Don’t hate us because we are on holiday!
It’s a holiday here is Alaska.
Yes, that’s right.
We celebrate, William Seward, the man who arranged the purchase of Alaska from Russia here in Alaska. We celebrate this man on the anniversary of the signing of the deal he made with Russia.
Not everyone celebrates this date, of course. Some folks question whether or not the Russians could have sold all that land, much of which they were nowhere near controlling in the first place. But in the logic of collective fictions like nation states, it would seem the move has stuck, to to speak. There are those who mourn the consequences, and I’m told some folks in Russia still wonder how the Hell that happened themselves. At the end of the day, this still ends up being a day off work.
Okay, I am still working today, but since a lot of my coworkers aren’t, that means fewer meetings and I can focus on the things I want to, which is a kind of holiday for me. Also, it means I have a little time to knock out a quick blog post.
I’m told the rest of America was doubtful about this purchase at the time it was made.
Something about “Seward’s Icebox” or “Seward’s folly?”
Then again, some folks make way too much of a political cartoon; others have never figured out the difference between a catchy byline and the substance of an editorial. Writers took their shots and indulged in snarky quips back in the day just as they do now. It doesn’t mean they didn’t see the potential. The historian Richard Welch did a pretty good job of showing that public opinion was nowhere near as negative at the time of purchase as people typically assume. Still, it takes a touch of conflict to draw people into a story and the notion that Seward saw something in this state the rest of the country didn’t sure makes for an interesting first act. I suppose the third act in that version of story is statehood.
Or maybe the opening of a Walmart.
Or a Fred Meyers.
There are plenty of other ways of telling stories about the purchase of Alaska. One of my favorites can be seen in the Saxman Totem Park, just south of Ketchikan.
I posted a picture of it last year, right about this time.
…probably not a coincidence.
Okay, so this pole may not be exactly about the purchase of Alaska, but it’s certainly purchase-adjacent. As to Seward’s Day, it’s right on point.
This is known as the Seward Shaming Pole. In fact it’s the third version of that pole, as the first two have succumbed to weather and termites. This version of the pole was completed just a few short years ago (2017). You can google up the earlier versions. As I understand it this one has its critics among the locals owing to the absence of certain things on the earlier verions. I’m told a coat of white paint on the face was among the expected features. I only have this by word of mouth, so I’m not enyirely certain what to make of it, but the differences do seem quite significant. In any event, this is the current version of the infamous Seward Shaming Pole.
What makes it a shaming pole?
Convention of course!
By ‘convention’ I mean the conventions of the Tlingit people. This is one of the varieties of totem poles their peoples use to communicate a number of things. You might think of it as fitting into the totem pole genre within their own cultural order.
Hints that this particular pole is meant to shame rather than honor its subject are contained in the box upon which the figure of Seward sits and the red in his ears. (That red stood out more in previous versions.)
The red, I’m told signifies embarrassment.
Well that is loot!
Specifically, that is loot packed away in a bentwood box, one of the varieties of artwork thriving in the northwest coast cultural complex. In any event, the point is to suggest that Seward took a pile of loot off with him in the wake of a visit to the region.
How did he get the loot?
It was gifted to him in a potlatch ceremony, another of the cultural practices of the region.
So, what makes these gifts loot?
Because Seward never threw a potlatch of his own to compliment the one thrown for him.
To say that this is unacceptable is putting it mildly.
Emily Moore tells the story better than I could, but the essential details are this. William Seward came to visit the region in 1869. He was welcomed with a potlatch by Chief Ebbits of Tongass Village. As a leader of the Taant’a kwáan Teikweidí clan, Ebbits welcomed Seward according to local custom, granting to Seward the honors due to a another great leader. A feast was give in Seward’s honor and gifts were given to him. Then Seward went on his way.
It’s the going-on-his-way part that is a problem here.
The trouble is that a potlatch is not normally a one time affair. It is a gesture in an ongoing relationship. Once given, it is expected that a complimentary feast will be given to reciprocate the first. Doing so is a matter of obligation, and failure to do so leaves an imbalance in the relationship. It’s tough to tell what Seward may have thought himself, but for their own part Chief Ebbits and his clan most likely felt they were initiating a permanent relationship. When neither Seward nor any of his family ever showed up to answer the honor given to him, this cast the entire relationship in a negative light.
As this particular potlatch was given in honor of Seward’s role in leadership of the United States, the failure in this instance represents more than Seward’s own failure, it is a failure of the United States to acknowledge to live up to its obligations to Tongass Village and to the Tlingit people.
Some might be inclined to extend that out to Alaska Natives in general.
This is the history commemorated in that pole.
In another sense, this is direct commentary on that question about how two nations could swap lands neither one much to do with. If the purchase of Alaska is a done deal, so to speak, it is a deal done by two nation-states. The pole is a reminder of those not present when the deal was made, those whose own acceptance of the deal we celebrate today has been taken for granted all-too-often by the nation which acquired Alaska by means of it.
…which gives new meaning phrase “Seward’s folly.”