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Learning from Each Other: On a History of Russian-Native Contacts in the Exploration and Mapping of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands (Late Eighteenth- Early Nineteenth Centuries)

Alexei V. Postnikov
Russian Academy of Sciences,
S. I. Vavilov Institute of the History of Science and Technology

Russian wayfarers opening up new lands throughout Siberia and the North Pacific were destined to realize the meeting of the Old and New Worlds from the West. In terms of the contact and future coexistence of the Russians with Native Americans, however, we find an essential divergence from the first contacts of Western Europeans with Caribbean Indians.

Members of the Columbian expeditions landing on the coasts of Espaniola, Cuba, and other Caribbean islands found themselves in an absolutely foreign ethno-cultural environment. They met Indians, who according to the ruling canons of the Christian Church had no place on earth at all. The notion was accepted at first as a sure proof of the Indians not being human, but some kind of animal, which seemed to be a sufficient justification for their whole destruction. While conquering Siberia and advancing to the east, the Russians had also been shedding a lot of native blood. But the character of this advance and their relations with natives were very different from those in the Caribbean at the time of Columbus. Siberia, Kamchatka, the Aleutian Islands, and the coasts of Alaska had been colonized by Russia over a relatively long period of time. Due to the slowness of this advance between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries, the Russians adapted to the new natural and ethnic environment as native customs, tools, and crafts became in some measure their own.

The natives' knowledge of their land was most important for the exploring and settling of new territories by Russians. From the first steps of their advance into Siberia, Russians learned to use the geographical information obtained from Siberian tribes, the most crucial of which for orientation in that unfamiliar environment were data on native place-names. Thus, native toponymy had been appropriated and preserved, even if in defaced form, by the Russians on their cartographic drawings and maps of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Due to this tendency, one may find old native geographical names on modern Siberian and Alaskan maps.

Voyages of Russian promyshlenniki in the eighteenth century differed very much from previous Siberian hunting and exploring trips by river and along the Arctic coast (which led them to the Pacific in the seventeenth century), but their experience, especially in the way of obtaining and applying native geographical information, was used effectively in these new conditions of oceanic navigation. Thus they collected, used, and saved on their charts many native Aleutian toponyms, and utilized native skin vessels (kayaks) as well as indigenous orientation and navigation methods.

The secret government expedition under Krenitsyn and Levashov (1768-1769) on board the St. Paul and the St. Katherine was to provide abundant geographical data obtained by Russian expeditions with correct coordinates and to verify them with the maps of Bering's voyages. The instruction for the expedition raised the importance of using natives' information. Perhaps for the first time in the exploration of the North Pacific, this manual proposed a method of field investigations based upon native data. On account of the instruction, explorers had to ask peoples of those lands about distances and directions from the new islands to the forest lands, such as densely populated Alakshan, where Russian trader Bechevin's boat had spent a winter, as well as to Kadiak and Tygachtana or Shugachtana. The Admiralty's Instruction was explicit on methods for using native information in compiling new charts and maps, ruling that when such people or their neighbors on other islands showed directions in which other unseen islands were to be found, then the Russians had to record those directions with compass and azimuth and write them into their logbooks. In regard to distances, if it was not possible to measure them, then it was necessary to query [the natives] how long it took to reach those islands.

The joint examination by Krenitsyn and Levashov in 1768 and 1769 of the north coast of the Alaska Peninsula is the first known voyage by educated Europeans in that part of the Bering Sea. Sixteen of the most experienced promyshlenniki took part in the expedition as official members. To survey the coasts of the Alaska Peninsula, Unimak, and the Unalaska Islands, kayaks were used as well as native guides and information.

The first Russian map to mention native information as its source was the map by the Cossack officer Ivan Kobelev (1779). Kobelev was sent to the Chukotka Peninsula to investigate rumors about foreign vessels (Captain Cook's expedition) near its coast. While on the Diomede Islands, Kobelev gathered much data about the geography and native villages in the northern part of Alaska. This Cossack incorporated all such information into his draft map, which he had compiled on the basis of a narrative by a native chief of Igellik Island. At the end of 1779 Second-Major Mikhail Tatarinov used the draft and Kobelev's report to compile a map of Chukotka and Alaska.

