Seward statue: Preserve our history, don't tear it down - Must Read Alaska
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Seward statue: Preserve our history, don’t tear it down

By WIN GRUENING

Calls to take down the statue of William Henry Seward from the Court Plaza across from the Capitol in downtown Juneau accelerated after a petition (directed to Juneau state Sen. Jesse Kiehl and Juneau Rep. Sara Hannan) circulated online.

Citing Seward as a symbol of American imperialism and colonialism as reasons to remove his statue they deem offensive, activists accompanied their demands with pleas for unity, reconciliation, and respect for individual differences.

Win Gruening

Will removing or replacing Seward’s statue accomplish this or will it just sow more division and feelings of resentment?

The 6-foot bronze sculpture of abolitionist and Secretary of State William Seward, the work of Ketchikan-based sculptor David Rubin, was unveiled on July 3, 2017.  

It marked the 150th anniversary of the 1867 purchase transferring Alaska from Imperial Russia to the United States.  

As the single most persistent and persuasive voice supporting the purchase, Seward was instrumental in modern-day Alaska’s founding, first as a territory and eventually as our nation’s 49th state.  It’s entirely appropriate that he be honored for his role in Alaska’s history and his statue be sited near the state capitol.

There is hardly unanimity of opinion among Native leaders regarding Seward’s legacy.  

“Across the Shaman’s River” author Dan Henry wrote that when Seward visited Klukwan two years after the purchase in 1869, he was received with great respect and exchanged gifts with Koh’klux, a fearsome Tlingit leader.  Henry writes because of that respect: “…he (Koh’klux} tattooed Seward’s name in his arm…and finally freed his own slaves in 1883, twenty-one years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.”

Noted Alaskan Native leader, politician, and educator, Willie Hensley, in his 2017 article re-published in Smithsonian Magazine commemorating the Alaska Purchase anniversary, concluded with this quote:

“As the United States celebrates the signing of the Treaty of Cession, we all – Alaskans, Natives and Americans of the lower 48 – should salute Secretary of State William H. Seward, the man who eventually brought democracy and the rule of law to Alaska.”

Nevertheless, it’s appropriate to call attention to the fact that indigenous people were neither consulted on the purchase nor immediately granted citizenship in their new country.  After many years, this injustice has been acknowledged in a myriad of ways.

In 1945, the advocacy of Elizabeth Peratrovich, a Petersburg-born Tlingit, resulted in the passage of the territory’s Anti-Discrimination Act, the first such law in the United States. Her impassioned testimony before the territorial legislature was considered decisive in its passage when she stated:

“I would not have expected that I, who am barely out of savagery, would have to remind gentlemen with five thousand years of recorded civilization behind them, of our Bill of Rights.”

In 1971, after the tireless advocacy of Willie Hensley and other Native leaders, Congress passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA).  It was the largest land claims settlement in United States history. ANCSA sought to resolve (and provide compensation for) long-standing aboriginal land claims in Alaska.

Speaking at the Seward statue dedication, Alaska’s first Native Lt. Gov, Byron Mallott, expressed hope for Alaska reaching the potential that Seward envisioned.  Mallott also speculated Seward would have appreciated the exceptional negotiating skills of Alaska Native tribes when ANCSA was enacted.

“Like the Brooklyn Bridge, Alaska Natives sold Alaska again in 1971 for a bit more than $7.2 million,” Mallott said. “(Our compensation)…was for a billion dollars and 44 million acres of land.”

Even without the land and after adjusting for inflation, ANCSA’s monetary settlement dwarfed Alaska’s original purchase price. Then, under a special tax exemption engineered by Sen. Ted Stevens, between 1986 and 1988, Alaska Native corporations reaped another bonanza by selling an estimated $1.5 billion in net operating losses for $445 million in revenues.

Today, Alaska Natives populate our legislature, corporation boardrooms, social and civic organizations, and wield considerable political power.  

The progress made since 1867 doesn’t diminish past injustices inflicted on Native people which must be part of any fair recounting of Alaska’s history.  Nor does it mean we shouldn’t continue to recognize the historical rights and contributions of Alaska Natives.

But taking down Seward’s statue won’t make our history more fair, nor will it advance the cause of Alaska Natives.

It’s been suggested that Seward’s statue be replaced by one honoring Elizabeth Peratrovich. Why not commemorate her in an equally visible location – perhaps in front of the Alaska State Museum?

Elizabeth Peratrovich represents a shining example of Alaskans’ determination to eliminate discrimination and establish equal rights in our state.

But elevating Peratrovich over Seward detracts from that message.  Each of them occupies a unique place in time in Alaska history. 

A balanced view of history demands that both should be preserved.

Win Gruening retired as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in 2012. He was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. He is active in community affairs as a 30-plus year member of Juneau Downtown Rotary Club and has been involved in various local and statewide organizations.

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Latest comments

  • Well written!!

