Sitka Tribe to co-manage interpretation at Sitka National Historical Park

Sitka National Historical Park is home to the Tlingit fort site Shis’gi Noow and battleground, where the Kiks.adi Tlingit clashed with the Russian American Company in 1804. (Photo by Katherine Rose/KCAW)

After a year of negotiations, Sitka Tribe of Alaska will partner with the National Parks Service to begin co-management of historical interpretation at the Sitka National Historical Park — the first compacting agreement of its kind in U.S. history.

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The tribe will manage most of the interpretation programs at Sitka National Historical Park.

Tribal Council chairwoman KathyHope Erickson wonders if “interpretation” is the right word.

“I’ve been joking with a lot of people about it, ‘Why do we call it interpretation when we’re telling our own story?’ I was talking with Lisa (Gassman, general manager with Sitka Tribe of Alaska) today and we kind of came up with the thought that we would like to have that unit named a Tlingit name,” Erickson said. “We’ll consult with our cultural resources committee and see what we can come up with.”

Erickson and Gassman were both excited to be more involved with how Sitka’s history is shared, especially in a place so important to Tlingit people.

Sitka National Historical Park is home to the Tlingit fort site Shís’gi Noow and battleground, where the Kiks.adi Tlingit clashed with the Russian-led forces in 1804.

The park also maintains the Russian Bishop’s House as a museum, one of the oldest remaining structures of Russian America.

Erickson said the tribe would lead interpretation programs in that building as well.

“Our tribal people have been a big part not only the park but also the orthodox church and life with the bishop,” Erickson said. “We’ll be able to tell it from our perspective.”

This compact agreement, the first in the nation in which a tribe will lead interpretation and education services for a national park.

It sets a precedent precedent, though the mechanisms for tribal governments to pursue park management have been in place since the 1990s.

Key to this collaboration is the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act.

Amended in 1994, the act now allows tribal governments to get involved with management of federal lands.

If a tribe has a special historic or cultural relationship with a national park, they can pursue an annual funding agreement  to run projects and programs in that park.

Gassman hopes the tribe move to pursue an annual funding agreement will inspire others to do the same.

“I think there have been barriers,” Gassman said. “Sitka Tribes being, to our knowledge the first that’s program based versus project based. We anticipate other tribes though seeing this success and wanting to start this in their area and their park as well.”

Through their annual funding agreement, STA has filled some positions already.

Former deputy director Tristan Guevin will lead operations through early next year, while Mark Sixbey will serve as an education specialist.

They’ve also hired one full-time park ranger and one seasonal park ranger. They’re still looking to fill four seasonal ranger positions before training begins April 23.

The positions are open to all, though tribal citizens are preferred.

Gassman said the new rangers will have a new uniform too.

“There are going to be tribal uniforms versus national service uniforms,” Gassman said. “We’re still in the process of finalizing those before the first tourists come in.”

“It’ll be a nice surprise,” Erickson said. “But one thing that for sure will be on it? The tribal seal will be prominent on the uniform.”

The funding agreement will need to be renewed.

The tribe begins negotiations for that this month. Erickson and Gassman both hope for even more collaboration between the tribe and the park.

Gassman continues, “I think this is just one step in many that the tribe hopes to take in co-management of Totem Park.”

But there is a waiting period before taking this first step. The annual funding agreement is being reviewed by congress. Should no opposition arise within a 90-day period, it will take effect May 7 of this year.

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