Think back to high school U.S. history class. How often did you learn about the interactions between Russians and Alaskan Natives in the 1700s? There were maybe a couple sentences buried in the textbook, if any at all.
But as viewers will find in artist Marlena Myles’ new exhibit at The Museum of Russian Art (TMORA), the often-overlooked relations between these groups of people—before the territory was sold to the United States in 1867—are rich with history.
“Dynamics of Russian Colonialism in Alaska” marks the first collaboration with a Native artist in the museum’s history, made possible from a Cultural Community Partnership grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board.
“I’ve enjoyed the challenge of covering someone else’s culture and stories that are relatable to me but are also different and figure out how I can tell their story without putting myself into it,” Myles says. “I want it to be that no matter your culture or your background, that you will be able to relate to something being told in these pieces just like I was able to relate to this history.”
In preparation for the exhibit, Myles (Dakota, Mohegan, Muscogee) had to hit the books—just like many of us would. She learned that the Russians who came to Alaska in the 18th century, propelled by the fur trade, left behind a trail of violence and destruction. They massacred thousands of Alutiiq people and forced survivors into slavery; Efforts to assimilate Native people materialized; Native homelands were overtaken without considering tribes’ rights to their ancestral lands.
Later, Russian Orthodox monks were kinder than the fur traders and unlike colonizers in the United States, they went against orders to enforce religion on the Native people. Instead, they advocated, defending Native people from slavery and oppression, and encouraging bilingualism. There are still some Alaskan Natives today who speak a tongue influenced by Russian—called Ninilchik Russian—though their numbers are dwindling.
Myles, a skilled digital artist, designer, and children’s book illustrator, produced 11 pieces for the exhibit, ranging from intricate works made in Adobe Illustrator to an animated short and a series of paper cutouts. In two vector illustrations, printed on metal, Myles layers electric turquoise, deep blues, neon purples and rich reds to create an almost 3-dimensional effect. They represent sea otter and fur seal spirits—both endangered species due in part to the fur trade.
“People ask me, ‘How is this Native art?’ just because I’m not using organic materials,” she says. “Our cultures have always been innovative. We’ve never been ‘traditional,’ or stuck in the past. I’m just continuing a tradition of when we get access to new materials, finding a way to stay true to culture through those.”
Other works in the exhibit seem to draw on her children’s book illustrating talents; One vector illustration print on canvas titled “Stoonook’s Vision: Battle at Sitka” shows the shaman of the Kiks.ádi Tlingit tribe experiencing a prophetic vision. Myles’ interpretation features layers, texture, rich earthy colors and in some areas, the appearance of watered down ink on paper—all achieved using Illustrator.
It’s been an aim of TMORA’s executive director and president Mark Meister, who has been with the museum since 2019, to make space for more diverse programming. The scope of the museum is broader than people might think, he says.
“What the museum really does is cover a broad range, going back hundreds and hundreds of years ago, to the Russian Empire, then the Soviet Union and its former republics, and now, post-Soviet Russia,” Meister says.
The art and history showcased at TMORA involves a lot more than “Russia as we know it right now,” says Meister. He will be quick to remind people that the Russian empire was once one of the largest in world history, spanning Europe, Asia and North America. The influence of Russia has stretched far and wide, its history entangling with other people and cultures on the way.
“There is much to appreciate and much to learn from the impact of people from two different sides of the world meeting,” Myles says in her artist statement. “From these histories, one can see how culture is a source of strength, a kind of symbolism of survival that still influences the people of Alaska today.”
“Dynamics of Russian Colonialism in Alaska” is on view at TMORA’s Fireside Gallery until February 28, 2021.