The next example of an instruction for the use of native information and experience to explore the lands and waters of the Russian American colonies was a manual Grigory I. Shelikhov handed to K.A. Samoylov on May 4, 1786. This instruction was in fact a detailed program for the exploration, acquisition, and mapping of these territories as the new domain of Russia. Shelikhov ordered the extensive use of native information for identifying the habitats of fur animals as well as areas of usable deposits of minerals and ores, namely, places where isinglass, crystal, different paints, copper ore, grinding sandstone, limestone, and good clay might be found. Shelikhov also required that attention be paid to the studying of the native population as to the number of males and females by clans, as well as collecting examples of varying tribal material culture and arts, such as masks, hats, wreaths, timbrels, knockers, and so on. He also instructed that young Kenai and Chugach boys and girls be assessed for travel to Russia and trained in Russian to serve as interpreters.

Expedition navigators (such as D.I. Bocharov) had been ordered to continue a precise survey of new Russian lands with special attention to seasonal native habitats, as well as the proper aboriginal names so that it would be possible in the future to find such places using their native names. In this instance we can see that G. I. Shelikhov confirmed in his official instruction the traditional practice of geographical identification that had been used by promyshlenniki for a long time.

In the same period, the government of Catherine II outfitted a new expedition led by English officer Joseph Billings, who had sailed with Captain Cook and the Russian officer Gavriil Sarychev. This enterprise operated from 1785 to 1795. Though considered a failure because the expenditures outweighed the results, it nevertheless had a substantial record of achievement. Accurate maps were made of the Chukchi Peninsula of Eastern Siberia, the west coast of Alaska, and the Aleutian Islands. Members of the expedition landed on Kodiak Island and made an examination of the islands and mainlands of Prince William Sound.

The Admiralty's instruction for the expedition had accentuated the necessity of studying and describing American and Siberian native customs, behavioral patterns, and languages. In particular, the Admiralty insisted on the gathering of information about the power, number, qualities, preoccupations, and customs of local aborigines, as well as the general outline of those new regions; the compilation of native dictionaries was also important, with a careful recording of pronunciation utilizing the Cyrillic alphabet. Instructions also required a description of local utensils, arms, dresses, and crafts, as well as native worship practices and those things of which they are fond, with special attention given to respecting the inviolability of these traditions.

As the main goal of the expedition, the Admiralty required the compilation of the most precise map of these islands. As such, the top priority was the search for the best local harbors. For the first time in a scientific instruction by the Admiralty, there was a recommendation to use native geographical information extensively. Expedition members had been ordered to find out the routes and locations of native travels, as well as their local names, and in what bearings and distances these lands or islands are positioned. The use of hands to indicate directions were also to be measured in a secretive and precise way by means of compass and written down into the log; in regard to distances, it was suggested that natives be asked how many days it took to sail various routes, so that in case of need a course might be set out to reach these places.

Notwithstanding the fact that the Instruction demanded the expedition crew to collect and use the native geographical data, it must be mentioned that in regard to native toponyms, the promyshlenniki were even more anxious to record original place-names than the Admiralty, a fact reflected (as we have mentioned above) in G. I. Shelikhov's instruction. Unlike Grigoriy Shelikhov in his guidelines, the high brass of the Imperial Russian Navy had given Joseph Billings' expedition a power to name all newly acquired lands and islands that were lacking any standard term.

Gavriil Sarychev and his main geodetic surveyor, Sergeant O. Khudyakov, conducted most of the expedition surveys. They succeeded in combining the precise scientific methods of surveying and charting with a very comprehensive use of native information. First of all, they had received much proof of the dependability and thoroughness of such information. The secretary to the expedition, Martin Sauer, found that natives had even created their own system of navigational marks and reference points mainly in the form of stone mounds along the seashore for use as beacons, with each native being obliged to add one more stone each time he happened to be at the spot.

Sarychev and his crew used native knowledge of their environment as well as their travel practices most extensively during their surveys of Unalaska, Umnak, Akutan and Unimak islands in 1791-92. Sarychev's main surveyor, Sergeant O. Khudyakov, received help from three Unimak toions, Galok Ekiyasnisanov, Chunnyuk, Tukkuiok. These native chiefs readily agreed to accompany the Russians to their place of survey, along with one baptized tolmach [interpreter], Ivan Galkin.

