Sitka looks to rename Baranof Elementary School after Native educator

A school building
Baranof Elementary School in Sitka. (KCAW)

Sitka’s Baranof Elementary School appears likely to have its name changed — but no one is quite sure what that new name will be yet.

The Sitka School Board recently decided to send the question of the name change to the Sitka Tribe, in hopes of identifying a “significant local cultural educator.”

The hardest part about renaming the Baranof Elementary School will be who to name it for.

At their last meeting on Jan. 6, Sitka School Board members reported their email was running near 100% in favor of naming the building after someone other than the 18th-century fur trader who, as the first chief manager of the Russian-American Company, was the de facto governor of the Russian colony in North America.

Alexander Baranov’s role in history won’t ever be unwritten. But in her testimony, former school board member Dionne Brady-Howard explained why honoring him with an elementary school remains a bad idea.

“There are some in our town’s history and in our state who have honored his legacy because they view him as an astute businessman,” said Brady-Howard. “However, in establishing that business of sea otter fur exploitation, he was ruthless. And he would have annihilated my ancestors if he had been able to.”

There were two major conflicts between Indigenous Tlingit and Baranov’s Russians. One was in 1799 when the Tlingit destroyed a Russian redoubt at what is now known as Old Sitka. The second was in 1804, when Baranov returned with a gunship and laid siege to Sitka’s Tlingit who had taken refuge in a fort in what is now Sitka National Historical Park. He drove them out, captured their village, and built his company headquarters, New Archangel, on its ruins — paving the way for the colonization of Alaska.

It’s this history that makes the current name of the elementary school intolerable to Sitka’s Native community. Muriel Reid put it bluntly.

“The name Baranof represents the historical trauma deeply rooted in this town,” Reid said. “And frankly, naming a school after him is a slap in the face to Indigenous families in Sitka. It is your job to reduce the amount of environmental racism Sitka families experience within the school.”

Changing the name of Baranof Elementary as a step toward healing gained traction — even before demonstrations last summer pushed the Sitka Assembly to remove a Baranov statue from in front of the centennial building and place it in the museum inside. Doug Osborne spoke on behalf of the Sitka Community Health Summit coalition working on historical trauma. He offered $3,000 to help cover any costs — such as a facilitated community meeting — that the board might incur during the process.

“We’re in this 100%,” he told them.

Alaska Native Sisterhood Grand Camp president Paulette Moreno also urged the board to approach the issue deliberately but not too deliberately.

“I thank you for coming to this,” Moreno said, “and my only advice is that this be a process that is well-thought-out, well-planned, but also it is well-overdue.”

Who to name Sitka’s elementary school for? Although it was just a board discussion, attendees had plenty of ideas. Chuck Miller thought back to some of his teachers in the Sitka Native Education program, who propelled him into his own career as an educator.

“Without the teachings of Kaal.atk’ Charlie Joseph, Sr., Annie Joseph his wife, Annie Dick, my aunt, Elizabeth Basco, my grandmother, and Emma Duncan Davis — those teachers,” Miller said. “And we still have a few of them here — Ethel Makinen, Ann Johnson is another one of our teachers, our elders.”

Laurie Cropley also had some ideas, too.

“’Pauline Duncan Elementary School’ I love. Gil Truitt Elementary School. Charlie Joseph Elementary School — there are so many wonderful choices,” Cropley said.

To which Cropley added Isabella Brady and Elizabeth Peratrovich.

Only one board member expressed any reservations about moving forward on this theme. Eric Van Cise was behind changing the name but didn’t want to necessarily limit the choices.

“That would be my only ask, that along with respected Tlingit names that people have — which I fully support — that we be willing to take this opportunity and collectively think about what we’d like this school to be named,” Van Cise said.

Nevertheless, he did not oppose the final motion as read by board president Amy Morrison.

“The motion is to formally request the Sitka Tribe of Alaska assist the Sitka School Board in choosing the name of a significant local cultural educator to replace the name of Baranof Elementary School,” Morrison said.

The motion passed unanimously.

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Robert Woolsey is a reporter at KCAW in Sitka.