The oldest NPS unit in Alaska is celebrating its centennial this year, and it offers a surprising variety of reasons to visit: rain forest and Russians, Tlingit and totem poles, scenery and small town delights. An interesting series of events is scheduled between March and August to mark the 100th anniversary of Sitka National Historical Park, and you're invited to take part.
Although the site was initially established as a "federal park" in 1890, it's celebrating a full century as an NPS unit this year. The area also has quite a history of names: over the years it's been known officially as Sitka Park, Government Park, Indian River Park, Sitka National Monument, and finally, in 1972, Sitka National Historical Park.
“The park is unique in a number of respects,” says Mary A. Miller, superintendent. “We are the oldest park in Alaska, and also the smallest, but we host the second-largest number of visitors. We are also an urban park, surrounded by the community of Sitka. And, we have a fabulous partner, the Sitka Cultural Center, co-located in our park Visitors Center. Just as the park is focused on preserving our natural and cultural property for future generations, SCC is dedicated to preserving Native art forms and culture, with world-renowned artists working each day. We both love visitors!”
The area became part of the National Park System when it was proclaimed a national monument in 1910 to commemorate the 1804 Battle of Sitka fought between the native Tlingits and the Russians, and both cultures still play a prominent role in both the park and the town.
The park's centennial celebration kicks off March 20-23 with 1910-era games, music and food, an open house with free tours of the Russian Bishop’s House, and a Battle Ride with experts and local Tlingit lineal descendants of the battle describing the events of 1802-1804 from the water and the land. There will also be demonstrations by artists of the Park’s in-house partner, the Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center, interpretive walks through Totem Park, and more.
A highlight on March 21 will be the dedication of the Raven’s Tail robe, an "original and true form of Tlingit art" by nationally-renowned artist and Tlingit weaver Teri Rofkar.
Robes are woven pieces of art which tell stories and preserve aspects of Tlingit culture, much like the totem poles today. The robes are hand-woven without a loom. The Raven’s Tail piece is a commissioned robe that reflects her interpretation of the story of the National Park in Sitka over the last 100 years.
An evening of community cultural dancing and celebration will follow the dedication of the robe.
The formal anniversary of the park will be marked by a series of events on March 23, including the opening of the Merrill Exhibit,
a six-week-long rotating exhibit of the stunning photography of E.W. Merrill, Sitka’s most renowned early photographic artist and the man commissioned by Territorial Governor John Brady to arrange the totems along Totem Trail—a signature view in Sitka for more 100 years.
The evening will feature experts talking about the Battle of 1804, the Russian and Tlingit cultures and a special performance by Tlingit and Russian dance troupes.
You'll find a complete description of events for March at this link.
Other events are scheduled for each month through August, including a May 13-16 reunion for anyone who has worked or volunteered for either the park or the Sitka Cultural Center. June 16-19 will feature an inter-cultural celebration in which Tlingit clans of Sitka will host Alutiiq students and elders from Kodiak villages.
One of the park's signature attractions will be honored on July 24 with the raising of a new totem pole.
As part of the 100 year anniversary celebration, Sitka will honor the Northwest Coast art tradition through the carving and installation of a totem "story pole." Collaborating with the Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center, this centennial pole will make it possible for the park to share its stories more effectively, and provide education about this ancient and honored art form to future generations. Figures on the pole will illustrate significant historic events that were the basis for this place's special status as a national historical park.
As Alaska’s oldest national park, Sitka is world-renowned for its totem pole collection. Totem poles are part of the dynamic Northwest Coast Native tradition. The park’s collection began with a generous donation by Chief Saanaheit, one of Southeast Alaska’s primary Native leaders in the early 1900s.
Saanaheit’s donation of several large carved items, including a 55-foot tall totem pole, came with the condition “that these are to be transported to the government park at Sitka and to be erected and remain there as memorials to my people.”
The history of Russian America is a big part of the story at Sitka, and it won't be overlooked during the event.
Until the United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, the Russian empire laid claim to this part of North America. For nearly 100 years, the Russians called Sitka their Alaskan capital.
Under the tsars, Sitka became a unique cultural crossroads of Native Alaskan, Russian, and American communities.
The park will celebrate the Russian aspect of Sitka's past August 18-22. as a co-sponsor of the 2010 Conference on Russian America.
Scholars from around the world will be invited to present original research exploring the history and significance of Sitka. The International Association of Specialists on Russian America will co-sponsor the event with the National Park Service.
Among their activities, scholars will tour local historic landmarks, including a second park property, the Russian Bishop's House, a beautifully restored former residence, seminary and orphanage located near the center of town. It is one of only four Russian-built structures still standing in North America.
If you plan to attend this event, click here for information about registration and other details.
You'll find links with details about all of the special centennial events on the park website.
The park is located in the town of Sitka (population just under 9,000), but there's plenty of natural beauty to complement the site's rich history. The heavily wooded area sits on the shore of Sitka Sound and is bisected by the Indian River. As we mentioned in a Traveler article last year, both the park and the town of Sitka have plenty to offer, and getting to both the park and town can be part of the fun—if you're willing to travel like a local.
Sitka is situated on Baranof Island on the outer coast of Alaska's Inside Passage. No roads reach the city from the mainland; Sitka can be reached only by air or sea.
You can get to Sitka on a short flight on Alaskan airlines or one of the air taxi companies, but I'd recommend you try to make at least one leg of your trip via the Alaska Marine Highway System between Juneau and Sitka. The state-operated ferry isn't nearly as speedy as air travel, but if you can schedule a run during daytime hours, the scenery can make it well worth the time.
Check the schedule carefully, and plan ahead. The ferry (known locally as the “Blue Canoe”) isn't an option in both directions every day, and the length of the trip can vary considerably depending upon the tides and which boat makes the run.
After the Russians sold their holdings in Alaska to the United States, the formal transfer ceremony took place on Castle Hill at Sitka on October 18, 1867. As a result of that transaction, you can't see Russia from Sitka today, but you can still see a lot of great history. This year would be an especially fine time to do so.