This last December (2021) I spent a few days in the Rasmuson library at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. They had an interesting display on statehood just outside one of their public entrances. It’s 21 total posters. (Is that the right word?) Kind of a nice tight introduction to the subject. I took pictures to share with my own students.
Thought I’d share them here too.
One of the more interesting themes brought to the fore in this series would have to be the complaints about exploitation by outsiders. The word “colonialism” even makes an appearance. Of course there is something more than a little ironic about the appearance of these themes in the rhetoric of whites just a few generations into America’s own entrance into the region, but then again, there is probably something ironic in my own swing at this issue, sitting as I am in Inupiat territory a couple generations further into that process colonization.
Meta-Irony, the white liberals burden!
I have enhanced the clarity of most of these pictures a bit and tweaked the lighting where necessary to try and reduce the light glare in a few of them. My main goal was to make the writing as clear as possible. I think you can make most of the main text out if you embiggen the pictures.
(Click to embiggen!)
2: “Seward’s Folly”
7: Alaska for Alaskans
19: Ordinances, Tennessee Plan, and Fish Traps
Someone (Oscar Alajandro) one from Venezuela recently put together a video on our little town in the edge of nowhere. My fiance assures me that it’s worth watching. I can see a few errors (For example, there are definitely more communities north of us than he suggests), but overall, it’s certainly an interesting view.
The occasion was Whalefest, which was held at the beginning of this November. My colleague, Linda Nicholas-Figuroa, turned me on to this gathering a couple years ago, and I found the event both enjoyable and instructive. So, I was excited to hear that the conference was back on for this year.,
We attended most of the regular conference panels by zoom, but they still had a few in-person events, hands-on stuff (necropsy goodness!) and out-doors (whale-watching). I love the area. So, my baby and I packed our cameras and headed down there with a colleague and a couple students.
Definitely worth the trip!
(Click to embiggen!)
There is a reason idiots like Dave Bronson get into positions of power. It sure as Hell isn’t because people they make a public apology after equating mask mandates to the Holocaust. It’s because they make such comparisons in the first place. It’s because they are happy to pander to the first thoughts of countless idiots who learn about everything from medicine to history from Fox News and the half-remembered headlines their buddies regurgitate three beers into a Friday night. It’s because they give voice to the willfully obtuse, the unteachable, and the truly deplorable among us. Those people will celebrate Bronson’s idiotic speech long after his subsequent apology has been completely forgotten.
…and the lives lost while shameless opportunists play games like this instead of instituting responsible policies will never come back, not even when some of these fools finally come around.
Yes, that’s right. The present mayor of Anchorage defended use of the Star of David by anti-maskers in a public hearing. His argument went like this:
“We’ve referenced the Star of David quite a bit here tonight, but there was a formal message that came out within Jewish culture about that and the message was, ‘Never again.’ That’s an ethos. And that’s what that star really means is, ‘We will not forget. This will never happen again.’ And I think us borrowing that from them is actually a credit to them.”
Notice also that he explicitly identifies himself with those engaging in the practice.
I suppose I could explain why that is such an incredibly foolish thing to do, and a terribly stupid argument to make, but frankly, I think that should be obvious enough to anyone with any sense at all.
Sadly, that excludes more Republicans with each passing day.
…but probably one of the coldest.
and definitely the northiest.
Utqiagvik joined the list of communities throughout the U.S. that saw demonstrations in support of women’s reproductive rights today. About a dozen folks participated in this event, encouraged by occasional honks and waves from passing drivers. They gathered at the Barrow Whalebone Arch and marched out to the front of the bank building where, a few of the organizers gave speeches before the event came to a close.
This is a small voice from a distant corner of the nation, but it’s nice to hear it just the same. I can only hope it joins a chorus loud enough to be heard in all the right places.
