Alaska: Tales from the Other Side

Denali National Park, Alaska

Denali National Park, Alaska

by Jack Ferguson

(All photos by Kaaxgal.at)

I’m just back from visiting a place that is unimaginably huge to someone who’s spent their days in Scotland. Alaska is a land about two and a half times the size of France, inhabited by a population the size of Nottingham.

Alaska is full of mind blowing numbers like that. It contains over half the world’s glaciers, more than the rest of the inhabited world. It’s got over 40 active volcanoes, which is about 10% of the world total. Denali [white name Mt. McKinley, more on that later] is the highest mountain in North America, and is part of a chain of volcanic peaks that could eat the Cairngorms for breakfast.

I can probably predict the thoughts going through your mind right now. Having an Alaskan in my life over the last couple of years, I’ve witnessed people’s bewildered reactions as they try and grab on to anything they can associate with an imaginary Arctic land to comment on.

Denali (Koyukon Athabaskan for "The High One")

Denali (Koyukon Athabaskan for “The High One”)

Sarah Palin* rates pretty high, as does Northern Exposure** with a slightly older crowd. People want to know if it permanently snows and there are rampant Polar bears. But the truth is, like most people, I didn’t really know much about that weird bit of America that’s stuck off on its own in the middle of nowhere. In the past if I thought about it all I probably wondered how you could have a missing bit of your country off somewhere else like that.  Over a few articles, I want to show you the bit I’ve found out about this hidden place, and see what the rest of the world can learn from its response to the problems we all face.

Officially part of the US since admitted as a state in 1959, Alaska is in fact an American colony, where settlement and importation of American society and culture has received an unprecedented level of state subsidy compared to other parts of the continent. The US acquired Alaska in a straight real estate deal, buying its entire vast area from the Russian Empire in 1869. Russian fur traders were the first Europeans to reach this corner of the world in the 18th Century, and promptly turned it into a private hellhole ruled by the Russian American Company, brutally enslaving native people in order to nearly hunt sea otters to extinction for their valuable fur. When they’d took this as far they could be bothered, they sold all 101 million acres of it to the US, for less than 2 cents an acre.

Sea otter in Resurrection Bay

Sea otter in Resurrection Bay

That’s pretty much the starting point for the entire history of Alaska you get in most books. But as you might have guessed there’s thousands of years before that in which dozens of peoples travelled across from Asia and built their own societies that survived on the resources in the sea, the forests, the ice and other environments they found.

In fact, according to our best knowledge, Alaska is the entry point for humanity into the Americas, and all pre-conquest civilisations are descended from people that came through Alaska. If you look at a map, Alaska and Russia almost touch. It’s an illustration of the power of politics and empires to shape our imaginations that they’re now seen as such different realms by most – in the days when Russia owned Alaska, much of the world looked at the map and saw one continuous Siberian realm flowing across the North Pacific.

Thousands of years ago this was literally true however. We live in an Ice Age, where over the last couple of million years the world has cycled between being covered with glaciers, to a temperature like now or hotter, and then back again.

Unangax / Sugpiaq style model home

Unangax / Sugpiaq- style model home at the Alaska Native Heritage Center

Several times this has meant the sea levels were lower, and places like the North Sea, English Channel and Bering Strait were land that humans and other animals could walk across. It’s disputed how many times and how long ago they did it, but tens of thousands of years ago the ancestors of today’s Native Americans did that, walking into a new land to create thousands of different cultures over the next few millennia. Today, the Yupik Inuit peoples live on both sides in both Alaska and Siberia.

All American peoples were devastated by the arrival of Europeans, who plundered, exploited, raped and killed people directly, but just as devastatingly brought the diseases they had incubated in unhealthy Europe and their habits of using hard alcohol. The same forces have decimated Native Alaskan society. But that isn’t the whole story.

Fish wheel at model Athabascan village

Fish wheel at model Athabascan village

Alaska was the first entry point to the Americas for peoples from Asia, thousands of years ago. Roughly 500 years ago Europeans and Africans began pouring into the continent via the Atlantic coast, and slowly began settling their way westwards. Alaska is so far from the European entry point, that in fact it was Russians crossing Asia who got there before English or Spanish crossing North America.

So Alaska was one of the last parts of North America to experience the full force of the modern capitalist world. As a result, more Native people survived the onslaught when it came, and today they still make up 17% of the population. That may not sound like a lot, but it’s a lot more than the people left in the rest of the US, where most were conquered and killed, and today make up around 2% of the total population. Most Native North American peoples met Europeans in the 18th and 19th century. For many Native Alaskans it was the 20th century before they truly felt the impact of the same transformation, and that has made a significant difference to their survival.

06Since it became part of the world market, Alaska has always been an extractive state, based on industries that hoover up its natural resources, pack them and ship them to richer parts of the world with more people. The first was furs, beloved by cold and wealthy Imperial Russians. After the American takeover, the legendary salmon were scooped up by privately owned, devastatingly successful fish traps to be canned and sold en masse in the US. The non-Native population surged at the turn of the last century with gold rushes, but again most of the profit went to those with the capital to organise large scale mining in the Far North. The real turning point was the discovery of the largest oil field in North America at Prudhoe Bay in 1968.

