Taking a Sabbatical to Write a Book on the Tlingit Nineteenth Century

My Plans for 2022–2023

This post is adapted from the application I submitted to the Ketchikan Gateway Borough School District Board of Education, which was approved by the board on February 23rd, 2022.

In May 2013, during my final year as an undergraduate student, I completed an honors thesis entitled “Lingít ḵa Waashdan Ḵwáan, the Tlingit and the Americans: Interactions and Transformations, 1856–1896.” That work was the product of a year spent researching nineteenth-century Tlingit history, and it was awarded the Jules Davids Medal for outstanding senior honors thesis by the History Department at Georgetown University. (The thesis can be accessed via this permanent link: http://hdl.handle.net/10822/557915.) I later presented a portion of my research entitled “Lost At.óow, Found Wages: The Tlingit and the Globalization of Pacific Fisheries, 1878–1896” at the symposium Capitalism and Indigenous Communities, 1850–1950, in Oaxaca, Mexico, in October 2013, and at the University of Alaska Southeast-Ketchikan Undergraduate Research & Creative Activities Symposium in April 2014.

Here I am at my graduation from college, supported by my brother, sister, and girlfriend (now my wife).

This historical research has informed a great deal of my work as an educator in Ketchikan: Over the past eight years, I have taught Alaska Studies, U.S. History, World History, and Indigenous History courses. In every course I teach, I strive to provide students with relevant connections between the history of their home in Southeast Alaska and the history of our state, our country, and our world. I also aim to offer students ample opportunity to learn from the diverse perspectives of Indigenous peoples, American settlers, immigrants, and others who have made our society what it is today. I frequently draw on my undergraduate research in order to provide students with case studies and sources related to Indigenous cultures and societies, the trans-Pacific fur trade, the Russian colonization of Alaska, U.S.-Indigenous military conflict, Alaska Native assimilation, and other important topics.

As I have gained experience as a history educator, however, I have increasingly realized that my academic work in Tlingit history is incomplete, and that my undergraduate thesis has limited educational application in its current form. When I wrote my thesis, I used the academic jargon of an undergraduate desperate to impress his professors, not the language of an educator intending to reach as wide an audience as possible. Now when I use portions of my research in high school classes, I need to adapt my writing so that it is more accessible to my students. I also know that there is a great deal more research for me to do into various aspects of nineteenth-century Tlingit history, including using many primary and secondary sources that I did not have the time or ability to utilize in 2013. I believe my research and writing has a great deal of potential to help educate students, educators, and the general public, but with my current teaching responsibilities I haven’t had the time to reach that potential.

With those goals in mind, I enthusiastically applied for and was granted one year of sabbatical leave so that I can use the foundation of my undergraduate research to write the manuscript of a complete book intended for students and a general audience. The tentative title of this book is Tlingit History from Independence to Assimilation. I will expand the scope of my work to address the timeframe from the late eighteenth to early twentieth centuries, and strengthen previous weaknesses in my thesis, such as addressing changes in social practices like the ḵu.éex’ (potlatch), and further investigating how Tlingit people entered into wage labor for American businesses. Perhaps most importantly, I will strive to ensure that the book will be readable and enticing to a wide audience, from secondary students to adults of all backgrounds.

Tlingit helmets dating from the 19th century on display at the Kunstkamera in St. Petersburg, Russia. (See here for more.)

I strongly believe that it is invaluable for students in Ketchikan to see that the history of the land they live on is integral to their school curriculum. The stories of Southeast Alaska and its Indigenous peoples are critical parts of Alaska history, American history, and the history of the whole world. Now as much as ever, students, educators, and community members in Ketchikan need to learn from the lessons of the past in order to foster intercultural tolerance, understanding, and progress. My work should serve as a uniquely useful tool in that effort: There is no book currently in print that specifically aims to educate readers on the full story of nineteenth-century Tlingit history, explaining how a powerful Indigenous nation made up of independent clans began assimilating into American society in the space a few generations. Ketchikan students — and students across Southeast Alaska — need and deserve to know that story. It should serve as a testament to the school district if one of its own educators is able to tell it.

In order to pursue this goal, I will enroll in an independent study course at the University of Alaska Southeast; contact and collaborate with museums, archives, scholars, and knowledge bearers; gather and utilize relevant sources that I did not have access to as an undergraduate; travel for research when necessary; revise and expand my undergraduate thesis chapter by chapter to write a complete, publishable manuscript; and work with an agent or publisher to bring the book to a general audience.

The outcome of this sabbatical will be that I can provide students, teachers, and our wider community with a book that comprehensively explains the triumphs, struggles, and transformations of Tlingit people from the late eighteenth to early twentieth centuries. The book should be useful as part of nearly all the social studies courses taught in our secondary schools, both as a text and as reference material for student research. Many students learn about Alaska history through disconnected lessons based on compartmentalized themes, but my book will provide an alternative: For example, my work should allow students to readily track changes over time in Tlingit life between the fur-trading era, the late Russian colonial period, early American military rule in Alaska, and the later period of American settlement. Other resources address Russian and American colonization separately, or do not specifically focus on the changes experienced and choices made by Alaska Native peoples like the Tlingit. Students shouldn’t see history as a series of irrelevant events and abstract concepts they have little connection to. Instead, they should have the opportunity to learn about the past through the lives of real people who seized new opportunities and faced new challenges from generation to generation — people who were, in many cases, their ancestors.

As a history educator, I aim to help my students develop the skills to analyze sources, question accepted narratives, and support arguments with evidence. My own efforts as a historian and dedication to lifelong learning should serve as an example to students of how these skills can be put into action, and of what can be achieved here in Ketchikan to uncover, reinterpret, and learn from our region’s past. The questions I ask in my work will offer ample opportunities for educators to engage students in important historical discussions, such as: How were Alaska’s people and resources part of the global economy 100, 150, or 200 years ago? How did Russian and American laws and policies differ for Alaska Native peoples? How significant were events like the Alaska Purchase and Klondike Gold Rush to Alaska’s history? and many more.

Lastly, I believe my work will assist many educators and community members to better understand the deep, foundational history of our region and its people. As our school district strives to provide all of our students with more culturally-informed, culturally-responsive, and trauma-sensitive education, it is critical for our staff to understand the roots of our community’s cultural diversity and the historical traumas that affect our students.

Upon completion of this sabbatical leave, I intend to return to teaching in the Ketchikan Gateway Borough School District for many years to come. Working as a history educator in my hometown is my lifelong dream, and this sabbatical will only increase my ability to serve this community and raise awareness of the history of our land and its people.

Peter Stanton
Social Studies Teacher
Ketchikan High School

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Peter Stanton

I’m a history teacher writing a book on the Tlingit 19th century. Waashdan Ḵwáan. Kichxháanx’ yéi xhat yatee. (American settler in Ketchikan) Tw: @peterstanton