Most agree on the story of Captain Cook’s time in Cook Inlet, they differ on how to tell it

The Captain Cook statue in downtown Anchorage (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Amid nationwide calls to reexamine America’s history of racism, activists say that a statue of the Captain Cook is a place for Anchorage to start its own conversation. 

The statue stands overlooking Cook Inlet, named decades after James Cook’s visit to the area. The faded bronze statue portrays the 18th Century figure staring into the waters below, with a chart in one hand and an unbuttoned peacoat trailing behind him. 

Ahtna artist Melissa Shaginoff of Chickaloon said she’s not inspired. 

“It doesn’t feel like my place when I’m around this,” she said. “It’s this oppressive, it’s this sanctioned symbol of oppression that he is still towering over us physically and, you know spiritually.”

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Along with over 20 other leaders, mostly Indigenous, Shaginoff is asking for the removal of the statue by the end of June. 

A letter, along with an online petition that has gathered more than 3,600 signatures as of Monday morning, have found an audience at highest levels of Anchorage’s government. Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz recently announced that the Native Village of Eklutna should have the right to make the decision about what to do with the statue, though that is unlikely to happen by the end of June. It also got the attention of Whitby, England, a sister city of Anchorage and the place where James Cook learned to sail, as well as the Captain Cook Society, a group of historians. 

They all agree that the statue and the surrounding signage, which still lists Denali as Mt. McKinley, need reworking to give more context about the Indigenous people who lived in the area before Cook’s arrival. 

Activists like Shaginoff say that taking a moderate approach misses an opportunity for a more dramatic reexamination of Alaska’s history that is needed in this moment. 

“I do think that removing the statue is a symbol of that change. And we need an outward symbol,” she said. 

What did Captain Cook do while in Cook Inlet?

James Cook visited Southcentral Alaska in 1778 as he sought the Northwest Passage. Cook’s vessel, the HMS Resolution, set anchor just off of what is now Fire Island, said James Barnett, an Anchorage attorney who has written seven books on Cook’s voyages, with a particular interest in his time in Alaska. 

“He sent Lieutenant King up Turnagain Arm. King couldn’t get very far… which is why it’s called Turnagain,” said Barnett.

With the realization that there was no outlet through the landmass to the Atlantic Ocean, Cook sent King to shore to claim possession of the territory, which he did at Point Possession, located about 30 miles north of modern day Nikiski.

Barnett said the crew, led by Lieutenant William Bligh spent about an hour on shore. They planted a British flag, and went through the formal rights of claiming possession.

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They were met by a number of “well-armed warriors,” Barnett said. He guesses up to 20 of them met Cook’s party, wielding spears.

RELATED: LISTEN: This Alaska Native artist dug a grave for Capt. Cook’s statue

They also did some trading, though without a common language, Barnett imagines it was somewhat confusing for both. But Cook’s men were able to communicate one thing: the might of Western technology. Barnett said the ship’s surgeon, John Law, shot and killed a local dog. 

John Webber, Man of Turnagain Arm, 1778. Watercolor. This image shows a Dena’ina man from the shores of Cook Inlet, dressed in a fringed caribou-hide tunic. He wears face paint, a bone nose pin, a labret with pendant glass trade beads, and a bead necklace. Courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard via James Barnett)

“It was the standard process that Cook used to prove firepower and then, when the warriors saw that their firepower killed this dog, they set their weapons down,” he said.

According to Barnett, that killing raised concerns by Cook, who heard the report back on the Resolution. But Law, who was not in charge of the shore party, told Cook that he thought the warriors were preparing for an attack with their spears.  

With that, they left, just ten days after arriving. Cook had more significant contact with other tribes and communities in Prince William Sound and later in the Aleutians, but after an unsuccessful attempt at the Northwest Passage, he was turned back in the Bering Sea. 

Later, he sailed to Hawaii. He was eventually killed there by the Native Hawaiians. 

