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Russian performer uncovers raw feelings about the Alaska purchase of 1867

Zlata Lund sings with the Russian American Colony Singers as they perform a traditional Russian song at the Mountain View Library on Thursday. (Bill Roth / Alaska Dispatch News)

Zlata Lund's enthusiasm and bubbling flow of Russian-accented words leaves few breaks, so I imagine her Alaska Native friend in Dillingham must have waited for a pause to respond to her idea for a cross-cultural celebration of the Alaska Purchase.

"No, Zlata," she recalls him saying, "I don't think we want to celebrate. Because we have nothing to celebrate."

Lund's show will go on, like many other events for the carefully named commemoration — not celebration — of the Treaty of Cession — not purchase — that 150 years ago brought U.S. governance to Alaska and ended the Russian America period. But it hasn't been easy.

Lund said many Natives declined to participate in a performance she imagined as a sharing of Russian, American and indigenous traditions. A few politely turned her down, but more just stopped responding.

"A cold bucket of politics dropped upon my head," she said.

Russia's bloody invasion of Alaska in the 1700s subjugated the coastal Native population to procure furs. In 1867, the United States bought Russia's claim to Alaska.

The next 50 years were catastrophic for Alaska Natives. Newcomers commandeered life-sustaining resources of fish and wildlife, government agents and missionaries outlawed indigenous cultures, and disease and deprivation killed a large portion of the population, erasing ancient villages from existence.

Alaska Natives struggled through the 20th century for rights and equality. And struggled to overcome the poverty and social problems that the American conquest brought upon them.

On the other side of the Bering Strait, the Soviet Union repressed Russians for 70 years. It built death camps in the Magadan region close to Alaska.

Lund came from Magadan in 1994 after the Soviet Union fell. She was astonished to see Russian Orthodox churches in Alaska with Native parishioners. In Russia, the communists had crushed the church generations earlier.

She started a choral folk group called the Russian America Colony Singers. It was well received during that optimistic period when people sought new connections between former Cold War antagonists.

The group stopped performing after Russia invaded Ukraine, but Lund had learned from her experience that culture can transcend politics. Political history helps make us who we are, but where we go next is up to us.

Zlata Lund, right, sings with the Russian American Colony Singers in Anchorage on Thursday. (Bill Roth / Alaska Dispatch News)

Her show will allow each culture to present itself in sequence, like pages turning in a shared story. She hopes for a tribal invitation to perform and doesn't plan to use Native stories or symbols without permission.

"All I am doing is saying, 'Here I am; I am a Russian,' " Lund said. "Whatever happened, happened. Blood spilled. But here I am again. I am learning my story. Let's do it better than those people who came before."

The need to grapple with these issues is a sign of progress.

Fifty years ago, when Alaska celebrated the centennial, Alaska Natives didn't have the power to demand this kind of respect. Now a Native leader, Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, has a key role in running the commemoration, as chair of the Alaska Historical Commission.

"Sensitivities have been more nuanced and more real, almost, as time has gone on, rather than fading away, in the Native community," Mallott said.

Alaska Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott speaks at the Elders and Youth Conference at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks on Oct. 18, 2016. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

Changing scholarship on Russian America has changed the message of history too.

Rev. Michael Oleksa, a Russian Orthodox priest and historian, has worked to unearth records from the Russian side. He said that after the early, bloody period of invasion, the Russian Empire was far kinder to indigenous people than the later Americans.

Oleksa points out that the Russians allowed Alaska Natives to keep their languages and cultural practices. Even after the transfer of power in 1867, the Russian Orthodox Church continued to run bilingual schools in Alaska until the communist revolution in 1917. American schools instead strived for assimilation.

As for the crucial question of what Russia sold to the U.S. in 1867, Oleksa said that's simple. It sold its claim to sovereignty and its commercial assets — not the churches and schools, and not the land. The land remained the property of Alaska Natives.

Oleksa says the real Alaska Purchase happened in 1971 with the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

Since ANCSA, Alaska Natives have taken charge in many areas of Alaska life. A program like Lund's would no longer be considered legitimate without them.

ANCSA has flaws, as does the United States itself. But our country also has a remarkable capacity for self-improvement. When ANCSA passed, it was the biggest indigenous land settlement in the world. Alaska Natives' status has steadily improved since.

Natives in eastern Russia have much in common with Alaska Natives but don't have the wealth and power of their Alaska cousins.

Mallott said America treated him well. He called our country "The greatest democracy and place for personal opportunity that has ever existed in this world."

That is something to celebrate.

In the end, Lund found Native participants for a show traveling around Alaska, with something different in each town.

In Anchorage, the show will consist of a professional trio of Russian folk performers called Moscow Nights, an Alaska group called Twangabillies, representing American traditions, and a Native school group. The performance is April 23 at the Wendy Williamson Auditorium on the UAA campus.

Lund said the Atwood Foundation paid for theater rental, but she has paid for other expenses, such as travel, lodging and publicity, at risk of not getting her money back. She is doing it because she loves history and believes music can create connections between different kinds of people.

Alaska Native musician Phillip Blanchett said his band Pamyua's most profound performing experience occurred in Anadyr, Russia's easternmost city, where Natives are divided from Alaska by the arbitrary line of the political border. He too saw how music could create a connection.

Blanchett supports the 150th anniversary.

"Celebrations, I'm all about celebrating things. I like it. But I think it's important for us as Alaskans to learn more about our history," he said. "It's not an argument; it's just what happened, and what did that mean, and coming to terms."

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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