A Russian American Photographer
In Tlingit Country

Vincent Soboleff in Alaska
Sergei Kan
(University of Oklahoma Press)
Vincent Soboleff grew up in Killisnoo --- part of what we now know of as the Skagway-Hoonah-Angoon Census Area of Alaska. That is not far from Klukwan, on the Kootznahoo Inlet, and the island itself is known as Xootsnoowú. Blame all these sneezes on the languge of the Tlingit, the indigenous people of that part of the country.

In these photographs, the Tlingits who live in Angoon look to be noble, solemn ... not ones you'd want to tangle with. Their lives were not particularly entrancing, unless one was enamored of fishing in the freezing cold in icy waters, digging for gold in icy creeks, and boiling up fertilizer out of dead fish. It was not exactly a brilliant career choice for most Americans of that era --- roughly 1890 - 1920.

Maybe it has changed some recently. Those who live in Angoon have been buoyed recently because in 2009, it was listed by Sunset magazine as one of the "Top 100 Best Honeymoon Spots" in the world. However, based on these photographs, and assuming that one my age could imagine going for a honeymoon in Permafrost City without an attack of angina, I suspect that Angoon might be down there towards the bottom of the list, especially if we could just as easily go to Venice, San Francisco, or, at worst, Yakima, Wash.

Angoon lies in that part of southern Alaska jammed up against coastal British Columbia, not so far south of Juneau. People? Hardly any; around 500 or so. Business? Mostly, it seems, fertilizer, icy wind and dead fish: salmon, herring, whale blubber, and dogfish. Have you ever caught a dogfish? Don't. Let me assure you, there is nothing stupider than a dogfish.

One night I caught several (dozen) when I was fishing in the Puget Sound. What a dogfish will do is swallow the bait and get it as far down its gut as possible and then jump around so the fishing line gets thoroughly entangled with all its fins and protrusions. Also, a dogfish seems to be especially gooey, won't even stop thrashing its gummy body so you can wrest the hook out of its miserable colon.

Worst of all, it's good for nothing, outside of fertilizing pansies. Have you ever eaten dogfish? Neither have I, thank god. In Soboleff's day, it was caught by the ton and boiled to death in a big stinky vat. It was then mushed together to get all the oil out --- Angoon was famous for its barrels of fish oil --- then the fish bodies were dried and pulverized to make guano. You wanna be eating something like that, much less living next door to where they're cooking it up?

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We have almost 200 Soboleff photographs here, many of which are full-pagers. They are, of course, all black-and white, and --- despite the primitive equipment, a simple Kodak camera --- gorgeous. For instance, plate II is a head-on shot of the Killer Whale Indian Dance House, with elegant carved Tinglit fish whales --- presumably not dogfish --- arching over the windows. Simple, spare, direct: wonderful.

During his youth, Vincent Soboleff took most of the photographs shown here. He was born in 1882, just before the time when his father moved to Angoon. Fr. Ioann Soboleff was a Russian Orthodox priest, married to Olga Luedke of San Francisco. One can imagine that being a priest in an Alaskan fishing village would not be the ideal career choice at that time. The town was filled with Aleut-Russians ("Creoles") and Tingits with their own matriarchal culture, rooted in their long indigenous history and culture. The "Whites" (read drunken American fishermen, loggers, gold prospectors and ne'er-do-wells in general) dominated entertainment in the village. Unlike Fr. Soboleff who set himself to educate the people, teach them to generally keep up appearances, the filibusters would be instructing "natives" in how to make hootch, trying like mad all the while to seduce the not unattractive young ladies. Ioann had chosen to be a man of the cloth in a place that was, to say the least, not smitten with the divine.

There was no medical care, no government infrastructure or schooling, and certainly little enough sunshine to brighten up the days. Makes you wonder how these people survived without iPhones, MTV, and bands like Motorhead, Limp Bizkit, and Cerebral Ballzy.

It's not that the land wasn't fertile and generous. The Kootznahoo Inlet rivers were chock full of fish, the land knee-deep in guano, black-tailed deer, and brown bear. In fact, it was estimated that there were more brown bears than people. Angoon, where the Soboleffs spent most of their lives, now has a population of 572 (people), while there are over 1600 (brown bears) there on Xootsnoowú Island.

The men were tough, and the culture was Tlingit with a heavy dose of Russian Orthodox. There was no end of ice and snow and hoarfrost. To this day, the climate is still considered to be "mild," which means you have to wait all night to freeze to death. You are more likely to drown, because Juneau to the north gets 50 inches of rain a year, Ketchikan to the south, 150 inches, so in Angoon, you can expect eight feet or so per year. If you follow Sunset's directive and honeymoon in December or January, expect meals of blubber, berries, seaweed, shellfish, herring and gull. The villages are a dream for Scrabble players, being called "aan," with their potlatches spelled koo.éex.

Potlatching, by the way, was made illegal by Canada in 1884 in an amendment to the Indian Act and in the United States in the late 19th Century, "largely at the urging of missionaries and government agents who considered it "a worse than useless custom" that was seen as "wasteful, unproductive, and contrary to civilized values." Great. Someone dies, so you have a huge festival, and on the third day, you begin to compete with others to give away the most food and property, roiling with your neighbors to see who can be the most generous. Then the feds move in and tell you that you are breaking the law. Screw your neighbors, sell them marshland ... and you're OK. Give it away, and the feds will send you to the Graybar Hotel for six months.

In 1888, fortunately, the anthropologist Franz Boas described the potlatch ban as a failure:

    The second reason for the discontent among the Indians is a law that was passed, some time ago, forbidding the celebrations of festivals. The so-called potlatch of all these tribes hinders the single families from accumulating wealth. It is the great desire of every chief and even of every man to collect a large amount of property, and then to give a great potlatch, a feast in which all is distributed among his friends, and, if possible, among the neighboring tribes. These feasts are so closely connected with the religious ideas of the natives, and regulate their mode of life to such an extent, that the Christian tribes near Victoria have not given them up. Every present received at a potlatch has to be returned at another potlatch, and a man who would not give his feast in due time would be considered as not paying his debts. Therefore the law is not a good one, and can not be enforced without causing general discontent. Besides, the Government is unable to enforce it. The settlements are so numerous, and the Indian agencies so large, that there is nobody to prevent the Indians doing whatsoever they like.

--- Edw. Weaver Zimmerman
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