Air Force General explores century-late apology for US bombing of Tlingit villages

Lt. Gen. Thomas A. Bussiere at the Sealaska Heritage Center with Chalyee Éesh Peterson, president, Central Council Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. (Photo via Sealaska Heritage Facebook page.)

Joaqlin Estus

'We're in the weeds of intergenerational trauma'

A top military leader in Alaska told Tlingit clan leaders earlier this month that the military is open to the idea of apologizing for the bombardment of three Tlingit villages in 1869 and 1882.

Lt. Gen. Thomas A. Bussiere, commander of the US Air Force’s North American Aerospace Defense Command Pacific Region, met with Tlingit clan leaders on Feb. 5 from three Southeast Alaska villages. Bussiere said he first heard about the Angoon bombardment in a talk given by Institute president Rosita Worl, Tlingit, at a military event. 

The general saw the potential for healing and contacted Worl about setting up a meeting.

“I was astounded when a military officer approached me wanting to understand the bombing of Angoon," Worl said in a prepared statement. Her clan, the Thunderbirds, recognized Bussiere as an honorable man, adopted him into their clan, and gave him the Tlingit name Litseeniḵáa.

The statement goes on to quote Dawn Jackson, executive director of the Organized Village of Kake, who, with other tribal members said any ceremonies should be held in the villages.

“We’re in the weeds of intergenerational trauma,” said Jackson. “We want our whole community to witness it (the apology). It’ll take five generations from me to heal what has been done.”

Members from Angoon, Kake, and Wrangell said they saw the meeting as the beginning of a process that would lead to a reconciliation. Bussiere said he couldn’t speak for all the military in Alaska but could facilitate positive discussions with other branches of the military.

The military attacks on the three villages came after the end of the Civil War when war-hardened troops took over control of Alaska after the purchase from Russia. The memories of the bombings have lingered because of the death of several children and adults both in the attacks and by starvation after homes and winter food stores were destroyed. Irreplaceable family heirlooms were stolen by looting troops. The sense of injustice is also galling.

One official military history still refers to the "alleged shelling of Alaska Native villages."

The military version of the events says the attack was "in response to a group of Native Americans taking hostages and property from a trading company near Angoon." However that history concludes: "In a 14 September 1982 letter to Charlie Jim Sr., Vice Chairman, Kootznoowoo Heritage Foundation, John S. Herrington (Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Manpower and Reserve Affairs) officially acknowledged the Navy's involvement in the affair saying, "The destruction of Angoon should never have happened, and it was an unfortunate event in our history."

The Tlingit did not recognize the claims of the Americans to their home and resources.

Many Americans thought the Tlingit were insubordinate and, as a federal revenue collector, William Morris, put it, “rich, war-like… insolent, and saucy.” After the attacks, military and civilian officials praised them as a necessary step in instilling fear and obedience.

The Russian treatment of isolated Aleutian area Natives in the 1700s included wanton murder and enslavement. By the mid-1800s, however, Russians in Southeast Alaska depended on the Tlingit for food, supplies, and furs for trade. They respected many Tlingit customs, including Tlingit laws on compensation for harm done.

As one example of the approach of Americans took that led to cross-cultural conflicts, the bombardment of Angoon began with the accidental death of a Tlingit shaman aboard a whaler. While some facts are in dispute, it appears the Tlingit demanded 200 blankets in payment and took two white men hostage. When the military arrived, the Tlingit released the hostages but couldn’t meet the military’s counter demand for 400 blankets. The military destroyed some 40 canoes then turned cannons on the village. Large wooden homes that weren’t hit by cannonballs were set afire by troops. When the Tlingit protested looting of sacred items, handguns were turned in their direction so they backed off.

The bombardment of the villages of Wrangell and Kake developed in similar circumstances in which Americans refused to recognize Tlingit law demanding reparations for injury or death. Over the years, villagers repeatedly have requested but have not received formal apologies.

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today and a long-time Alaska journalist.

Further reading:

Bombardment of Kake, Feb. 1969

Wrangell bombardment, Dec. 26, 1869

Angoon bombardment, Oct. 26, 1882

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