Tim Birt is with the Alaska State Troopers in Juneau. While awaiting the arrival of the explosive ordnance disposal unit from Elmendorf Thursday night (6-23-11), the Organized Village of Kake met to discuss the shell’s origin. Birt says there is little doubt where it came from.

 “It turns out that this particular artillery shell, they believe was delivered to Kake by the USS Saginaw about 140 years ago when the village was shelled.”

That lends some historic weight to the bomb, which already tips the scales at around thirty pounds. It’s about 12 inches long, and 4 inches wide. Birt says the ordnance disposal unit could draw some conclusions about the shell, but could not officially declare it dangerous.

“They were able to identify it – Yes, it’s an artillery shell, it appears to be authentic. They could not make any determination on the risk of the detonator, which appeared to be intact, or the charge, which still appeared to be intact. Given the age, the way in which it was stored, and a number of other things, there was no way for them to say it’s safe or high risk.”

If the bomb had been determined to be of high risk, it would have been detonated. The state won’t bend on that policy. In 2008, an explosive ordnance disposal team from Ft. Richardson declared six cannonballs from the Sheldon Jackson Museum to be dangerous, and detonated them in a rock quarry outside of Sitka.

Other ordnance in the SJ collection, like a 60-pounder Parrot shell, which the Kake bomb resembles, was found to be safe, and left undisturbed.

The Kake shell was first uncovered in the 1940s, during a waterfront construction project. The Parrot rounds were designed to detonate on impact. This one landed in a rotten tree stump. The shell has been in the safekeeping of a local family since it was first found. The Sealaska Heritage Institute is arranging for a private contractor to come to Kake to render the weapon safe.

Zachary Jones is an adjunct professor of History at UAS, and the archivist at Sealaska Heritage. He says the shell is a painful reminder of a difficult and sometimes bloody period in Alaskan history called “The Kake War.”

“This was an ethnic cleansing. The military came in, they were looking for one individual, but since they couldn’t find him, they burned and shelled with their artillery village sites – the homes – but they also came ashore and used their weaponry to destroy canoes and food caches. This was an attempt to eradicate, and let suffer the Tlingit people.”

Jones refers to a clash of “competing legal systems” in describing the events that led to the Kake War, and similar violence that led to the destruction of three of Kake’s village sites and three smaller camps by the US Navy.

The village in Sitka was nearly destroyed at around the same time, but negotiations de-escalated the situation.

Jones believes the initial military occupation of Alaska failed to recognize that Tlingit culture also functioned under strict codes.

“Each side, when there was a situation, sought to address it legally. But the Americans didn’t really comprehend that the Tlingit had a legal system, and rejected it. So in a sense, the Tlingit felt legally slighted, and ignored, and it led to problems. It was sort of an attack on sovereignty, you might say.”

US gunboat policy in the region was not isolated to Kake. In 1882, thirteen years after the USS Saginaw fired this shell, the USS Adams destroyed the village of Angoon in the most infamous incident of the period.

The Organized Village of Kake hopes to take advantage of the opportunity presented by the artillery shell to reopen consultation with the US Department of Defense on the matter. Jones says the Sealaska Heritage Institute’s mission includes supporting Alaska’s Native people in this type of circumstance.

And the Kake artillery shell is not the only reminder of this episode to surface recently. In 2003 marine archeologists off the coast of Hawaii discovered the wreck of the Saginaw, which struck a coral reef and sank in 1870. The key to identifying the ship was her large Parrott guns – the very same which had bombarded Kake the previous year.
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