Let’s Celebrate Indigenous Families Split Between the U.S. and Russia

Alaskan Statue of a Russian Governor in the context of U.S.-Russian Ties.

A new monument to an Indigenous family split between the United States and Russia would honor familial connections and remind residents and tourists of an important part of Alaska’s history.

The statue of the Russian colonial administrator Alexander Baranov will soon leave its site in downtown Sitka, Alaska. Sitka’s City Assembly voted to move the monument to a local museum following calls for its removal by 120 demonstrators.

The most vocal calls for the statue’s disposal come from Indigenous communities who see Baranov as a colonizer and oppressor of Alaska Natives. Representatives from the Sitka Tribe, the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood, and the Sitka Health Coalition all called for the statue’s riddance.

Statue of Alexander Baranov in Sitka, Alaska. (James Poulson/Daily Sitka Sentinel via AP)

Alexander Baranov was the first governor of Russian America, serving until 1818. He founded Sitka (as New Archangel) and oversaw Russia’s lucrative fur trade with Alaska Natives. Baranov married an Aleut woman and had three children with her. The wife, likely a local chief’s daughter, took the Russian name Anna Grigoryevna. Her daughter’s husband succeeded Baranov to lead Russian commerce in Alaska.

The Statue of Alexander Baranov was donated by a private family to the city in the late 1980s to celebrate his role in boosting commerce in Sitka, a city he established.

A local resident, Nicholas Galanin, highlights different aspects of Baranov’s life, whom he describes as “a historic figure who is responsible for murder, enslavement, rape — and a perpetrator of genocide.” Indigenous communities still feel the repercussions of this history today. And, according to Mr. Ganin, the removal of the statue is an “opportunity to be on the just side of history.”

Unquestionably, the voices of Sitka residents, especially its Indigenous representatives, were heard by the Sitka city assembly. The statue will soon be gone. Let’s hope its removal will indeed be that opportunity and continue the healing process.

The Russian Ambassador to the U.S., Anatoly Antonov, said he was “deeply saddened” by the decision to dismantle the monument. Ambassador Antonov has visited Sitka and views the monument in the context of America’s and Russia’s “common history.” In Sitka, the ambassador focused on the preservation of Russian cultural and historical heritage in the United States.

Russian Ambassador Antonov and Sitka Mayor Gary Paxton. (KCAW/Nina Sparling)

Undoubtedly, beyond evoking a horrific time for Native Alaskan communities, the statue of Alexander Baranov is a monument to U.S.-Russian relations. It was erected in the midst of a major international conflict between the two countries to highlight their long-standing economic, cultural, and political ties. The statue came to Sitka in the waning days of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union’s demise was both imminent and yet nowhere on the horizon. Still, people felt the urge to highlight those ties.

After the city voted to remove the statue, a Russian businessman offered to buy and relocate it. The city instead decided to put it in a historical museum — where it belongs.

As Sitkans decide what, if anything, should come in its place, here is a suggestion: Replace the statue with a monument to an Indigenous family split between the United States and Russia.

In 2015, the U.S. and Russia agreed on visa-free travel for Indigenous peoples of Chukotka and Alaska. This was a huge step, allowing families to invite relatives from across the ocean for a visit. The term “relative” was used loosely and included blood relatives, members of a tribe, or other Indigenous people who share the same linguistic or cultural heritage with Indigenous peoples of the neighboring territory. Both countries have otherwise cumbersome and expensive visa issuing processes — a major hurdle for Russians wanting to visit the U.S. and vice versa.

This 2015 visa law has been more important to preserving U.S.-Russian cultural ties than any statue in a downtown square. Although international travel is a distant possibility for many Native Alaskan and Indigenous Chukchi families, their shared heritage runs deep and is thick as blood. It’s the true heritage of the land we divide with borders on a political map.

Alaska and Chukotka will forever be in the same ecosystem, and the familial ties of the Indigenous people will never be broken.

As far as monuments go, it is possible to cherish U.S.-Russian ties and respect and honor the Indigenous peoples on their land, which is now home to so many others. Meanwhile, the bronze Alexander Baranov will tell his complicated and brutal story from a museum.


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