Cultures in the town of Petersburg, also known as Séet Ká Kwáan, coalesce in shared history

Indigenous tribes’ oral histories are being supported by new empirical evidence, including archaeological sites spread across the region
May 2022.
May 2022.(KTUU)
Published: Jan. 4, 2023 at 10:53 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) – Alaska boasts some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. Regions across the state – such as the Southeast – are also rich with history, but that history isn’t always discoverable with a quick query and click of the mouse.

Such is the case in Petersburg, Alaska, a quaint town of several thousand located about 120 miles from the state’s booming capital of Juneau. Various records show the community was named and incorporated in 1910 by Norwegian Peter Buschmann, who arrived in the late 19th century. What many of the most easily-accessible records don’t show is extensive information about the Indigenous tribes that called the area home thousands of years before that.

“There’s so much ancient history,” said Janine Gibbons, a Petersburg resident of Haida and Finnish descent, who is also an artist and historian. “The actual Petersburg area, where people know, is a pretty peaceful area; there weren’t any wars fought there. But it is a place where people have been hunting and fishing for thousands and thousands of years.

“Petersburg is what many people know it as,” she said, “but for us Indigenous people, it’s called Séet Ká Kwáan.”

Petersburg, or Séet Ká Kwáan, features fish-filled waters that first attracted Indigenous peoples, including Haida and Tlingit hunters and fishermen, to Mitkof Island and the surrounding area generations ago. Then, according to the Alaska Historical Society, Buschmann arrived in the late 1800′s and homesteaded there, building a cannery, sawmill and dock by the turn of the century, before having the town incorporated about a decade later.

After that, individuals and families from various backgrounds have flocked to Petersburg and lived there since.

Prominent in the town today is the Scandinavian culture, with a heavy emphasis on Norwegian, followed by Swedish and other Nordic lifestyles. The town’s ties to Norway are celebrated in part with a yearly event known as the Little Norway Festival, which is celebrated around May 17, or Syttende Mai, to coincide with Norway’s Independence Day.

The Norwegian culture is also undoubtedly a major part of how the town has grown and thrived over the last century or so, with a special emphasis on fishing and canneries, two major staples of the community. Petersburg, however, was also built upon land first frequented by Indigenous tribes, though that duality is not always recognized.

“When I was younger, I would read articles in the newspaper with letters to the editor and whatnot: ‘Tlingits weren’t here, Norwegians were first,’” said Brenda Norheim, a tribal member who is part of the Petersburg Indian Association, explaining some of the experiences she had as a youngster. “And there’d be these little articles going back and forth. So shame on me, but I was like, ‘Were we here? Were we not?’ This question was always in my mind, even though my grandparents said that, you know, we were here. But where’s the evidence?

“Yes, we were really here,” she continued. “And there’s plenty of evidence to prove that.”

That evidence now goes well beyond the oral histories passed down by generations of Indigenous families.

“There’s quite a lot of evidence that shows that the Tlingit people have been here since time immemorial, as what is in their oral histories,” said Gina Esposito, a twenty-year-plus veteran of archaeologic research, who currently serves as an archaeologist for the U.S. Agriculture Department Forest Service. “Over 20 years, I’ve had a chance to do archaeological surveys around central Southeast Alaska. That’s quite a lot of area. So we run into all kinds of archaeological site types, and then we record them once we come upon them.”

Esposito said she and her team of researchers often come across prehistoric wood and stone fish trap structures, discoveries that are not unexpected since there is so much coastline to explore and a known popularity of the area as a fishing haven, but are exciting all the same.

“Salmon is a really important part of the diet,” she said, emphasizing the food staple of the past and present. “So that’s pretty exciting. And we also record a lot of habitation sites that we find. We do a lot of subsurface testing, and that’s how we find a lot of prehistoric shell middens.”

Shell middens, Esposito explained, are essentially prehistoric rubbish piles: people would gather shellfish, fish, and other things they were eating, and the remnants from processing that food would slowly build up into piles, becoming buried over time. The shell middens are a common type of site, she said, with one of the ones close to town already radiocarbon dated – using the decay of a radioactive isotope of carbon to help date objects containing carbon materials – to being around 1,200 years old.

“We’ve got a lot of sites around here that go in tandem with the oral history of the tribes in this area,” she said, “and we can share our stories together to build that bigger picture.”

Rock carvings known as petroglyphs and images known as pictographs are also often found in and around Petersburg. Most of the historic sites that have been recorded are considered protected, and thus their precise locations are not typically shared with the public.

“We record both pre-contact period sites and historic sites,” Esposito said, adding that she is tasked with ensuring no cultural resources are disturbed when the Forest Service conducts any research or works on its various projects in the area. “I like, as an archaeologist, to be able to provide that added scientific evidence from the archaeological record to help corroborate [the oral histories]. Our story is just one part; the information we provide is one part of that larger story from Southeast Alaska’s cultural history.”

Norheim, who is Tlingit and Norwegian, said she believes everyone can work together harmoniously to tell all of the stories of the local land and share them proudly.

“It’s kind of like reading a book,” she said. “When you read a book, you don’t read the last chapter, and that’s the whole story. We have the last chapter, but we need to celebrate what was before that, which I think we can do a better job of.”

For now, and as Scandinavian influences continue to be shared and celebrated, the mission of amplifying Indigenous voices and highlighting the shared history of all in Petersburg continues.

“The reality is that Indigenous people, whether or not their voices have been heard or their faces seen, have been in Peterburg since the beginning of time,” Gibbons said. “For Petersburg, I see the light in everyone, and I just think it’s moving into a very exciting time in Séet Ká Kwáan’s history, where we’ve had a Scandinavian presence and story and we always probably will, but we also have an Indigenous story that is coming through.”

To learn more about Séet Ká Kwáan, you can visit the Petersburg Library’s website to check out the Voices of Séet Ká Kwáan podcast.