  • Excellent Article! Both sides of the story, the positive and the negative. You dont see that very often.

  • This movement that requires the majority to allow the 13% to drive the car, while requiring me to pay for it, is BS. If you want to drive the car, you pay for it. You want to be treated well, treat others well. You want to be successful, work hard, make good decisions, and with a little luck, you will be successful. Don’t ask me to kiss your ass or smooth the way, or forgive idiot decisions by you or give you special treatment. This is the way forward. More cheese begets more rats.

  • Do these petitioners really believe they and our fellow citizens would be better off under Russian rule?

    • Exactly my thought Burt! The Russians enslaved the Aleuts for harvesting fur seal hides. Imagine Alaska today under the rule of the Czar!

  • Correct. Taking down any statue won’t make anyone whole again. It may be a start though. We changed Mt. McKinley and he was a president. Why put do much value in a piece of metal or rock I would like to see those currently tearing down stuff and looting have their rights and freedom taken away. Do it legally.

    • Who’s not “whole”, Greg, and how much would it cost taxpayers to make these unwhole victims “whole” if you had your way?

      And since you’ve posed the question, statues and other monuments are constructed and erected to commemorate people, cultural heritage, and/or historical events that are meaningful to individuals of varying social groups. Would you be okay with those of different social groups and ethnicities than you placing little or no value in totem poles?

      I also couldn’t agree more with your position regarding those tearing down “stuff” and looting although I’d like to see able-bodied young men come forth to knock some heads around if the police can’t or won’t uphold the law. Thus far we in AK haven’t seen the sort of nonsense that’s resulted in the destruction of people, property, and the social order in other locales but if there’s an absence of law enforcement then the citizens need to step up and stem the mayhem. Might does make right.

      • A couple of trillion to start. Knocking heads begits knocking more heads. It doesn’t fix anything.

        • So who’s owed this “couple of trillion to start”, Greg? Be specific about who they are and why they’re owed.

          You’re flat out wrong about the ineffectiveness of knocking heads, as well. The violence, theft, and chaos that’s been plaguing much of the Lower 48 would come to an immediate halt if the perpetrators feared getting their skulls crushed by good men who won’t tolerate it, irrespective of whether or not the good men are wearing uniforms.

          • All that would is cause more violence. It didn’t work in the 1960s and won’t work now. Could turn a cultural war into a civil war. Are you prepared for that? I doubt it. You’d probably be one of the first casualties. You have to follow the rules of law I’m these things. Cult and mob mentality is what the left is using. Be smarter than they are. Give me the 2 trillion. I’ll see that it gets into the right hands.

        • Greg,

          You call yourself a conservative and yet you think spreading around a couple trillion is a start for wealth redistribution?

          • The money is payback for stolen property.

  • Win, I always like your writing. In this case I’m afraid it’s all for naught. You may as well be howling into the wind as no one on the side, the statue snatchers, cares about debate. They are certain of the righteousness of their cause and just as certain that you are a clueless old white guy. These folks are like school yard bullies and until they are taken to task they will just want more. If a vote is taken and the will of the people is to remove Seward then that’s fine. But if he is removed forcibly then the perpetrators must be prosecuted to the maximum. The statue was erected by following due process and that’s the only way it should be removed.

  • The Elizabeth Peratrovich quote “I would not have expected that I, who am barely out of savagery, would have to remind gentlemen with five thousand years of recorded civilization behind them, of our Bill of Rights.” pretty much sums it up. People on all sides of this issue would be well advised to reference this quote…for oh so many reasons, especially now.

    Just think about everything said in that statement.

  • OMG!!! Something sensible written. Thank you, sir. Of course, it may be for nothing as it seems the minority petition signers win due to the cowardly who are in charge and won’t stand up to them.

  • Thanks, Win for the good article. You know how I feel. Wishing you the best. Brenda

    • I agree with you Brenda, a good article. Thanks Win.

  • What is missing here is that the Chief of the Juneau Area Tribe actually sought to bring white Americans to the Juneau area. He knew the value of gold to the white men and Chief Cowee was just plain tuckered out with the constant war with the Taku Clan. He reasoned that the white men would not tolerate the murder of his women and children and a sort of pax-Americano would surely result.

    History is really very interesting, acting upon some silly notions in the present cannot change the actions of people in the past. Or as a famous German once said, “Nothing is so frightful as ignorance in action.” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

    • Older – This is my favorite comment today because it quotes Goethe (accurately, too) and it is so spot on. – sd

  • My wife and I made a nice little 6 day road trip this last week starting on the solstice from Fairbanks to Talkeetna, Anchorage, and taking the “old road” (Glenn & Richardson) back home. While staying in the Captain Cook Hotel we made the short walk over to the Captain Cook Monument in Resolution Park just to take a picture with the statue. Mayor Berkowitz has given the decision for the continued existence of the statue to the Eklutna Indians. I will be very surprised to read that the statue is still standing a month from now.

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