Cover photograph by Kevin Smith.
Since the arrival of white settlers, Alaska has been dependent on the development of successive natural resources- fur, then gold, salmon, copper, timber, and now oil. In Frigid Embrace, Stephen Haycox explores how the drive to extract natural resources has shaped Alaskans' understanding of nature and their relationships with the region's Native people.
Vast, wild, and remote, Alaska has long been perceived as the last American frontier, where adventurous, self-reliant settlers could carve a new life through sweat and sheer strength of will. The truth is, however, that Alaska is supported by the highest per capita federal spending in the nation. And rather than escaping the consumer-oriented urban culture of mainstream America, Alaskan settlers have replicated it on the last frontier.
Frigid Embrace offers a revealing look at the social and political impact of Alaska's economic dependence, with chapters devoted to milestones such as the discovery of the Prudhoe Bay oil field and the Exxon Valdez debacle. It presents for a wide audience a compelling account of Alaska's colonial struggles and offers a key to understanding the historical roots of current environmental controversies.
About the author
Stephen Haycox is a Professor of History at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, and the author of Alaska: An American Colony. A resident of Anchorage for more than thirty years, he has written widely on culture, Native peoples, and law and politics in the history of Alaska, the American West, and the Canadian North.
Read more about this author
Introduction: Alaska History and Opposition
Chapter 1: A Good American Town
Chapter 2: Pioneer Alaskans, Their Environment, and Alaska Natives
Chapter 3: At Any Cost: Pioneer Alaska and Economic Development
Chapter 4: Bonanza: Prudhoe Bay and ANCSA
Chapter 5: "Big Oil" ANCSA, and the Transformation
Chapter 6: Debacle: The Exxon Valdez, The Tongass Forest, and the ELF
Chapter 7: Dividend Alaska
Note on Sources
Alaska has been a powerful force in American cultural imagination throughout the twentieth century. Until the present generation, its most potent role was as America's "last Frontier," the last vestige in America of the conquest of nature, a nature that included American Indians. As Americans have interpreted their history, as they expanded westward, they replaced wild nature with a tamed, cultivated, and safe landscape, processing nature's wasted--i.e., unused--resources into the tools and materials of democratic and capitalist opportunity and wealth. Alaska was the last chapter in that westering saga.
In the last thirty years, however, Alaska's role in american national consciousness has changed dramatically. It is no longer the "last frontier"; it has become America's "last wilderness." americans have determined that some of Alaska's last, vast untrammeled land should be preserved in perpetuity, protected from development and passed on to future generations in its present form, as natural landscape, and wherever possible, as wilderness. In other words, resources that were once seen as an impediment to progress now have become prized objects of respect and adulation. America's environmental crown jewels.
This change in Alaska's role for the nation reflects a fundamental change in the nation itself. Today, virtually no economic development project can be undertaken without a nod to environmental impact, no matter how superficial that nod may be. Yet, as Alaska was the last chapter in the saga of westward expansion, the sense of that saga is particularly strong in the state. And thus Alaska may be more conflicted over environmental protection than other places in America.
The new national environmental concern impacted Alaska society directly and continues to reverberate across the region, manifest particularly in politics and economy. In the 1960s, U.S. natural resource policy evolved from conservationism to environmentalism. Under conservationism, governments managed national and state lands by a multiple use policy, which emphasized commodification of those resources. New environmental policies mandated assessments of environmental impacts on a variety of land uses, sought to guarantee clean air and water, and protected endangered species, among others. More visionary measures set aside one hundred million acres of national public domain in the U.S. as wilderness, in both existing and new conservations units*, (*a conservation unit is a federal reservation of land in order to preserve it in its natural state; different sorts of reserves--parks, refuges, wilderness areas--provide different degrees of protection.) and provided for stricter controls on non-wilderness lands in such units. This legislation was put in place remarkably swiftly between 1960 and 1976.
Environmentalism came to Alaska in the monumental Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971 and its companion Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA)of 1980. The latter established 104 million acres of new conservation units in Alaska, and designated 50 million acres as wilderness, half of the nation's total. ANILCA also mandated a rural subsistence use preference in Alaska, to guarantee that Alaska Natives would have access to fish, game, and other resources they depend upon. Many analysts regard the act as the most important environmental legislation in the nation's history. Upon leaving office, former President Jimmy Carter said it was the legislation during his presidency of which he was most proud.
ANILCA removed from potential development 28 percent of Alaska's total land base, and markedly increased the presence of the federal government in the state. Fifty-four million acres of federal conservation units had existed before ANILCA; now 42 percent of Alaska was reserved from development to one degree or another. Alaska's senior U.S. Senator, Ted Stevens, has called ANILCA the worst Alaska legislation in the nation's history. Most Alaskans would likely agree, though the 85 percent of Alaskans who are non-Native immigrants are not united in their opposition to the subsistence and other provisions of ANILCA, any more than the 15 percent of indigenous heritage are united in support.
The state legislature has steadfastly refused for over twelve years to enact legislation to bring the state into compliance with ANILCA's subsistence provisions. The state constitution declares that the state's natural resources are to be enjoyed equally by all its citizens. Those state legislators who hold to a strict states' rights view have prevented the question of bringing the state into compliance from being presented to the voters as a referendum. Their refusal led in 1998 and 1999 to a federal takeover of fish and game management on federal and adjacent lands within the state; in other states, state agencies administer most federal land. Many, probably most Alaskans interpret ANILCA as an unfair, even immoral, environmental appropriation of the state's resources. Most non-Native Alaskans are aggressive defenders of states' rights. Whether ANILCA reduces economic potential in Alaska is a debatable point. The Alaska delegation in Congress succeeded in protecting areas known to have development potential by writing numerous management exceptions into the act; recent analysis has also suggested that the tourism value of resources in certain conservation areas may be greater in the long run than whatever short-term gain might be realized from their development.