(Click to embiggen)
Way back when I first saw the ad for a social science professor at Iḷisaġvik College, I remember pulling up the college website to fight a polar bear alert on the front page. Now some might have found this a bug, but I can assure you that for me this was a definite feature. I really wanted to see this place. As it happens, polar bears don’t show up that often, and when they do, it seems that I’m always busy. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to get up close and personal with one of these guys; I just enjoy seeing them from time to time, and especially when I have a camera handy.
So, I’m sitting in the cafeteria during the orientation for this semester when a notice goes out telling us there is a polar bear on the beach, just across from our buildings. The point of the alert is of course to let us know that we shouldn’t wander out that way (at least not on foot), but they do sometimes have an ironic effect. I desperately wanted to take a really long bathroom break right then and then, but I managed to hold myself together long enough to take advantage of a legitimate lunch break.
…and then the bear stuck around for a couple of days. Apparently, a walrus carcass had washed ashore nearby and he was munching on that in between naps on the beach and out on the ice. Eventually the local Wildlife department moved the carcass, but not before I and half the town got plenty of pictures.
So, yeah! Polar bears do happen!
Click to embiggen!
Of course Moni got the best pics!
It’s been awhile since I have posted anything, and we are now in 24-hour sunlight here in Barrow, so I am missing the light displays we had this winter. The northern lights don’t always make a substantial showing up this way, but this year, they put on a show that wasn’t half bad.
Of course, being a grumpy old bastard, I’m not always keen to drive out of the light pollution here in town to take pics in the freezing cold, and it doesn’t help that my camera these days isn’t great for night pics, but my gal, Moni, is still blessed with joy when she sees them, and she is always happy to drag me out onto ‘cake-eater road’ where we can take these pictures and I can grumble about the whole thing here in this gigantic run-on sentence.
Yeah, that’s just how I roll!
Often as not, I am glad that Moni makes me go out and take pictures with her, but I’ll be damned if my fingers don’t stay mad sometimes for hours. Hot chocolate helps.
In any event, we gots pics!
I took mine with my phone, so they aren’t the greatest, but some of these are kinda cool.
(Click to embiggen)
Don’t hate us because we are on holiday!
It’s a holiday here is Alaska.
Yes, that’s right.
We celebrate, William Seward, the man who arranged the purchase of Alaska from Russia here in Alaska. We celebrate this man on the anniversary of the signing of the deal he made with Russia.
Not everyone celebrates this date, of course. Some folks question whether or not the Russians could have sold all that land, much of which they were nowhere near controlling in the first place. But in the logic of collective fictions like nation states, it would seem the move has stuck, to to speak. There are those who mourn the consequences, and I’m told some folks in Russia still wonder how the Hell that happened themselves. At the end of the day, this still ends up being a day off work.
Okay, I am still working today, but since a lot of my coworkers aren’t, that means fewer meetings and I can focus on the things I want to, which is a kind of holiday for me. Also, it means I have a little time to knock out a quick blog post.
I’m told the rest of America was doubtful about this purchase at the time it was made.
Something about “Seward’s Icebox” or “Seward’s folly?”
Then again, some folks make way too much of a political cartoon; others have never figured out the difference between a catchy byline and the substance of an editorial. Writers took their shots and indulged in snarky quips back in the day just as they do now. It doesn’t mean they didn’t see the potential. The historian Richard Welch did a pretty good job of showing that public opinion was nowhere near as negative at the time of purchase as people typically assume. Still, it takes a touch of conflict to draw people into a story and the notion that Seward saw something in this state the rest of the country didn’t sure makes for an interesting first act. I suppose the third act in that version of story is statehood.
Or maybe the opening of a Walmart.
Or a Fred Meyers.
There are plenty of other ways of telling stories about the purchase of Alaska. One of my favorites can be seen in the Saxman Totem Park, just south of Ketchikan.
I posted a picture of it last year, right about this time.
…probably not a coincidence.
Okay, so this pole may not be exactly about the purchase of Alaska, but it’s certainly purchase-adjacent. As to Seward’s Day, it’s right on point.
