Dawn Black plans to illuminate four topics touched with controversy and curiosity in a public lecture titled “Old, Old Kodiak” at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Baranov Museum.
Black, who began her exploration of local history more than 25 years ago, said this talk was inspired by some documents and material that have not gotten much attention among historians of Kodiak and Alaska.
“I’m trying to make sure everyone in Kodiak has access to them,” she said.
The first document dates to 1842 or 1843 when a scholar named Voznesenskii from St. Petersburg in Russia witnessed a dance by Native residents in Kodiak. While it had been thought his notes were unreadable for many years, Black said she learned during a visit to St. Petersburg that they had been deciphered and published by a modern scholar there.
While Black isn’t sure what led to the confusion about Voznesenskii’s notes, his description of the event differs from other early accounts.
“It’s more detailed than anyone else had ever gotten into,” Black said. “He took the very masks they had used in those dances back to St. Petersburg.”
The masks and some puffin beak rattles are still in the collection in Russia, Black said. The account describes a series of dances with a storyline in which the male dancers moved around, in contrast to the Alutiiq dance style usual today.
“It’s almost like a play with acts,” she said.
The description might have gone into even more detail but for the burning of some herb, possibly valerian, that put the visitor to sleep after only three dances.
“He couldn’t stay awake,” Black said.
Black said a bit of translation confusion also underlies her second topic, the testimony of Gerasim Ismailov, a captain working for the merchant-explorer Grigoriy Shelikhov, regarding the Battle of Refuge Rock near Old Harbor in 1784. She said a missing sentence in a recent account sheds a different light on the aftermath of the events.
“All these things have gotten somehow scrambled and misunderstood over the years,” she said. “Nobody today knows everything for sure that went on at that battle.”
Two more topics that sparked Black’s interest have to do with the Erskine House, the oldest Western building in Alaska and current home of the Baranov Museum.
While it is agreed now that the building was built in 1808, it seems that for many years Kodiakans believed it was put up as early as 1792. Black has some commemorative plates and pins from the 20th century mark the “wrong” anniversary.
That switch in dating also means that Alexander Baranov, head of the Russian American Company, had left Kodiak for Sitka before the house went up.
“In reality he probably never set foot in the place,” Black said.
Admission to the Tuesday lecture is free and refreshments will be served. For more information, call the Baranov Museum at 486-5920.
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