From Alaska - reportage

From Karla Fetrow - How is to live, think and eat in Alaska ?

Karla Fetrow correspondance for Micmag - 
If you said we were a state within the United States of America, you would be correct. If you said we were a country, you would also be correct, because culturally, Alaska is as different from the Continental United States of America as Hawaii. Alaska has the highest minority percentage of any state

Ph. Small town life, Hope, Alaska ©Karla Fetrow

Alaska Defined for the Modern Era

If you said we were a state within the United States of America, you would be correct. If you said we were a country, you would also be correct, because culturally, Alaska is as different from the Continental United States of America as Hawaii. At sixty-three percent mixed or minority race, Alaska has the highest minority percentage of any state except Hawaii.

Hawaii is separated from the US mainland by 2,397 miles (3,857 kilometers) of open ocean. Alaska is separated from the US by the second largest country in the world. The distance from the Continental US/Canadian border to Alaska is 2,834 miles (4,561 kilometers) over open terrain and through three mountain ranges. If Alaska was its own country, it would be the 27th largest country in the world. It would also be the least populated apart from Greenland and Iceland.

"Despite our isolation, we are not isolationists"

Understanding both the size and population is part of understanding Alaskans. The average village and small town, contains no more than two thousand people and these settlements are scattered over a hundred miles apart. Many of our citizens never meet anyone except the people they grew up with unless they visit the “big cities” of Anchorage or Fairbanks.

Despite our isolation, we are not isolationists. We are a tight family. Everybody is a friend or a cousin of someone we know. We enjoy receiving guests and relish showing visitors the sights. Even the hermits are happy to play host in their subsistence cabins. They will talk for three hours straight without taking a breath, fix a dinner, then hustle the visitor off for the evening.

We grow up learning to hunt, fish, harvest wild plants and to grow vegetable gardens. It’s part of our survival. Grocery prices are high, and most groceries are shipped in from the Continental US. In the far north, watermelon can sell as high as $23.00 a pound and a gallon of milk for $53.00. One of the methods used for beating the high delivery prices is for one person from the village to collect all the handcrafts and furs the village wanted to sell and fly into Anchorage where groceries are cheaper, trading the goods to local shops that sell Native Alaskan products and returning with the items on the village wish-list.

We are the Salmon People

Our livelihoods are directly dependent on the healthy cycles of the wild Pacific Salmon. Typically, the first job teenagers land when breaking into the work world is in the fishing industry; either on the boats or with the canneries. Our fishing industry rivals tourism as our second greatest resource, next to oil. In fact, without fishing, there wouldn’t be a million tourists each year crowding the Seward Harbor and Homer’s Bristol Bay. Fishing is the first attraction, with all our lovely glaciers and splendid mountains moving into second place.

Fish fever is a serious affliction in Alaska. As soon as the ice breaks on the rivers, the camping gear and fishing tackle appears. Our parents break us into tent-life and take us fishing while we are still babies. By the time we are four or five, we are practicing how to cast a line from a fishing pole in their backyards.

"we are lost without salmon. We eat it often"

The salmon is the most important staple in our diet. We can make it through the winter without wild game. We can make it through with a low garden yield – but we are lost without salmon. We eat it often. We bake it, grill it, smoke it, put it in a soup. We feed chum salmon to our dogs. The dogs are so sensitized to the word “salmon”, we cautiously spell it out. Otherwise, our canine friends will go into a frenzy looking for their favorite food.

We aren’t the only ones whose lives depend on the salmon. These yearly migrations provide food for our abundant marine life, such as seals, sea lions, and sea otters, eagles, and humpback whales. Each spring, black bears and brown bears line up along the coast to fill up on salmon.

The salmon battle up river to spawn and die. Their carcasses feed millions of sea birds. Their rotting remains rejuvenate the soil, nurturing our mighty Southeastern rain forest. Nothing of the salmon is wasted. It is a gift from nature that feeds our entire northern realm from the soil to the insects to the trees.

We are predominantly subsistent

Alaskans are primarily self-sufficient. Even those with careers usually know enough handyman skills to do their own house repairs – except plumbing. Nobody but a plumber knows what to do about frozen and busted pipes, a common ailment in our frigid winters. Everybody over the age of ten knows how to push a car out of a snowbank without calling a tow truck, what to do when the power goes out, can drive a snowmachine, and make a fire with matches and sticks.