Cook’s journey through Cook Inlet did provide both valuable mapping and the first written ethnographic accounts of the Dena’ina, the only coastal Athabascan people in Alaska. Those included the first image of a Dena’ina person, painted by artist John Webber, who accompanied the expedition. Barnett said that occurred after the dog was shot.

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And while Cook’s ethnocentric account of the encounter does exclude the voices of the Dena’ina who met him, Barnett said that he thinks that the captain did a fair job in depicting what occurred. 

“I sincerely doubt there were any more serious conflagrations than what Cook reported,” said Barnett, “He’s a pretty careful reporter.”

The lack of any encounters shows Barnett that British attitudes were generally more enlightened than those of the Russians, Spanish, and Americans, who Barnett said committed genocide to the West Coast Natives. 

Fight over the statue

The inlet bears that Cook’s name was called Tikahtnu or “big water river,” by the Dena’ina. That word has only recently become known to most Anchorage residents after it was given to an East Anchorage shopping center.

Ruth Miller, a Dena’ina community organizer who grew up in Anchorage, said that the biggest problem with the statue is what it leaves out.  

“What is said with his being here is a story that’s communicated about only a fraction of time only a small part of our history,” she said. 

For someone who never set foot on land in the area, the way Cook’s statue is portrayed towering above passersby, gives a misleading message, she said. Joel Isaak, a Dena’ina artist with roots in the area of Point Possession, said at a recent Sister Cities Commission meeting that the artistic form intentionally portrays a colonial mindset. 

“The history of bronze statuary, specifically the way that it is erected and presented in this way is designed to portray dominance and conquest, and that is not – from what we’ve been hearing – an accurate representation of what Cook did here,” he said. 

There’s also the fact that the statue was donated by British Petroleum, now BP. That company announced in 2019 it was selling its Alaska assets. But more than that, Rochelle Adams, a Gwich’in artist, says that it perpetuates a type of economic colonialism of exploitation of Indigenous lands. 

While the city announced it would let the Native Village of Eklutna make any decision on the statue, Eklutna president Aaron Leggett takes a moderate view. Leggett said that he doesn’t support the removal of the statue, though he thinks the signage around the area needs to be revamped. He said he doesn’t like the idea of statues to start with.

“We don’t like the idea of statues our whole you know, one of the problems that we faced as a people has been that when outsiders came into our homeland, they looked at what was a, what they thought was an untouched, blank canvas landscape,” he said, “But in fact, our belief is that you leave a place better than you found it. We’ve been stewards of the land for over 1000 years.”

And gaining broad public support requires re-education of the population about the entire history of the region that has more influence from the first people of the region. 

The historian Barnett agrees. He said Cook should be recognized for being the great explorer that he was, charting the world’s coastlines and for his relatively enlightened view of Native people he encountered.

(Left to right) Ahtna artist and curator Melissa Shaginoff from Chickaloon, Artist, Gwich’in linguist and educator Rochelle Adams, and Dena’ina community organizer Ruth  Łchav’aya K’isen Miller from the Lake Clark region are among the advocates of removing the Cook statue. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

“I think proper interpretation – maybe another statue up there and on Resolution Park? Totally appropriate. Because Cook didn’t have a very significant contact with the Dena’ina,” said Barnett. 

Cook shouldn’t blamed for all the pain of colonization that was in fact caused more by the Americans than British explorers, Barnett said. 

But for Miller, Shaginoff, and other activists, removing the statue is part of the educational process that needs to happen. In their letter to the mayor, the group laid out a plan to begin a long-lasting discussion about how history is portrayed in Southcentral. 

Shaginoff said that “giving the decision solely to Eklutna allows the city to avoid accountability while ignoring the surrounding Dena’ina tribes.”

The group has also made clear that they are not out to illegally pull down the statue in the middle of the night, as has been done into statues in other places. The removal of the statue should be a public process.  

“This is not a moment of destruction, this is a moment of creation. This is an opportunity to create not just a story, but to create new relationships across our diverse community,” Miller said. 

Rochelle Adams’ title was previous was misstated in a previous version of this article.