Sarychev compiled for O. Khudyakov a detailed instruction for the survey and description of islands and the Alaska coast. This instruction had provided a contemporary manual on geodetic measurements for determining true meridian and magnet inclination, as well as recommendations on coastal surveys performed from the land and from the sea. Due to the fact that the surveys would be made without any geodetic control on the coasts, and had to depend only on a few astronomical observations for latitude and longitude, Sarychev in his instruction paid a lot of attention to multiple measurements of angles between local reference points and crossings for creating a geometrical standard for his maps. Sarychev ordered Khudyakov to survey islands and mainland coasts from kayaks in the following way:

After preparing all necessary matters, proceed from your initial point at the Illyulyuk village, where you must get some bearings, and then sail nearby the coasts, measuring bearings to some prominent places ahead, and often writing down distances to the coast; in regard to the coast, point out its height and relief character, whether it is rocky or mountainous, with rows of hills, or just lowland; at the end of these bearings, measure directions to all prominent places, especially to promontories, the mouth of rivers, sea rocks, and notably high mountains; provide at least two or three bearings for each place, with particular attention to spreading out your bearings over long distances so that the angles will not be very sharp.

Sarychev's instruction also required detailed data on local nature and population, which Khudyakov had to obtain from regional natives. The geodesist was obliged to find out the quantity of the male population, with their distribution and livelihood in different villages. He had to ask about "burning mountains" [volcanoes] and big rivers and lakes, including approximate bearings and distances to them and their whereabouts. Besides, Khudyakov was to ascertain patterns of animal distribution as well as forests where it would be possible to cut timber for shipbuilding and firewood. He had to gather this information without bringing the least offense to the islanders, with ready signs of friendship and appreciation. I have studied the genuine travel logs of Sergeant Khudyakov at the Russian State Naval Archives, which show that he fulfilled Sarychev's instruction with both precision and a creative effectiveness.

This geodesist actually worked without rest: if native toions told him that the sea was stormy and the wind strong, Khudyakov would perform a survey on land, profusely using data from native populations. Khudyakov pointed out in his travel logs all instances of the use of such native information, with corresponding mention of the relative accuracy of his surveys in different locations of the region. Once Khudyakov was compelled to stop for a relatively long time in the Chingangalyuk village on Unimak Island, because toion Gallon Ekiyagiksanok together with other Aleuts had told the Russians that in November it would be dangerous to sail on board of a baidara [unimak] along both the southern and northern sides of the islands due to severe storms and the absence of convenient places of refuge for a baidara, while in December there would be a normal quiet period. Khudyakov used the induced interruption for a detailed exploration of Unimak Island with the help of an Aleut guide.

Natives had been very helpful in providing the expedition crew with other seasonal hydrological and meteorological data on the regions of explorer activities. When the expedition sailed by Isanok Strait, its main assistant, toion Pankov, told the Russians that the northern winds in season pushed ice into the Strait. This fact was confirmed by Aleuts from a sealing village, who stressed that ice in Isanok was being driven by tidal currents in different directions which made it impossible to use an unimak for transportation. This information forced Khudyakov to send his crew to Unalaska so as not to endanger their lives, while he himself left the village of Pogromnoe on board a kayak to reach the place ordered by the expedition's instruction.

Unimak toions had been serving as Khudyakov's chief comrades, guides, and providers during his travel along the southern coast of Unimak, which he had begun on February 4. He had been unable to proceed near the northern coast, because Aleuts had informed him about impassable ice near those beaches. On March 1, his assistants told him that, although the wind would not be so strong, the waves would not allow the party to proceed for a long time. It was better to cross to the northern side of the island, where it would be possible to find good weather more quickly for crossing of the Isanok Strait. Khudyakov accepted this advice, and decided to carry kayaks to the north side of the island, while he surveyed the land.

By March Khudyakov had fulfilled his plan successfully and finished his survey of the Unimak coast and the Isanok Strait. He then joined Aleuts who were waiting for him on the northern coast of Unimak and on April 6 crossed the Strait with them to reach the American mainland (Alaska Peninsula). Khudyakov's surveys very significantly improved the map of Unimak Island and of Isanok Strait, places that had been explored for the first time by the Krenitsyn-Levashov expedition in 1768-1769. The data on hydrography and meteorology of the coastal waters of Unimak, which the geodesist obtained from the natives, was of great importance.