Children not only learn how to fish early, but they also learn how to garden and how to harvest berries and other wild plants. Many learn how to hunt, although hunting isn’t a strong passion or a sport for Alaskans. It’s a necessity. We are sad when an animal gives up its life for us, and we acknowledge the sacrifice with gratitude.

Our subsistence lifestyles come from a unique background. Alaska wasn’t more than a vague spot on the map until the early 1800’s when the fur trade was in full swing and Hudson Bay fur trappers had marched across the North American Continent from the East Coast to the West, slaughtering as many fur-bearing animals as they could find. Russia wanted in on the action and had plenty of bears, seals, and beaver to make a good impression. They hit the jackpot when they sailed across the Bering Sea, just north of the Pacific Ocean, and discovered the Aleutian Islands. The islands were full of fur-bearing seals. There were so many, and the animals so passively innocent to human threats, the fur traders simply waded through them and clubbed them to death.

"In 1867, the United States offered to buy Alaska for seven million dollars in gold".

Fortunately, the passion for furs waned before all the seals died out. Russia became bored with the islandic chain and Alaska, in general. In 1867, the United States offered to buy Alaska for seven million dollars in gold.  Russia decided, “why not”. They hadn’t really explored much of Alaska beyond the coastline, and from what they could see, there wasn’t a great deal of difference between Alaska and Siberia. They hadn’t invested much. There were a few fishing towns and missionaries. If the Russian citizens wanted to return home, they could. They chose to stay.

Secretary of State, William H. Seward, was ridiculed for pressuring Congress into purchasing Alaska. It had barely been explored. It was in the far north. They called it “Seward’s Folly” and “Seward’s Icebox”. The tune changed when gold was discovered on the Panhandle Island of Sitka in 1868. By 1888, the stampede had drawn 60,000 prospecting hopefuls to the far north.

Gold wasn’t enough to draw homesteaders. Gold wasn’t enough to keep existing communities stable. The Alaskan gold towns were as wild, as mean, as unhospitable as the wild west, and a lot more people busted and moved on than struck it lucky.

This is Where Alaska’s History Becomes Unique

Although the first invasion of new settlers behaved as atrociously toward the indigenous people as they had through out the two American Continents, often treating them as slaves and showing contempt for their culture, they had lost the urge to kill Native people. There weren’t any massacres. There weren’t any angry uprisings. Something was gentling the unsettled settlers. Maybe it was the isolation, a thousand miles from any modern town, a million miles away from memory. Maybe it was the enormity of it all, mountains and glaciers that shrank you to the size of a molecule. Maybe it was the people, themselves.

With the Great Depression crushing the U.S., President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted to attract homesteaders with his New Deal. First, he sent the Army Corps of Engineers to do a feasibility study and to discover if the indigenous population was friendly. He received a unified report that the Alaskan Native People were the friendliest people the troops had ever met.

"The Alaskan Natives taught the newcomers where to fish, how to hunt"

It didn’t take long for the New Deal homesteaders to learn the same thing. The stimulus of receiving 160 acres for free provided they lived on it and developed a portion of it, attracted enough new settlers to create a farming community in the Matanuska/Susitna Valley. This valley is one of the most fertile in the world; 26,000 miles of virgin soil exposed by the glaciers just two hundred years ago. The only problem was the short summers. They grew winter vegetables and raised livestock to feed the tiny population of trappers and prospectors.

By the end of World War II, there were pioneer settlements popping up everywhere. These settlements were often close to Native villages and quickly developed an integrated relationship. The Alaskan Natives taught the newcomers where to fish, how to hunt, and which wild berries, mushrooms, and medicinal herbs to harvest. The pioneers introduced cookstoves, sewing machines, and making bread. Bread making became so popular, it’s a standard feature at potlaches now, celebrations in which everybody brings lots of food, listen to Native music, and dance for three or four days, but the bread isn’t baked. The cooks stretch the dough out and pan fry it, serving it drenched with butter and sprinkled with sugar.

The Native Alaskans taught the settlers how to raise sled dogs and drive sleds; called “mushing”. The settlers introduced snow machines. We call them snow machines. In the Continental United States, which we call “the lower forty-eight”, they call them snowmobiles. Snow machines gave villages greater freedom of travel in the winter.

Alaska’s state Constitution is unique. We don’t have Indian reservations. Nobody was pushed off their land to make it available for exploitation. Even the oil companies are leasing on Native land and must pay the Native Corporation a share of its yearly profits. Alaskan Natives buy, sell, lease, and develop land as they choose.

