Metlakatla, Annette Island

Metlakatla, Annette Island

by | Dec 11, 2021

Metlakatla is a Tsimshian community situated on Port Chester, an embayment on the west coast of Annette Island, about 75 miles (121 km) northwest of Prince Rupert and 16 miles (26 km) south-southeast of Ketchikan, Alaska. Port Chester was named for Commander Colby M. Chester in 1883 by Lieutenant Commander Henry E. Nichols on the U.S. Coast & Geodetic Survey steamer USS Hassler which made hydrographic surveys in Southeast Alaska. Annette Island is about 20 miles (32 km) long and 10 miles (16 km) wide, located between Gravina and Duke Islands, and south of Revillagigedo Island. It was named in 1879 by William H. Dall, of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, for his wife, Annette W. Dall. The island has a rugged, mountainous topography. Swampy, muskeg soils, and dense rain forests cover low-lying areas and large lakes occupy former glacial valleys. The island was the traditional territory of the Tlingit people who called it Taak’w Aan or Taquan, meaning ‘winter town’ for an ancient village site on Port Chester. This region had a considerable historical overlap of Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian people. Tlingit homelands are now wholly within present-day Southeast Alaska. Haida lands are centered in Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, but the Kaigani Haida have lived in Alaska since the early 18th century when they migrated north from Masset on Haida Gwaii. Following the accidental death of a Haida by a Tlingit the Haida were reputedly given territories on Prince of Wales Island. The Tsimshian are also sometimes grouped with Alaska Natives but they have a distinct culture and history. The Tsimshian people originated on the coast of the mainland in what is now British Columbia. Tsimshian in Alaska are the descendants of a small faction of the Tsimshian people who moved to Annette Island in 1886. There are still fourteen Tsimshian First Nations in British Columbia. The name Metlakatla comes from the Tsimshian ‘Maxłakxaała’ meaning ‘salt water passage’.

William Duncan was an Anglican missionary who arrived in Fort Simpson, British Columbia in 1857. He mastered the Tsimshian language and soon had many converts to Christianity and became a dominant figure in their culture. In 1862, Duncan established a utopian Christian community at Metlakatla, British Columbia near present-day Prince Rupert. Duncan’s dissident style and independent temperament led to his expulsion from the Church of England’s Missionary Society in 1881, and the creation of his own non-denominational Independent Native Church. In 1886, difficulties with Canadian authorities caused Duncan to travel to Washington, D.C., and appeal to President Grover Cleveland for permission to migrate to Alaska. This was granted and in 1887, a group of devotees embarked on an epic canoe journey to Alaska in search of a new home. The Tsimshian exploratory party included David Leask, John Tait, Edward Benson, Adam Gordon, and Gred Ridley, accompanied by a missionary worker named Dr. Bluett-Duncan. They searched the Alaskan coast and chose Port Chester on the northwest side of Annette Island as the tribe’s new home. They sought approval from Tlingit Chief Johnson at Tongass Narrows (soon to become Ketchikan) and were told that salmon were abundant in the surrounding waters, and he recommended a site of an abandoned Tlingit village on Port Chester called Taquan. The gently sloping beach was pebbled and sandy, and ideal for beaching canoes. There were a number of lakes in the mountains and from one (Chester Lake) flowed a stream with a steep drop of 800 feet (244 m) which could be utilized for water supply and hydropower. On August 7, 1887, the SS Ancon arrived at the townsite with Duncan, a sawmill, the cannery from Metlakatla that was dismantled and moved, and 50 tons of supplies to help establish the Tsimshian people in Alaska. The group laid out the town in a European-style grid pattern. It contained a church, a school, the reassembled cannery, and a sawmill.

They named the town New Metlakatla, after the town they had left behind in British Columbia. In 1888, Duncan returned to Washington and lobbied the U.S. Congress for an Indian reserve on Annette Island. Although the reservation system had not been used in Alaska, Congress granted his request in 1891, and the Annette Islands Reserve, including surrounding islands, became the only Indian Reserve in Alaska. In 1891, the Duncan Cottage was built by Tsimshian followers of Father Duncan who continued as a leading figure in the colony until his death in 1918. From 1939 to 1941, as the United States prepared for the possibility of war, an airfield on Annette Island with a runway of 10,000 feet (3,048 m) was begun as a Civilian Conservation Corps project. In the winter of 1941-1942, the project was taken over by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and since the U.S. military was stretched very thin, Canada offered to supply a squadron of fighters from the 115 Fighter Squadron, becoming the first Canadian force ever based in U.S. territory to directly assist in American defense. In 1942, a Japanese submarine was reportedly sunk off the coast by several aircraft from Annette Island Army Airfield and the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter McLane. After the war, the airfield reverted to the control of the Civil Aeronautics Board, and it was redeveloped into Annette Island Airport which served as the primary airfield for scheduled passenger service for Ketchikan prior to the opening of the Ketchikan International Airport in 1973. In the 1970s, the Metlakatla Tsimshian did not accept the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and refused to give up their reserve and sovereign immunity, and today, the Metlakatla Indian Community still has exclusive commercial and subsistence fishing rights to the islands’ waterways. Read more here and here. Explore more of Metlakatla and Annette Island here:

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