This is known as the Seward Shaming Pole. In fact it’s the third version of that pole, as the first two have succumbed to weather and termites. This version of the pole was completed just a few short years ago (2017). You can google up the earlier versions. As I understand it this one has its critics among the locals owing to the absence of certain features included in the earlier versions. I’m told a coat of white paint on the face was among the expected features. I only have this by word of mouth, so I’m not entirely certain what to make of it, but the differences do seem quite significant. In any event, this is the current version of the infamous Seward Shaming Pole.
What makes it a shaming pole?
Convention of course!
By ‘convention’ I mean the conventions of the Tlingit people. You might think of his piece as fitting into the totem pole genre within their own cultural order.
Hints that this particular pole is meant to shame rather than honor its subject are contained in the box upon which the figure of Seward sits and the red in his ears. (That red stood out more in previous versions.)
The red, I’m told signifies embarrassment.
Well that is loot!
Specifically, that is loot packed away in a bentwood box, one of the varieties of artwork thriving in the northwest coast cultural complex. In any event, the point is to suggest that Seward took a pile of loot off with him in the wake of a visit to the region.
How did he get the loot?
It was gifted to him in a potlatch ceremony, another of the cultural practices common to the southeast cultural region of Alaska.
So, what makes these gifts loot?
Because Seward never threw a potlatch of his own to compliment the one thrown for him.
To say that this is unacceptable is putting it mildly.
Emily Moore tells the story better than I could, but the essential details are this. William Seward came to visit the region in 1869. He was welcomed with a potlatch by Chief Ebbits of Tongass Village. As a leader of the Taant’a kwáan Teikweidí clan, Ebbits welcomed Seward according to local custom, granting to Seward the honors due to a another great leader. A feast was give in Seward’s honor and gifts were given to him. Then Seward went on his way.
It’s the going-on-his-way part that is a problem here.
The trouble is that a potlatch is not normally a one time affair. It is a gesture in an ongoing relationship. Once given, it is expected that a complimentary feast will be given to reciprocate the first. Doing so is a matter of obligation, and failure to do so leaves an imbalance in the relationship. It’s tough to tell what Seward may have thought himself, but for their own part Chief Ebbits and his clan most likely felt they were initiating a permanent relationship. When neither Seward nor any of his family ever showed up to answer the honor given to him, this cast the entire relationship in a negative light.
As this particular potlatch was given in honor of Seward’s role in leadership of the United States, the failure in this instance represents more than Seward’s own failure, it is a failure of the United States to acknowledge to live up to its obligations to Tongass Village and to the Tlingit people.
Some might be inclined to extend that out to Alaska Natives in general.
This is the history commemorated in that pole.
In another sense, this is direct commentary on that question about how two nations could swap lands neither one much to do with. If the purchase of Alaska is a done deal, so to speak, it is a deal done by two nation-states. The pole is a reminder of those not present when the deal was made, those whose own acceptance of the deal we celebrate today has been taken for granted all-too-often by the nation which acquired Alaska by means of it.
…which gives new meaning phrase “Seward’s folly.”
We Americans really love our independence, don’t we?
Or at least the thought of it!
Independence can be measured in any number of different ways, but in American politics, it typically means you earn your keep. Maybe you start a business and make a profit, or maybe you have a job and earn your pay, or maybe you speculate on the stock market (without or without the benefit of insider knowledge) and turn a profit without really contributing much of a product or service. Either way, the point is that we typically define our economic independence in terms the ability to pay our bills without asking for help (or at least not asking for that help through any medium short of the highest paid corporate lobbyists). Anyway, the point is, we pay our own bills right?
This is an incredibly ironic measure of independence.
This measure enables a real-estate tycoon to say that he built a structure when he didn’t lay a single brick. It also enables the average person to find shelter without building a house, to cloth himself without making the fabric or fashioning it into a shirt and pants, and it enables us to feed ourselves with all manner of meats and vegetables that we neither grow nor harvest ourselves. We have no idea where most of these things comes from or how it got to the stores where we bought it, not our food, our tools or any of the essential supplies we used for much of anything. Some folks may know a thing or two about fixing a car or building a table, but the fact remains that most people in the developed world lives our lives surrounded in mystery at the very nature of the stuff we use to get through the day. This we count as independence!