On the whole, Khudyakov achieved very much in mapping and describing the new Russian acquisitions in America. He performed a hydrographic survey of Captain's Harbor on Unalaska Island, explored Amaknak, Unimak, and Olenii islands, as well as part of the Alaska Peninsula. On the basis of these surveys at least two maps were compiled: a flat map, oriented with the help of a correct compass, that shows a region from Isanok Strait up to a part of Unimak Island, and a flat map of the Aleutian Island of Naunalaska [Unalaska] and a strait between that island and Spirkin, Unauga, Yakutak, and other islands, 1792.

Missionaries of the Russian Orthodox Church also thoroughly studied native geographical perceptions. Ieromonk Gideon, who in 1804 had been sent to examine clergy activities in Kamchatka and Russian America, succeeded in collecting detailed data on cosmographic notions, history, and the former migrations of Kodiak inhabitants based on their oral tradition. On Kodiak origins, in particular, he found the following: the people of Kodiak, as folk stories tell, came to Kodiak from Alaska. Their ancestors were living previously on the northern side of Alaska near the big River Kwignat. A person named Atlyuvatu was their anayugak (master). He had an only daughter who disappeared without trace. To find her he collected his party together with another anayugak by the name of Yakunak; they traveled a long time through different places, reaching the southern side of Alaska, where they beheld a land and named it Kigikhtak, which means an island in their language. Kodiak had thus been known prior to the Russian arrival by this name. Then Atlyuvatu and Yakunak became curious about the island, and finding there some profits, persuaded others to shift to Kigikhtak with all their families. The closeness between Alaskan and Kadiakan languages fairly confirms the truthfulness of the story. This description shows a fairly wide geographical outlook for Kodiak natives. I would like to put forward even a suggestion that the description may include one of the earliest references to the great American river, the Yukon, which was mentioned as the big River Kwignat. This geographical name was very close to that name (Kwikpak and Kwikhpak) that would be used for the Yukon in subsequent Russian sources.

Gideon also wrote down that Kodiakans perpetuated the following notion about the creation of the world: There had lived a Kishshyakhilyuk (wise man or cunning person), and at that time there was neither day nor night. He began to blow into a straw, which resulted in an imperceptible but step-by-step increasing of dry land from the water. While he continued to blow, the sky opened, the sun began to shine, and then, after the night had come, the stars appeared and the moon came up; at last they beheld animals and men. It seems to me that such colorful description of the world's creation was closely connected with the lifestyle of Kodiak Eskimos, who were sailors and hunters for sea animals, for whom an image of a land rising from the sea and widening on the horizon was practically an everyday view. Father Gideon noted that the experience of sea voyages had led Kodiakans to the conclusion that the earth was round. He pointed out the matter as follows: in regard to the roundness of the earth, they concluded from the following occasion. Their forefathers had sent two kayaks with youngsters, who returned as old men but could not find an end of the earth. So they stressed that the earth had no end, and so due to this fact it should be round. Besides these general native notions about their environment, Gideon pointed out that Kodiak Eskimos had passed down from generation to generation a unique knowledge about local conditions of navigation through the coastal waters of Alaska. The art of weather forecasting was one of the most important elements of this knowledge. On the latter subject, the Russian monk remarked that a diligent hunter often would get out in the night to look at clouds to ascertain the weather, and depending on his observations he would plan his hunt.