08Alaska’s mineral wealth, which alongside oil includes a lot of gold, silver, and the world’s largest single deposit of zinc, has driven the recent history of all its peoples. The scale involved in the industry of getting at it is unbelievable, and the Trans Alaska Pipeline System which carries oil from the Arctic to the Pacific, across and under Permafrost and ice, is a Pharaonic industrial achievement that took an army of tens of thousands to build.

Spare pipe from the Alyeska Pipeline has been used to create a floating dock at the Riverboat Discovery tourist attraction

Native people organised and won significant concessions from the American state, unprecedented in how it has dealt with any other Native people, in order to allow the oil wealth to be extracted. The state of Alaska also created a unique reaction to the discovery of fossil riches, when it instituted the Permanent Fund Dividend, which guarantees an income every year from the oil industry to every Alaska citizen. Alaska may not be Norway, but even ruled as it is by conservative politicians and corporate interests, it’s done a better job of managing its oil wealth on behalf of the people than Scotland (*sigh of frustration*). In later articles I want to return to both of these responses to the oil transformation, and see what the rest of the world can learn from their success and limitations.

Alaska is geologically interesting because it marks the collision point of the Pacific and North American continental plates – the Pacific is being sucked under the continent, thrusting ever higher Denali and its surrounding giants, and helping to create a landscape of endless mountains and rivers, that itself is scarred and shaped by the constant cyclical flow back and forth of the great ice sheets. Flying over it, seeing endless hundreds of uninhabited miles, makes you truly appreciate how enormous and mythic our planet still looks, despite even here being subject to the impact and transformation of capitalist human civilisation.

10This positioning on the borderlands of the Pacific and North American plates has mirrored Alaska’s sometime geopolitical importance on the global Risk board, leading to the other major force of modernity that has revolutionised life there apart from resource extraction: war. Wandering the streets of Fairbanks during the street fair of the Midnight Sun festival, one of the handful of politically oriented stalls was the local chamber of commerce campaigning to keep the local airbase staffed with F16 fighters, fearful of the impact that a planned redeployment would have on business. This reflects the fact that military spending, and military personnel, have been central to the development of Alaska as a transplanted version of American society in the Far North.

Alaskans like their guns.

The state continues to play host to nuclear interceptors as part of US preparations for the potential destruction of civilisation. Its location made it a key base in ensuring continental coverage. Before that it was a key refuelling depot for US aircraft headed for Asia. For decades in the early 20th century there had been talk of building a highway linking Alaska to the continental US, but the priority to make it happen only came when Alaska became a front in World War 2. Army engineers battled incredible conditions to carve out a road in a few months between March and November 1942. Around a third of them were black engineers, condemned as subhuman by racist commanders and so not deployed to the Pacific war, they instead achieved the impossible in road building.

Jet leaving Elmendorf Air Force Base, Anchorage

Out of around 700,000 humans in Alaska, 24,000 are US military personnel. Where there is evidence of modern construction in the massive spaces of the state, much of it dates to the bases, airfields, roads and facilities of the Cold War. Today, as the stall showed, the deployment and numbers of military personnel is a key economic concern.

This reflects a reality that bears repeating: Alaska is an American colony. The US conducted a private land deal with the Russian American Company when it bought its holding in Alaska, not consulting the Native owners of the land on what they thought. At the time (second half of the 19th Century), the US was expanding westwards from its original core on the Atlantic coast to what it would eventually become – a globe spanning empire. The Secretary of State who bought Alaska, William Seward, at the time also tried to buy Iceland and Greenland off Denmark at the same time to create Polar encirclement. A few decades later American businessman used US marines to overthrow the independent monarchy of Hawaii and then signed the country over to the US as part of its drive across the ocean to Asia, which ultimately collided with the Japanese Empire in World War 2. Today it’s the other state that the continental US forgets from its maps.

Float plane on the Chena River

Alaska’s place in the American imagination is as the last frontier, a territory where the epic past of the Wild West settlement can be relived, and you can be a rugged individualist pioneer. It’s true that it’s a unique place, quite separated from the lower 48 states. There remain hundreds of scattered tiny communities (and even some larger ones such as Nome) that have no road connecting them beyond their immediate area, and to reach there from the outside world you have to use plane, boat, snowmachine or dog sled.

Alaskans revel in the fact that they are a state unlike any other, easily dwarfing all the other 49, and love to remind Texas (the second biggest) that it is half the size of Alaska. The Alaskan state outline is a common tattoo, and everyone like to sport the Alaska Grown hoodies and tshirts. People are justifiably proud of their timber homes, many of which people build themselves. This leads to a fairy tale architecture of cabins and hidden woodland houses.

