Friday, October 21, 2011

Exploring the History of Kodiak's Filipino Community, Part One

Filipino Fulbright scholar Joefe Santarita,
in residence at Kodiak College during the 2011-2012 school year
Last Saturday, Joefe Santarita, Fulbright scholar from the Philippines, gave an enlightening lecture to a standing-room only crowd at the museum on the history and contributions of Kodiak's Filipino community. The contributions of the Filipino community are unquestioned. From cannery work to banking, from military to transportation, Filipinos make up the largest minority in Kodiak and Kodiak's Filipino community is the largest in Alaska. But although many recognize these facts, the over one hundred year history of Filipinos in Kodiak has not received the attention that it deserves, and this is something that the Baranov Museum is looking to remedy.

What do we know about the historical legacy of Filipinos in Kodiak? In Joefe's preliminary research, the earliest mention of a Filipino in the Kodiak archipelago was in 1900, although we are fairly certain that Filipinos have been coming to Kodiak for much longer than that. In fact, in 1788 a Filipino crew member of the Iphigenia at least saw Kodiak Island as the fur trading vessel travelled through Shelikof Strait. Other "Manilla Men" aboard the multi-ethnic whaling and fur trading vessels of that same era were well familiar with the "Kodiak Grounds"- the whaling area near Kodiak Island in the Gulf of Alaska.

However, 1900 is a fair estimate as to the beginning of a sustained Filipino presence in the archipelago since it was after the 1898 Spanish-American War that Filipinos traded one colonial government, Spain, for another, the United States. Although as colonial subjects Filipinos were not considered citizens, they were American "nationals." At that point pensionados, or Filipino students, started travelling to the US to receive higher education. These pensionados usually came from the upper class of Filipino society. As a result, not only were these individuals the first Alaskeros, but also the first to start what can be seen as an historic trend- college students working in Alaskan canneries as a summer job.

As anyone who works or has worked in a cannery knows, this is a tough job. The hours are long, the physical labor exhausting, and the pay is often minimum wage, and those are today's conditions! Imagine what it was to work in a cannery one hundred years ago. During his lecture, Joefe showed the crowd a song that hints at the conditions and emotions of these Filipino student cannery workers.

Cannery workers in the 1940s in an unidentified Kodiak-area cannery.
From the collection of the Baranov Museum/ Kodiak Historical Society
"A Cannery Worker's Song in Dacanay"

It's a hard and lonesome fate
That we face in Alaska
Oh! What a fate!
Stale fat and ill-cooked fish,
Our major, daily dish
From the stingy, bossy Chink
Gives us tummy-ache
Oh, Skies, give approbation
For all these tribulations
Ah! Consolation!
The fish, let it run slow.
To give us less to do,
Or let the work be through
So home we go.

The song hints at the multi-ethnic composition of the canning crew in the slight again the Chinese boss. In the early years of the Alaskan canning industry, there were two contracts. One was between Chinese labor contractors and the cannery, in which the contractors agreed to supply workers, workers' supplies, and the annual salmon pack. The other was between the Chinese labor contractor and the cannery worker. As a result, the Chinese contractors were middlemen who financially benefited from cannery workers' poor living and working conditions, including providing substandard grub, like "stale fat and ill-cooked fish."

Further research is required to figure out more about the stories and experiences of those working in the early canneries, but the 1910 Karluk census data surely piques the imagination.

The canning line inside a Kodiak area cannery in the 1940s.
Baranov Museum/ Kodiak Historical Society

1910 Census, Karluk
White           226
Mixed           19
Aleut             78
Filipino          81
Chinese         67
Mexican        43
Hawaiian       25
Korean          3
Puerto Rican  3 
Chilean          2

Note that there were more Filipinos living in Karluk than Alutiiqs/ Sugpiaqs during the summer that the census was compiled. Also, consider the makeup of today's cannery labor force. How different is it now?

As you can see, the museum is only beginning to scratch the surface in our quest to document the significant history of the Kodiak Filipino community. Please stay tuned for more information as our research continues, and know that we need your help to tell the story. What do you know about the history of Kodiak's Filipino community? Please let us know!

For more information:
Thelma Buchholdt. Filipinos in Alaska: 1788-1958. Anchorage, AK: Aboriginal Press, 1996.

Sue Ellen Liljeblad. "Filipino-Alaska: A Heritage." Alaska Historical Commission, 1978.

Patricia Roppel. Salmon from Kodiak: An History of the Salmon Fishery of Kodiak Island, Alaska. Alaska Historical Commission Studies in History No. 216, 1986.