Because we paid for it!
It is ironic.
Contrast this with the indigenous peoples of the Alaska who until relatively recent history would have housed themselves, clothed themselves, and feed themselves. To varying degrees, many still do. In times past, the skills necessary to do so were common knowledge in any of these communities, and those skills turned what non-native Americans have typically called a ‘wilderness’ into a wealth of resources ready and waiting to be transformed into food, clothing, tools, and even housing. Small wonder that people so often described by outsiders as living in poverty would see themselves as wealthy. To someone without the skills to hunt, a caribou on the hoof is nothing until it finds its way into his freezer. To someone with the necessary skills, it is fine just where it is, at least until it is needed.
I do not mean to paint a utopian picture here, not by a log shot, but my point is that this is a very different vision of what it means to be independent. Here, the question is not whether or not you can pay for your stuff but whether or not your stuff becomes yours by your own hand, or at least that of your friends and family.
I also don’t mean to suggest that this is entirely unique to Alaska Natives. I reckon it would be true of indigenous people all over the world, depending to one degree or another on the impact of colonization.
One sees this conflict between a world of consumerism and a world of subsistence activities and play out quite regularly in the relations between Alaska Natives communities and outside institutions. Also in cultural conflicts between Alaska Natives and non-natives with or without the involvement of government entities. Sometimes, you have to look carefully to see it; sometimes, it is loud and clear for all to see.
The Barrow “duck-in” is one such time.
This story is told best by Rachel Naninaaq Edwardson, I think, in her documentary, The Duck In. Michael Burwell’s article, Hunger Knows No Law, is also an excellent source. If the quick & dirty version I am about to offer interests you at all, then by all means, check out either or both of these sources.
In 1916, the United States entered into treaty with Governing governing the hunting of migratory waterfowl. A similar treaty was signed with Mexico in 1937. In 1918, Congress passed passed a law enacting the term of the first treaty into Federal law. This in effect made it illegal to hunt migratory waterfowl in the U.S. from March 1th, to September 1st.
Why is that a problem?
Because that’s when those birds are here on the North Slope of Alaska.
I mean a duck or two may head south a bit late, but no, for the most part, that’s when migratory waterfowl are present in this area. To say that hunting ducks and geese are a substantial part of the native subsistence economy is putting mildly. It does not appear that subsistence hunting was ever contemplated in the treaty negotiations, nor in the Congressional actions which codified the treaties in U.S. law. Both were intended largely as a means of controlling sport hunting, much of which would take place in the lower 48. So, a law passed for the purpose of controlling the leisure activities of weekend warriors who mainly feed themselves store-bought food had effectively banned the hunting activities of people who actually need that meat to get through the year.
Alaska Natives were out of sight and out of mind when the laws were made.
Luckily enough, they were also out of sight and out of mind (for the most part) for many years when responsibility for enforcing these laws fell upon federal officials. Thus selective enforcement helped to correct the errors of selective attention, for a time anyway.
When Alaska became a state in 1959, things started to change.
To make a long story short, state officials decided to enforce the law, even in the North Slope of Alaska. According to Burwell, some of these officials were convinced that the Iñupiat population of the north slope had become less dependent on hunting as local stores made produce available. The prospect that the Iñupiat community might be using the stores in limited ways while seeking to remain self-sufficient in others (and particularly, with respect to food) does not seem to have occurred to them. Resistance, they figured, they could be resolved by educating the population (which reminds me of the Navajo livestock reductions, but that’s a story for another post). In 1961, Wildlife officials began to arrest people caught hunting waterfowl during the proscribed period of time.
As it happens, that was a rough year for the North Slope insofar as the annual whale harvest had yielded only a two catches and other likely sources of game were not yet available.
…just the birds flying overhead.