The great Russian religious authority and enlightener of Alaska, Father Ioann Veniaminov (Ivan Evseevich Popov), who would become the Metropolitan of Moscow and Saint Innokentii (1797-1879), also paid great attention to the geographical notions and skills of the Russian American Natives. In discussing the possibility of discovering new islands, Veniaminov cited Aleut tales about some island named Aklyun, which was rumored to be situated to the south of Samalga Island. Although later explorations would prove that such an island was not to be found in this place, Veniaminov's facts on the methods of orientation used by the Aleuts to reach this (or any other) island is of much interest in revealing techniques of native navigation and sailing in an open sea without visible coasts. The Russian clergyman described these matters in the following way: First they steered while guided by the positions of the islands Samalga and Chetyrekhsopochnyys, in such a way that the first island should remain behind their stern, and the second island should remain behind their right shoulder. They sailed in this direction until the Chetyrekhsopochnyys Islands would disappear; then the Aleuts would leave behind some marks or beacons, using for such aims ordinary blown seal bladder with stones as anchors. From the first mark, taking into consideration the direction of the sea waves, they would sail until this mark would fade at which moment they would leave the second mark; after the third mark the Aklyun island would be seen.

From this passage, we can see that as a basis for orientation during their sea voyages, Aleuts used their knowledge of the relative positions of islands among each other, as well as the conditions of sea wave development near the coast of these islands. This included the direction of waves, as well as their refraction and interference upon intersection with the beach. Such methods (or variations) were known to be used by many other peoples living along the sea coasts and sustaining themselves by hunting sea animals and fishing. As an example, I can mention sea charts made by the natives of the Marshall Islands from palm branches, which have become very well known in the history of world cartography. It is a pity, but native maps from the period of the first Aleutian contacts with Russians have not yet been found. This fact notwithstanding, one can be sure that Aleuts knew very well the geographical particularities of their native lands, and kept in mind some mental maps of these regions. Veniaminov often highlighted in his works that Aleuts were thoroughly aware of the natural features of their waters, with which they were inseparably connected all their lives. For instance, he wrote that on the sea they would always find out the height and speed of a wave, and they would always contrast simple waves with breakers in the open sea and waves on a shallow or on a rock. Besides, Father Veniaminov was impressed with the outstanding virility of Aleuts in their sea travels, where they could row for 14-20 hours a day without any rest, as well as with an unusual sharpness of their eyesight, which Aleuts themselves explained as the result of their practice of not using salt at all.

As with all his predecessors, Ioann Veniaminov pointed out the excellent capability of Aleuts to study scientific methods of navigation, and he related that those Aleuts who had had an opportunity to study navigation, were looked upon as knowing their craft (and here I am not speaking about Creoles). For instance, a certain Ustyugov, who was a born Aleut, knew marine craft very well, and his chart of the Nushagak River (which was the first of its kind) continues to be regarded as very accurate. Aside from orienting by coastal outlines and wave directions, the Aleuts obtained their positions as regards cardinal directions on the globe from observations about the movements of the sun and moon. Father Veniaminov observed that in regard to the sun, they understood that during its solstices it remains in place two and a half days, while before and after this it moves slowly. As for the moon, they said that it could be seen on the third day after its birth, and their astronomers could show a point on the horizon or on the sky for each new moon where it set during a whole year. Aleuts also knew about connections between the moon's phases and tides in the ocean, knowledge reflected in their ideas about the seasons of the year: aside from dividing it into four main seasons, they practiced more discrete division by months, beginning with March. New moons and full moons in March and other months were ascertained through the observation of tides and changes in sea current velocities. Their whole calendar, which included twelve months, was conditioned by natural phenomena: Each month received its name from the hunting of different kinds of animals and their availability in a region, or from some other local circumstances, and so, months' names were not everywhere the same. Father Veniaminov especially underscored Aleut knowledge of local hydrological and meteorological conditions, as well as their proficiency in weather forecasting. He discussed these matters in the following way: Aleuts could forecast weather and especially winds. The most acute signs which they used to forecast weather for the next day were primarily the sunset and the following sunrise, which were sufficient for a connoisseur to say without mistake what the coming day would be like. They so painstakingly watched the changes in color of the first light, that they called this process as "speaking" with the Sun and the Dawn.

