches wide and 12 inches long — has thus become both a symbol of Kake’s wound and a catalyst for its healing.
“The shell is an iconic object associated with an incredible trauma inflicted upon them,” said Stephen Langdon, a professor of anthropology at the University of Alaska who was called in to consult with the tribe about the situation.
“The bombing of the Kake people was the first act of state terrorism in Alaska,” Langdon said.