To make a long story short, one of these agents, Harry Pinkham, emerged from his room at the Top of the World Hotel to find; “every man, woman, and child standing in front of my door with a duck in his hand.” Flustered to find an entire town demanding that they be arrested, he went to the local Magistrate Judge, a native woman, named Sadie Neakok (who provided the quote above). Neakok instructed him to follow the law. In all, 138 hunters self-reported their crimes and Pinkhman ended up confiscating 600 pounds of eider ducks (it took two separate plane trips to transport them out of town). State Senator, Eben Hopson (also a local Iñupiat) wired then Governor Egan to ask for welfare personnel to take care of the children once all the adults were taken into custody. Thus, what wildlife officials had hoped would be a matter of handing out fines and lecturing a few natives quickly escalated into a case threatening to overwhelm state resources.
Nobody actually spent time in jail for this, of course.
Instead wildlife rediscovered the virtues of selective enforcement, providing advanced warning whenever their officials were coming up to the North Slope and staying only for 3 days at a time. With these measures in place and well publicized, they really couldn’t have done much more to help hunters avoid getting caught. In time, of course, the laws and treaties were changed to accommodate the cycles of subsistence hunting.
For the indigenous community of the North Slope, this was a win.
A damned good one!
Don’t get me wrong! Conflicts over subsistence hunting rights are a still common, here and in the rest of Alaska, but in 1961, at least, the Iñupiat community of North Slope successfully fought off a threat to their subsistence activities by means of civil disobedience.
One of more interesting things about Rachel Edwardson’s work on this comes at about 16-minute mark in her documentary wherein she includes a series of public statements on the issue, all of which foreground the different political economies in question. Outsiders, of course, assumed that hunting, or at least subsistence hunting, would simply cease at some point along the inevitable march toward civilization. Was it not time, even past time, for folks to simply give up the hunt and buy their food?
“The Eskimos have claimed that the ducks leave their northern area before the legal hunting season opens. They also use such phrases as ‘hunger knows no law’ to justify their taking the ducks illegally. In this age of assimilation, where is the point at which the natives must forfeit must forfeit their old rights in favor of the rights of modern civilization?”(Anchorage Daily Times, Editorial, June 15, 1961.)
“These people were from established communities where ample food is available. The basic conflict is the desire of the natives to continue certain primitive customs and yet live in civilized communities. All of us, including the Eskimos, must realize that the development of any country in the world brings with it advantages and disadvantages. This is true in any civilization, and it must have become obvious already to many of the native people of Alaska. Sincerely, Ralph A. Duncan, Special Assistant to the President.”
(Extract from Whitehouse Response to the United Presbyterian Church, Barrow Alaska)
Edwardon answers these statements with Eben Hopson’s statements on the subject (from his wire to the Governor, I believe). For his own part, Hopson begins by telling stories about people who feed themselves, whether by hunting or farming. He then turns the whole issue, on its head, he asks if anyone would accept a law forbidding the buying of meat at the store?
“We have survived from this land by hunting, just as any other John Dick and Harry have survived from the land by plowing the fields where they could raise crops. If there was law enacted without your knowledge making it unlawful for you to buy meat at your local store, and you continued to buy it because you needed it, I can see and hear you screaming up and down about that law being unjust, and discriminatory, the minute you found it out. If the meat was a matter of survival for your, would you stop eating meat for 3 months out of the year and wait for some disinterested person to come along and try to amend it for you without having assurance that the problem would even be solved.”
– Eben Hopson, State Senator.
I really don’t think the different visions of independence could be more clear than they appear to be in these letters. Those expecting the indigenous community of the North Slope to simply accept the laws in question clearly envision a future in which “Eskimos” buy their food at the store, just like the rest of us. This of course means that people will also get a job instead of spending their days out hunting or preparing for the hunt. It is a world in which people satisfy their needs by first first earning and then spending money. Those organizing and supporting the duck-in consistently envision a world in which they feed themselves. The modern world complicates both visions, of course, but this was a moment wherein the outside world appears to have forced the issue; as if to say; “Stop hunting and buy your food at the store.”
And the native community said ‘no.’