This Date in Native History: On October 18, 1867, the United States purchased Alaska from Russia for two cents an acre, or $7.2 million in gold, which amounts to about $16.5 billion in 2007 currency according to an Economix blog.
Alaska’s history began thousands of years ago with the Natives who lived according to the provisions and possibilities of nature. Food was abundant and snow was preferable to mud for travel. But with the arrival of the Russian fur traders in the early 1700s, came fur rush and like the miners of the gold rush, the scourge of “fugitive serfs, ex convicts, debtors” arrived from Russia to Alaska and treated the Natives in an abusive, torturous manner, according to an Alaska History and Cultural Studies course offered by the Alaska Humanities Forum.
The enormous state of Alaska is about one-fifth the size of the United States, but it was the coastal areas that saw the greatest impact from the intruders. In 1778, British navigator Captain James Cook noted that the Russians had intermarried and taken on the culture of the Natives. Yet in other areas, violence, enslavement, and hostilities continued.
Richard Dauenhauer, a retired Alaskan language and culture professor from the University of Alaska, expressed concern that too much focus is placed on the hostilities and not enough credit is given for the working relationships that also existed. “Natives had the option of being a citizen of Russia or not. Native people mapped the Marshall Islands, charted the coast. One Alaska Native man was a governor in Siberia. A lot of people at that time had Russian fathers and Native mothers. This created the Creole class, which was important in the middle management of the colony.”
Native Alaskans also formed partnerships with Russian companies, Dauenhauer said, adding that many Natives held positions as teachers and officers and attended prestigious military schools. He asked, “Where did you see that kind of power among Natives anywhere else in the U.S. at that time?”
Approximately 45 percent of the people labeled Russians were Native peoples from Siberia, and the Alaska Native languages and cultures were never threatened; bilingualism was the norm, Dauenhauer said. “The Natives weren’t competing with the Russians. The Creole people, Russian-Natives, would have been considered Native by BIA standards even though they had Russian names. The problem is that people stereotype and focus on the abuse,” Dauenhauer wrote in an email. “Many Aleuts teamed up with the Siberians in mutually beneficial relationships.”
In 1794, Russian missionaries arrived and established schools that designed writing systems for Native languages and translated scripture, Dauenhauer said. The treaties made during the Russian/American period from 1732 to 1837 focused almost solely on the fur trade. Gold mining began in the 1880s and 1890s, after the U.S. purchased Alaska, and continues today. Alaska still produces more gold than any other state, except Nevada.
For more than a century, Russia, and ultimately the United States, England, Spain and others took advantage of Alaska’s fur trade until the animal resources became severely depleted. With so many outside parties coming into Alaska, Dauenhauer said Russia’s decision to sell was based on the fact that it was almost impossible to defend the entire coastline.
Once America took ownership of Alaska, Native Alaskans lost much of their power. Formerly assured of their ability to maintain their own cultures, the U.S. began the assimilation process including boarding schools and the destruction of language and culture. “The Russian system had not been based on race,” Dauenhauer said. “The American system was based on treaties that were not followed through by Americans, and for first time American people came to stay.”