Sitka historical park gets benefit of Indigenous knowledge

Ten positions at the park were created by a new partnership between the Sitka Tribe of Alaska and the National Park Service, the first of its kind in the U.S.

Collaboration between Sitka Tribe of Alaska and National Park Service 1st of its kind in U.S.

Sitka Tribe of Alaska's Mark Sixby talks about the totems at the Sitka National Historical Park. He holds one of 10 positions created at the park through a new partnership between the tribe and the National Park Service. (The Associated Press)

Mark Sixbey, Sitka Tribe of Alaska education specialist, stood on the porch of the Sitka Historical National Park visitor centre and gestured toward the Centennial Pole behind him as he related its significance to the two tourists seated in front of him.

Sixbey wore the Tlingit colours of red and black, and described the creation, use, and maintenance of the pole. He explained that the stacked segments — among them, raven, eagle, skunk cabbage, and devil's club — pay tribute to the park's 100th anniversary, which was celebrated with the raising of the pole in 2011.

"They have new stories to tell," he said.

Sixbey holds one of 10 positions at the park created by a new partnership between the Sitka Tribe of Alaska (STA) and the National Park Service (NPS). He divides his days between the visitor centre and the Russian Bishop's House, and estimates he interacts with anywhere between 20 and 400 people daily. The visitor centre can get 1,300 people on a busy day.

The collaboration between STA and NPS is the first of its kind in the country, according to STA Chairman Kathy Hope Erickson. There are comparable partnerships elsewhere in the U.S., but they are "project-based" rather than enduring, she said.

Partnership years in the making

The partnership has been years in the making. The tribe officially expressed interest in co-management of the park in 2004.

"You can imagine that it's been in people's minds for a lot longer than that," Erickson said. "It's been a long time for this dream to come to fruition."

The agreement between STA and the Department of the Interior was made under the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, and funds three year-round and seven seasonal positions at the visitor centre and the Russian Bishop's House.

The tribe has received $300,000 in 2018 for the project, which will be in effect only six months because of the timing of its approval. It is expected to continue for years to come, however, and negotiations for 2019 are currently ongoing, said Louise Brady, Kiks.adi culture-bearer and lead ranger.

Brady said the tribe's new hires received two weeks of training starting in late April, and were delivering their first interpretive programs by early May. She said the arrangement allows the tribal employees, four of whom are Kiks.adi, to reclaim the narrative surrounding their history in Sitka.

"I think there's a huge significance because, when I come in here, I'm Kiks.adi," she said. "It's our clan that fought the Russians in 1804, and the park has always been a really special place for me."

"Most of my life I've come out here, if I'm having a rough time or not having a rough time. I'll be walking through the park, and I'll think of my ancestors that fought for this land. I've heard stories about women fighting alongside the men, so I personally get a lot of strength from this place, from that history."

Angie Richman, director of visitor services at the park, said the depth and authenticity of the new hires' expertise has already proved beneficial to the park's programming.

Tribal citizens reclaim historical narrative 

"It's really wonderful to have our tribal citizens share their own personal stories," she said. "They are all able [to] share stories that are more authentic than what the park has offered in the past."

She said she was glad to see a more diverse NPS workforce, especially one so grounded in local history.

"It's nice to see so many people in the local community that are employed at the park, for one, and also we have a more diverse staff in our interpretive operation than we've had at the park than maybe ever," she said.

Brady said her main task so far this summer has "just been getting up and running." Already, though, there have been slight but significant shifts in the programs offered at the park.

So much has been written about us, but not with our input. This is our opportunity to step up and say, 'OK, this is who we are. This is why we're here. This is what happened since contact. And, this is where we're at today.- Rachel Moreno, American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association

For example, Brady said, when she tells tourists about the Battle of 1804 between the Russians and the Tlingit, she can lean on the oral history passed down, across generations, from Tlingit warriors present at the scene. She can flesh out the narrative, and offer textures and perspectives omitted from traditional textbooks and talks.

"Basically, we lost our strongest warriors," she said. "I think hearing it from our point of view and, you know, why we fought for this incredibly beautiful land and were willing to risk so much."

Rachel Moreno, one of the tribe's seasonal rangers, is also the vice-president of the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association.

"It's important that the tribal people are able to tell their story on these public lands," she said. "So much has been written about us, but not with our input. This is our opportunity to step up and say, 'OK, this is who we are. This is why we're here. This is what happened since contact. And, this is where we're at today."'

Beyond shifting the focus of the stories told at the park, Brady and her co-workers have also made language adjustments.

"The big difference, I guess, now is we try to use the Tlingit names and share that information with the visitors whenever possible," Sixbey said.

For example, one of the interpretive programs offered at the visitor centre has been renamed "Tlingit History Through Stories and Songs" from "Totem Talks."

This May 2010 photo shows one of the totems along the history walk at the Sitka National Historical Park in Sitka, Alaska. (The Associated Press)

"Totem," Sixbey said, is the Algonquin word for carved poles; the Tlingit word is "kooteya."

Another significant change is the revitalization of traditional practices.

​"A big change this partnership has brought is the re-awakening of our cultural centre inside, particularly the regalia and woodworking studios," he said. "We've brought it back to life."

Looking forward, Brady will step into the role of STA operation lead. She expressed hope that the partnership would continue to thrive in the years to come.

"I think we've been really successful. Everything has been done in a respectful way, and I think acknowledging the skills and the knowledge that the park service has to offer, and I think they've been successful with us, as well," she said. 

Moreno added the new partnership could serve as a pathway to professional opportunities for young members of the tribal community.

"It can help our tribal citizens if they're interested in tribal tourism or if they decide to take a job with the National Park Service, which is a big need... It's a good first step for a lot of young people."