Our Constitution also protects our wildlife. By the 1950’s, unregulated fishing had nearly destroyed the salmon runs. The only way to take control over our natural resources was to become a state of the Union and grant regulatory powers to the department of fish and game. Because of early intervention, our salmon runs have remained stable for decades.

What Alaskans Really Want

We have our own culture. We have a world history that’s only two hundred years old. We even have our own English language, with colorful phrases, apart from differentiated between snowmobiles and snowmachines. Many of our words and phrases reflect the weather or seasons. The first snow on the mountains is called “termination dust” and is useful in measuring how soon winter will arrive. A Chinook is a warm wind from the south. A Williwah is two winds opposing each other. In the summer, the twirling winds are called “dust devils”. In the winter, they are called “snow fairies”. In Alaska, break-up isn’t a divorce. It’s the time it takes for the snow to melt. We have three seasons: break-up, when the snow is melting, construction during the time there is no snow, and winter, when the snow returns.

One of our most important words is “sourdough”. It has three meanings. It is a type of bread made from cultivating the yeast to use over and over, giving the bread a distinct sour taste that is delicious. It is the word used for someone non-native that has lived in Alaska for twenty years or more, and it is the word used for those who have soured on Alaska and don’t have the dough to leave.

Our self-identification has subtle differences. If you are a part of the indigenous population, you are an Alaskan Native. If you were born in Alaska but are not Alaskan Native, you are native Alaskan. If you weren’t born in Alaska and haven’t accumulated the twenty years to become a sourdough, you are a New Alaskan.

We love our wildlife. It makes itself right at home with us, with bears raiding our kitchens, and moose raiding our gardens. We are comfortable with our invasions. We don’t wish to stress our wildlife. If an animal becomes an endangerment to the community, we just call fish and game, and they will airlift back to the wilds. Along with moose and bear, our yearly visitors include lynx (not at all dangerous unless you are a cat looking for a fight), porcupine, ermine, foxes, snowshoe rabbits, and migrating water fowl. The golf course owners hate the foxes because they steal the golf balls and play with them, but the rest of us love the furry little thieves.

We love our dogs. Probably nobody in the world has as many dogs in proportion to the population as we do. We take our dogs with us everywhere, which means there are a lot of public establishments that allow dog visitors. You can drive into any business parking lot, and you will find at least one parked vehicle with a dog in it, waiting patiently for his owner’s return.

In terms of natural resources, we are incredibly wealthy, but we want to use those resources for a sustainable future. Someday, we would like to become a major food basket. We spend a lot of time researching and experimenting with plants and livestock for compatibility with northern climates. We are cautious about introducing invasive species as our delicate eco-system can’t take a lot of outside competition.

Some of our livestock experiments were highly successful, but in an unexpected way. When reindeer were introduced as livestock, many of them ran away and joined the caribou herds. When buffalo were introduced, the farmers let them go because they liked watching them migrate freely through the mountain range. So, now we have reindeer that are caribou, and wild buffalo when no buffalo had roamed before.

Although we are a part of the United States, we don’t really feel a sense of union. We resent any outside meddling in our politics. We’ve worked hard to clean up watersheds contaminated by large scale mining, and battle daily to keep the rest of our pristine environment pure. We strive to keep a quality of life for all our people, not just the privileged few. Even though oil has brought us the most revenue, we study, experiment, and implement alternative energy resources, including hydro-electric, wind farms, solar and geo-thermal energy. We know that oil is not the future.

Because we are young, as either a country or a state, there is a general opinion we are immature, yet the clay in our hands is barely molded and already beautiful. We have less racism, more equality among the sexes, and kinder subsistence laws than any other state. We are the first state to teach Native languages and Native culture in the classroom, the first state to teach butchering wild game and cleaning fish within a school environment.

We want to be world leaders, not in wealth, but in creating a better world to live in, with more harmonious lifestyles. We are proud of who we are, racially mixed, culturally integrated, developing our own music and arts. We are Alaskans and although we are a part of the United States of America, you would be just as correct to say we are our own country.

Karla Fetrow for
  • Neighborhood moose enjoy front yard snack - Photo Karla Fetrow
  • Teaching the dogs to pull sleds when there isn't any snow- Ph. Karla Fetrow
  • A good day fishing

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