by Patricia J. Angus
My love affair with Alaska began about a decade ago when an off-shoot of my family tree decided to sprout in the soil of the “last frontier”. Of course, this created an irresistible motivation for personal travel, accompanied by an urge to uncover evidence surrounding the family myth that my Montenegrin grandfather, Srdan Đođić, participated in the Alaskan Gold Rush! It seemed strange to me that a young man with scarce resources could travel such an extreme distance in the pursuit of gold. My first step was to check out Wikipedia, which revealed that “About a quarter of all known Montenegrin Americans live in Anchorage.”1 Wow! Investigation sparked! Since my grandfather later became a coal miner, I also found it noteworthy that many Serbians of that time period lived in the Juneau/Douglas area to work at the Treadwell gold mine, and their population was great enough to warrant the publication of a Serbian newspaper! The possibility of locating and viewing microfilmed issues of those papers made me sing and dance, but it would certainly take several months of Sundays to hone my Serbian Cyrillic prowess enough to actually read them!
In the meantime, journalist and author Judy Ferguson has written two books in English pertaining to the Yugoslav-Alaskan connection.2,3 Ferguson’s research and experience has highlighted the contributions of many prominent Alaskans with Yugoslavian heritage. One of my favorites is the story of Croatian immigrant John Peratrovich, a young seine fisherman from the Dalmatian coast who found his way to Alaska territory in the year 1876.4 Adam S. Eterovich quoted the following from the August 1, 1972 issue of the Anchorage publication Urban News:
John Peratrovich, as a 16 year old Croatian, ran away to sea and eventually landed in San Francisco at a time when there was a great demand for crews for whaling and sealing ships. He was shipwrecked off the Seal Islands, rescued by Eskimos, spent 4 months there, then came by Russian Revenue Cutter south to Sitka, Alaska. Then a canoe trip to Victoria, Canada, stopping at native village of Klawock. There he decided to stay and make it his home, working as a skilled net maker in the only salmon cannery operating.5
During his life in Klawock, Peratrovich married three times to three different Tlingit women through whom he fathered 16 children! Two of his children made a significant impact on Alaska’s progress: Roy Peratrovich and his wife Elizabeth were both known for several leadership roles and their civil rights activism, and Frank Peratrovich was “territorial and state senator, senate president, and first vice president of the Alaska Constitutional Convention in 1955”.6
I have visited Klawock many times on trips to Prince of Wales Island. Learning about the Peratrovich family and their genetic proliferation has given me much to ponder about my own Yugoslavian heritage, part of which is firmly anchored in the Adriatic Sea by Dalmatian fishing families. How curious it is to realize that I am more genetically connected to many of the native Klawock Tlingits than to my Anglo neighbors in suburban Phoenix, Arizona!
On my most recent visit to Klawock I took some time to admire the totem poles in the Klawock Totem Park. I heard that I had missed out on a very celebratory totem raising last summer in which several different poles were restored. Being disappointed that I had missed the festivities, I attended my first totem raising in the Haida community of Hydaburg. We arrived by late afternoon in time for the food and cultural celebration which was held in the village’s small high school gymnasium – home of the Haida Warriors. Tantalizing aromas wafted from the food laden tables that were placed end-to-end, dividing the gym floor in two halves. The tables were flanked on either side by more banquet tables where families enjoyed their favorite foods such as ham, beef, fresh caught salmon and shrimp, rice, potatoes, fruits and vegetables, and much more! Others balanced plates of food on their laps as they filled the bleachers awaiting the performances of the evening.
We found a spot high in the bleachers and watched the serving area transform into a stage smack in the middle of the gymnasium. As I observed women carrying big pots of food to and fro, I thought of my own grandmother carrying pots of sarma and pans of strudel at similar feasts during my childhood. But, what amazed me most at this buffet was the efficiency of providing such massive quantities of food to so many visitors and the seamless transformation from lunch line to stage in a matter of minutes.
Then it began. The drums beat. The voices sang. The costumes filled the floor. The dancers danced. Simple, but beautiful – the beats, the dance steps, the costumes, words I couldn’t understand. Each performer wore regular street clothes enveloped in a decorative blanket expressing their heritage. Babies, barely able to walk, danced along-side of youth, parents, middle-aged and elders. Lots of white buttons for embellishments. Eagle feathers and masks accentuated the stories told through dance and song. No intricate dance steps. No lavish costumes. No complicated melodies. Just drums and voices and movement.
I caught myself bouncing to the beat as I sat in the bleachers, with my three-year-old granddaughter rocking to the rhythm beside me. At appropriate times a call was issued for all people of Haida descent to join the dancers on the floor. Great whirlpools of beautiful people circled the floor, one song for the women and another for the men. “I wanna be a Haida too!” I caught myself thinking. “I wanna dance!” I reminded myself that I had once danced and sang the songs of my heritage with the junior Tamburitzans of my community — complicated Croatian words, somewhat intricate footwork, and decidedly more lavish costumes. So, I feigned momentary contentment by grooving to the beat from the bleachers with my granddaughter.
At the close of the culturally inspiring program, we ambled our way down the stands toward the exit door. For a few hours we had transcended to another place and time in a faraway corner of the world. I savored the evening as the clamor of closing time echoed behind us. Somewhere in the din of noise I heard a name from the sound system – “Bradovich” – the sound contrasted the flowing Haida lyrics still resonating within me. An audible chuckle escaped between my smiling teeth, and I started to giggle. Yes, the “—ich” gene is alive and well on the island! In that moment a thought occurred to me. It reminded me that we are all God’s children. Whether we are Haida, Dalmatian, Tlingit, Montenegrin, or Heinz 57 – we are all brothers and sisters one gigantic family tree named Humanity!
- Montenegrin American. (2014, July 27). Wikipedia. Retrieved July 31, 2014, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montenegrin_American
- Ferguson, J. (2002). Parallel Destinies. Big Delta, Alaska: Glas Publishing Company.
- Ferguson, J. (2009).Bridges to statehood: the Alaska-Yugoslav connection. Big Delta: Voice of Alaska Press.
- pages 3 – 7.
- Eterovich, A. S. (n.d.). Peratrovich Island. Peratrovich Island. Retrieved July 31, 2014, from http://www.croatia.org/crown/croatians/www.croatians.com/PLACE-PERATROVICH-PARETOVICH.htm
- Ferguson, J. (2009).Bridges to statehood: the Alaska-Yugoslav connection. Big Delta: Voice of Alaska Press. Page 3.
© Text and photos Patricia J. Angus 2014 to present
See Also: Golden Nuggets on this website.
For more information about the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska please visit: www.ccthita.org