In recent weeks, protesters around the country have toppled statues of Confederate generals and other figures they believe represent America’s racist past. In Alaska, such efforts have begun as well, focused on figures linked to the state’s history of colonization.There’s been a push to remove a statue of William Seward in Juneau and another to remove an Alexander Baranof statue in Sitka.
In Anchorage, an effort to get rid of a downtown Anchorage statue has drawn attention from officials, including mayor Ethan Berkowitz. As Alaska Public Media’s Lex Treinen reports, everyone seems to agree on the facts of Captain Cook’s history in the area, but their ideas about what to do next vary widely.
Anchorage attorney Jim Barnett started his career as a historian because of a frustration with how little is known of the early history of the West Coast of North America. While any child can tell you about Columbus and the Mayflower, he says Cook’s name took longer to become accepted. He’s written seven books on Alaska history, and has become a renowned expert on Cook’s time in Alaska. All that to say that Barnett cares about history and how it’s used - a lot.
And he says that what Cook did in the late 1700s in Alaska should be put into the context of the time.
The British were unusually placid and oriented toward Enlightenment perspectives. And there might have been a continuum in which the Spanish are not so, so grand.
During his three expeditions voyaging around the world, Cook tried to discourage his men from going ashore and spreading venereal disease and smallpox as he charted the coastlines of the world’s oceans, Barnett says. He wasn’t always successful, but Cook’s time in Southcentral Alaska left a pretty small footprint. Cook never set foot on the shores of what’s now called Cook Inlet. Instead, he sent a captain to shore while the boat set anchor just off of Fire Island.
I'm guessing no more than an hour on shore where they did the formal rights of claiming possession. And then they went back to their ships and left again in 10 days total.
But in that hour, the interaction wasn’t benign.
Because the warriors didn't believe in the firepower of their weapons, they shot one of a dog that a warrior had just traded. The British killed it.
They also planted a British flag, to the confusion of the Dena’ina who met them. With no translator, both sides were perhaps equally in awe of each other, but that was about it. Cook left the inlet without much trace as he sought the Northwest Passage.
Cook was no colonizer - he was an explorer, says Barnett, and an unusually talented one. But his brief time in Alaska did pave the way to later years of painful colonization of Native people. That’s where the fight over what to do with his Anchorage statue begins.
[audio around statue]
The bronze statue in question sits on a circular deck at the North end of L Street. Melissa Shaginoff, an artist from Chickaloon, agreed to meet here for an interview, but she says she doesn’t like the vibe she gets.
It doesn’t feel like my place when I’m around this. It’s this oppressive, it’s this sanctioned symbol of oppression that he is still towering over us physically and, you know spiritually.
The statue itself was a gift from the oil company British Petroleum. installed for the bicentennial of Cook’s Third Expedition in 1976. Rochelle Adams, a Gwich’in artist who now lives in Anchorage, sees some cruel irony in that.
If you think about BP and their history in Alaska and the oil and gas exploration and the desecration of our indigenous homelands around the state, they tell the same narratives.
A group of mostly Indigenous leaders and activists, including Shaginoff and Adams, recently submitted a letter to Anchorage’s mayor asking for the removal of the statue by June. They also asked for the city to hold discussions with nearby tribes of how to reinterpret the area to better represent Indigenous voices.
Mayor Berkowitz announced this week that any decision on the statue should be made by the Native Village of Eklutna. Aaron Leggett, the President of the Native Village of Eklutna says that he doesn’t support removing the statue or even the construction of statues that commemorate the Dena’ina. Leggett, who also serves as curator of Alaska exhibits at the Anchorage Museum, says it’s not something he finds culturally appropriate.
We don't like the idea of statues our whole. One of the problems that we faced as a people has been that when outsiders came into our homeland, they looked at what was a, what they thought was an untouched, blank canvas landscape.
In reality, he says, it’s been lived on for centuries, only stewarded in a way that leaves no trace. Instead of statues, Leggett said he thinks the state needs to start with better education, which he hopes would include at least adding more signage around the monument to give Alaska Native perspectives.
It’s something that Mayor Berkowitz and historian James Barnett also agree upon as well. But for those who want the statue removed, not taking this opportunity in the midst of a global reckoning on racism is a missed opportunity. Shaginoff and other activists point out that they are not torching the statues in the middle of the night, as has happened in other cities.
Removing this statue is not a destructive act. It is actually a new beginning, and it’s a commitment to a new beginning.
As for Cook, on his Alaska voyage, he made it as far as the Bering Sea, where he was turned around and then he sailed on to Hawaii. There, he was eventually killed by Native Hawaiians after an argument. A statue commemorating him stands there to this day.