Located on Baranof Island in Southeast Alaska’s striking coastal mountains and temperate rainforest, Sitka is a community of 8,900 with a rich history. The island is home to the Tlingit, who have lived here continuously for thousands of years and today make up a quarter of Sitka’s population. 19th century Russian colonialists, interested in developing a commercial fur trade in sea otter pelts, had the authority of the Czar to make Sitka the capital of Russian America in 1808. Six decades later, in 1867, a ceremony transferring ownership of Alaska to the United States took place on the Sitka landmark now known as Castle Hill. American settlement came when, after the 1867 transfer, interest piqued in Alaska’s bountiful natural resources. These three threads in Sitka’s history are evident in the community today.
Fishing, health services, education, and tourism are vital components of the town’s present-day economy. Sitka’s fishing fleet and three shore-based processors bring salmon, halibut, sablefish, rockfish, shrimp, crab, and other species to markets around the world. The Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium is Sitka’s largest employer with its hospital and community health programs that serve Alaska Native residents from around Southeast Alaska. The University of Alaska Southeast Sitka Campus and Mt. Edgecumbe High School add to the educational opportunities provided by the Sitka School District. And summers bring thousands of tourists aboard cruise ships, state ferries, and Alaska Airlines jets for visits to our town. It is not coincidental that they count Sitka as among their favorite places in Alaska. The engagement of Sitka’s citizens is apparent in the charm that visitors experience during their stays.
Sitka’s city boundaries border on the Tongass National Forest, the largest remaining temperate rainforest in the world. Extraction of Sitka spruce and western hemlock trees from the Tongass fueled Sitka’s controversial pulp mill and timber industry for almost forty years. With the mill now closed, the forest is more and more being viewed as a different kind of resource. Rivers and streams in the Tongass are home to five species of salmon that return each year to die in the place they were born. The importance of the reciprocal sustainable relationship between salmon and forests is now understood and valued. Ecotourism and recreation highlight these and other aspects the forest’s complex ecosystems as well as the unparalleled beauty of magnificent stands of trees. Both the Tongass and nearby wilderness areas provide extraordinary outdoor experiences for local and visiting hikers, kayakers, recreational boaters, and campers. And the land and water around Sitka provide food—venison, fish, shellfish, berries, beach greens, herbal teas, and more. Subsistence hunting, fishing and gathering have been practiced traditionally by the Tlingit during their long occupation and are practiced by three-quaters of Sitka’s households today.
Arts and cultural opportunities abound in Sitka. Two museums, the Sitka National Historical Park, several galleries, and seasonal festivals and events attract visitors and engage residents. The Sheldon Jackson Museum, with its exquisite ethnographic collection is the state’s oldest and is housed in the first concrete building in Alaska. It’s companion, the Sitka Historical Museum, chronicles local history. Festivals and events include the Sitka Summer Music Festival, HomeSkillet Fest, WhaleFest,ArtiGras, the Monthly Grind, and regular music jams, literary readings, and arts workshops. A prime community asset is the 20-acre National Historic Landmark campus of the former Sheldon Jackson College that was recently transferred to Alaska Arts Southeast, a local nonprofit recognized nationally for its stellar Fine Arts Camp held each summer. Under its leadership, the campus is being turned into a multidisciplinary center for the arts, humanities, culture and science for visitors and Sitkans alike. The campus includes dormitories, classrooms, an auditorium and the Hames Wellness Center that offers fitness opportunities for young and old.
Sitkans are people in love with the place where they live. That asset in and of itself allows creative things to happen. It triggered the founding of the Island Institute and continues to sustain our work.