Self-built home on the Chena River

Self-built home and dock

But the vast majority of the Alaskan population lives in Anchorage or Fairbanks and the belt of settlement in between. Here they are dependent on industries controlled by outside, and live an imported American lifestyle that would cease to be possible without a constant flow of container ships bringing food and consumer goods north. Like everywhere in the world, Alaskans have been incorporated into the world market, and once you deviate from the settlement belt with its roads and rails, the cost of living rockets.

Later, I’d like to mention what it was like to also be visiting the US (as distinct from Alaska) for the first time. I don’t think Americans understand quite how powerful and rich their country is, and the gulf that exists between it and other rich nations even. Perhaps one of the best ways to see that is the food. I gained weight in a month of eating American, as does anybody who moves there. Food is a constant attraction and entertainment for the visitor. How long this can go on and the impact it’s having is something I’ll come back to.

Caribou in Denali National Park

Caribou in Denali National Park

The other place that Alaska undoubtedly holds in our imaginations is as the last unspoiled wilderness. Away from the cities, you can enrich yourself by feeling truly a part of the natural world. This image has been fostered by eminent writers and scientists from John Muir to Rachel Carson. Around the world the arrival of humans, and then certainly the arrival of capitalism, has killed off most of the big animals – in most of the world, there isn’t room for them and us. But in Alaska, moose are a common sight stalking the roadside, caribou are still able to congregate in Pleistocene sized herds, and if you venture out anywhere you need to have basic knowledge about how to deal with bears.

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Films like ‘Grizzly Man’ and ‘Into the Wild’ illustrate why this isn’t always as romantic as it sounds. (Apparently tourists phone up helplines in Fairbanks asking how they can get to the bus from the latter.) But nevertheless, there is real truth to this myth. The debate about wild land versus human development is taking place everywhere (see some of the contributions recently against and for the idea of wilderness in Scotland for example.) It was a long struggle to protect the vast areas of wild land that still exist in Alaska, and there is constant pressure to open some of them, such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, to resource extraction. The strength of feeling among Alaskans on these dividing lines is evidenced by the proud bumper sticker I saw reading: ‘This Vehicle a Product of Mining’ (unsurprisingly on a car the size of some council houses here.) Also seen widely in the politics of the bumper were pro- and anti-Pebble signs, an industrial mega project to create a Mordor-scale mine south of Bristol Bay.

Denali National Park

Denali National Park

The truth is though that all of Alaska has been a place where human beings have acted and impacted the environment for thousands of years. Even hunter gatherer peoples with relatively simple tools shape their surroundings and change them for themselves. But the process has dramatically intensified in every part of the world, whenever that place became part of the global capitalist chain, which everywhere looks to see how best it can accumulate profit from what that region has. With gold, fish and oil, that hurricane reached Alaska, and has transformed the nature of the land. The natural resources ceased to be just the means for immediate survival, and became commodities to be removed. This process has enriched the state, brought a boom in human population, and also allowed the subsidy of many communities. How the people here negotiate that and organise to ensure they see the maximum benefit from it is a constant struggle.

Do the animals have the keys to this fenced-in "sanctuary"?

Do the animals have the keys to this fenced-in “sanctuary”?

But the most important thing I took away from the experience of seeing human civilisation at the fringes of wild lands, is to remember that the division between us and nature is an illusion. Clever as we are, we’re animals, the same as all the rest that have to make the best of our surroundings. The more we use land and resources for our own purposes (something that our economic model sees going on indefinitely) then the more impact there will be on the rest of the natural world of which we are a part, and we feel the consequences.

Arctic sea ice... er, puddles

Arctic sea ice… er, puddles

It’s a complex interrelationship, that can’t be understood if we see wild land as separate from the rest, or ourselves as separate from the natural world. Both create each other and are part of each other. All over the world, if we’re to survive the impact of centuries of capitalist ecological relations, we’re going to have to allow more land to become forest, create more space for big animals to play a part in full ecosystems, and limit the amount of extraction we allow.

Part and parcel of that is also allowing the peoples that used the land before it was transformed into a producer of capitalist value to bring back some of the systems and knowledge they developed over thousands of years. It’s easy to imagine what we need, but to work out how to do it when people depend on jobs, monetary income and capitalist development for survival means studying what’s happened and happening comparatively around the world. I think that Alaska is a unique part of the Earth that has much for us to learn about the difficulties people face everywhere with these questions.

*Born in Idaho
**Filmed in Washington

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Before I write any more articles about Alaska, a brief disclaimer. I may have opinions on the place to offer based on my few weeks of visiting and reading up on its history and society. I’m sure some Alaskans will take offence at some of my conclusions, given to political conservatism as many of them are. I offer it all with humility and without pretending to be any kind of expert on the place. The last thing I want to do is, especially in writing about Native peoples, is to repeat the long tradition of outsiders who don’t know what they’re talking about speaking on behalf of others. I am a visitor who was drawn to the place, and I will be back again, which is why I want to invest the effort in learning about the place.

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