Russian Navy officers N. A. Khvostov and G. I. Davydov, who had been in Russian America in 1802-1803, were very much interested in the cosmographic notions and astronomical and geographical knowledge of the Russian colonial aborigines. Davydov in particular was impressed with the seagoing art of these natives. He described the Kodiakans in the following way:

They sharpen their senses to such a perfection that could never be understood by Europeans. They sail by the sea with the same confidence, as if strolling on dry land. There were many times when I sailed with them, crossing relatively wide straits in stormy, misty, or snowy seasons, and yet we found villages of our destination straightaway without any mistakes. Many of them can forecast both good and stormy weather with precision. Those who plan to hunt far in the sea, rising before dawn, would sit down on their hovel, or on a hill, and look at the sunrise to decide whether it was worthwhile to sail or not. This custom became so much their habit, in fact their way of life, that it was a rare good morning when natives would not meet the rising sun with full attention to it, as if to sharpen their art in weather forecasting. Someone might think that some religious beliefs have been the reasons for such behavior, but I am absolutely sure that the reasons are more practical in nature.

Davydov in particular highlighted the unique proficiency of natives in orienting and sailing in difficult meteorological and navigational conditions of the Alaskan coastal waters, saying that if you would find yourself in a dangerous place at night, or in a mist, you should not worry if you had an "American" at the prow of your boat; because he will see rocks far ahead and amazingly might spot them even in stormy weather when the sea is just as wavy and white as in places with underwater rocks. The Russian professional navigator was also astonished how quickly natives could fixate in their memory conditions of sailing in regions that were new to them, so that in an inlet where Konyaga had sailed once he would know all stones and could be depended upon as the most sophisticated pilot.

The participants of the first Russian circumnavigation (1803-1806), under I. F. Kruzenshtern and Iu. F. Lisyansky also used the extensive geographical knowledge and navigational skills of the Russian American native population. Members of the expedition spent a winter on Kodiak Island. The Neva's crew used this period for scientific and ethnological observations, the results of which would be reflected in the expedition reports and in the book written by Lieutenant-Captain Lisiansky. The Neva's captain used native information abundantly for his description of the Russian American colonies.

The relatively short period of his visit to the colonies notwithstanding, Lisiansky could find many proofs of the natives' deep knowledge of the natural features of their environment, and of their competence in weather forecasting. So, in April 1805, during his kayak trip to the Ugak Island, Lisianky had not paid attention to a local toion's advice to spend a night on the island. The toion tried to persuade him that after a short time, the northeastern wind would begin. Lisiansky did not believe this information, and, as a result, he was drenched on his return sail to St. Paul Harbor. In full agreement with the toion's forecast, the strong wind from the east had commenced, and it produced such high waves that kayaks were thoroughly inundated. Speaking about native seafaring expertise, Lisiansky noted, for instance, that Kodiak natives could sail without any danger more than one hundred versts in their leather kayaks.

The L. A. Zagoskin Expedition in 1842-1844 also showed the particularly impressive and extreme importance of aboriginal knowledge to Russian explorers. Native information retained a very prominent and sometimes even leading place in the contents of Zagoskin's field diary, largely because Zagoskin found it to be reasonably trustworthy and precise. Even in the early stages of the expedition in regard to Mikhailovsky redoubt, Zagoskin noted that in the period when the redoubt was founded, one native woman from a nearby settlement advised the Russians not to settle on that location, telling them that she remembered two occasions when the spot had been flooded. Her words had been accepted as a fantasy, but we could confirm her story by finding huge half-decayed trees that floated to the relatively high spots of the island situated at a distance more than a mile from the beach.

Zagoskin's experience had proven that native geographical information was, as a rule, very dependable. Its scientific usage required a thorough analysis and a good understanding of these peoples' notions about a terrain; besides, one has to comprehend even their specific style of narrating about their travels. He underscored that a native telling about his travels would not miss anything (places where he smoked his pipe, drank water, saw some animal, and so on), and for each of these episodes he would crook his finger, counting in this way a number of his rests or stops; even those who understood this way of narration had to be very careful with its use, but Zagoskin questioned how it was possible with any authority and conscience to count these fingers and determine that it would take ten days travel for ten crooked fingers? But conclusions of such kind could be found in many published travel descriptions, and not only in Russian. Zagoskin also found that Kolmakovskii redoubt was not defended with any walls or towers, which he explained by the fact that L. A. Lukin and all his relatives had been absolutely immersed in their surrounding natural and ethnic environment. The following extract from the expedition's travel log told about this setting in the following way:

Had Lukin himself, being married to a native woman from Ugavik settlement, or all his party being themselves or through their wives connected with natives of the five settlements, needed to be afraid of being killed by their relatives?
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