Former mayors urge public process over fate of Captain Cook statue in Anchorage

Jul 2, 2020

A statue of Captain Cook at Resolution Park in Anchorage overlooks the Cook Inlet. (Photo courtesy James Brooks)

Four former Anchorage mayors have called for a public process to decide the fate of a statue of Captain Cook in Alaska’s largest city

In a letter to the editor published by the Anchorage Daily News, the mayors – Dan Sullivan (not to be confused with the U.S. senator with the same name), George Wuerch, Rick Mystrom and Tom Fink – say residents are concerned with the lack of public input in a recent decision by current Mayor Ethan Berkowitz.

At an Anchorage Sister Cities Commission meeting June 24, 2020, Berkowitz said the fate of the statue in downtown Resolution Park – should be left to the Native Village of Eklutna.

“It seems to me the way to make decisions about a statue which represents a history that leaves a lot of people excluded and inaccurately portrays the origin of this place, is to make sure the first peoples are the one who are going to make a decision about what is going to occur with that statue.”

During the meeting Berkowitz recounted an effort by the municipality of Anchorage and the Native Village of Eklutna to form a government-to-government relationship.

Government-to-government relationships recognize the sovereign status of Tribes and Tribal governments – and most often is thought of as a relationship between a Tribe and the federal government. Eklutna and Anchorage seek such a relationship. The state of Alaska does not recognize Tribes in regards to government-to-government relationships, but has in the past developed compacts with specific Native Tribes and organizations.

Berkowitz and Native Village of Eklutna president Aaron Leggett released a joint letter Tuesday, June 23. In that letter, they say “The statue is but one symbol among many that fail to fully and fairly recognize Anchorage’s First People. The letter goes on to say, “we seek a process that respects the crucial role and sovereign authority of local tribes as we more fully and fairly portray Alaska’s past.”

The Municipality of Anchorage sits on the land that Dena’ina Athabascans traditionally held and continue to steward.

In December, the Municipality of Anchorage voted to formalize  government-to-government relationship with the Native Village of Eklutna. The federally recognized Tribe owns land in the northern end of the municipality.

Berkowitz says that developing relationship helped lead him to leaving the decision about the statue up to Eklutna.

“This is an opportunity for us here in this community to set an example for communities across the state and a way forward that allows for a more complete telling of the history of this place. So that it will bring people together, I think it can be part of a healing process, and an educational process and a source of strength for all of us.”

The British Petroleum Corporation donated the statue to Anchorage in 1975 – and it was installed in 1976 to mark the celebration of the 2-hundredth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

But calls globally to remove statues of colonial reminders have sparked conversations about their fate – and even some have been pulled down or vandalized.

Leggett largely supports keeping the statue, but including more interpretive and place-name signs honoring the Dena’ina people and legacy.

“I understand that some things do need to come down, tomorrow,” he said in an earlier interview with KNBA. “But the other things take a while and I think having important community dialogs around these things.”

The former mayors say in their letter to the editor, “The best public decisions are those that are thoughtful and inclusive.”

The letter recommends the decision should go before a public and formal process and include various municipal and historic commissions for input.

The conversation surrounding other statues of historical figures is one of many happening throughout the state as people wrestle with what the monuments mean – and how to move forward.