But there is dismay in Alaska over environmentalism. Many in the state feel they may have embarked on a fool's errand. For many Alaskans understand themselves to be a part of the national saga of the frontier, the conquest of nature. That Saga was characterized by struggle, for nature was a formidable foe demanding, often threatening, frequently ruthless. But through sacrifice, determination, and ingenuity the conquerors prevailed. The removal of the Native people of the continent was a necessary part of this story; but natives were ancillary to the story. The conquest would be complete when the new settlers would stand independent of outside support, of reliance on the Native people and, as much as possible, from nature itself.
The full development of this tale of national origins and destiny, the triumph of the American way, was completed in the contiguous states in the last half of the nineteenth century. Economically, completion of the transcontinental railroads, which more fully facilitated the practical integration of the West's resources into the world market stream and sped the distribution of industrial products back into the West, signaled the final conquest of the region. Politically, the granting of statehood symbolized the completion of the saga. With statehood, the citizen-settlers of the West achieved equality with their brethren in the more settled East.
In reality, the process was not complete. Western legislators were always outnumbered in Congress. And the West could not become economically independent, for the settlers demanded a modern standard of living, one characterized by profit and material consumption, but until World War II, most of the goods consumed in the West were made in the East. Moreover, the only basis for a modern economy in the West was the extraction of natural resources, which required industrial development, but the necessary capital did not exist in the West. its infusion from eastern investors contributed to western dependence, as did the need to export most of the West's resources out of the region for processing. Subsidization of settlement and economic development by the federal government--in the form of geographic exploration, removal of the Indians, protection of the overland trails, dredging of western watercourses, land grants to the transcontinental railroads, and a host of other encouragements--also contributed to western dependence.
But dependence was not the American story. As historian Joyce Appleby has shown, the ideology of republican independence was quickly converted in Jeffersonian America into an embrace of capitalist individualism. The freedom to make profit became the engine of American democracy. Thus, personal independence became as central to American culture as collective independence and self-direction was to the national identity. In his essay on the significance of the frontier in American history, Frederick Jackson Turner argued that the dramatic struggle with nature on the frontier had created the distinctive American character of individualism and self-reliance, which differentiated American culture from those of its European antecedents. Such symbols of independence and rugged individualism as the cowboy and expansive western landscapes have served ever since to evoke the national saga of the conquest of western nature as the origin of American culture and character.
The culmination of this story developed just at the time the U.S. acquired Alaska and, to the degree that writers notice Alaska at all, the new territory was quickly linked with the conquest sage. Alaska's role was to serve as a latter-day example of the process. Nature presented herself there in some of her most awesome and intimidating guises: cold, dark, snow-covered, volcanic, tectonic, and sparsely peopled. Above all, Alaska was north, and thus a region of awe and mystery. To carry the tale to completion in so awesome and formidable a place, inhabitants would need to be at their most courageous, daring and determined. Acknowledging the hostility of the northern environment, writers gave grudging respect to the Native people, particularly the Eskimos, who had lived and sustained themselves in that land and climate for centuries. But neither the writers nor the settlers respected the natives' rights to their land and their culture, which, the conquerors assumed, must ultimately yield before the example of civilization.
So Alaska entered the national imagination as the final chapter in the story of the American West, the last frontier. Three waves of non-Native settlers migrated tot he region, the first during the gold rush, the next during World War II and the Cold War, and the most recent in the 1970s, associated with construction of the oil pipeline and development of North Slope oil deposits. They were there to act out for the last time the central creation story of American culture. They would subdue and cultivate nature, and in the struggle establish American culture, and shape their own personal independence. The symbolic culmination of their adventure would be the same as in the continental states: statehood. By providing a greater degree of self-governance, settlers believed, statehood would improve opportunities for economic development.
Many of the old-fashioned historians who examined the historical record of the development of Alaska from the purchase in 1867, and particularly in the twentieth century, found much to confirm this story. There was little non-native population in Alaska until the gold rush era at the turn of the twentieth century. The intrepid argonauts who hiked the Klondike trail and dispersed into the vast Alaska interior seemed the embodiment of rugged individualism. Those few who struck it rich became beholden to no one, masters of their own fate. Those who stayed established new towns, elected representatives to the congressionally authorized territorial legislature, sent an elected, non-voting representative tot he U.S. Congress, and looked ahead to the day when statehood would establish their civic equality and confirm their American character.
But statehood was long in coming. There were a number of reasons. First, the population did not grow. The number of non-natives in the territory from 1900 to 1940 was virtually the same, about thirty thousand, and about the same as the Native population. That was insufficient for the tax base necessary to support statehood. Second, spokespersons for the most lucrative absentee investment in the territory, the canned salmon industry, fought statehood vigorously, expecting it would bring increased taxation and regulation. Third, the question of Native land title loomed, for unlike the contiguous states, the title had not been formally extinguished, except in several conservation reserves set aside by the Congress before World War II. Fourth, conservation interest in the territory grew significantly during the Progressive period. The Tongass and Chugach National Forests were established before 1910, Mt. McKinley National Park in 1917, Katmai National Monument in 1918, after the 1912 eruption near there, and Glacier Bay National Monument in 1925. In addition, Congress set aside National Petroleum Reserve No. 4 on the central North Slope in 1923. Many national figures who took an interest in Alaska expected that additional federal withdrawals would be made in the territory.
The long delay in statehood confirmed the frontier character of the territory. The permanent settlers chafed,as the citizens of all the western territories had chafed, under the congressional rule characteristic of territorial status. congress could disallow enactments of the territorial legislature; the territorial delegate to Congress did not have a vote. In addition, Congress maintained a host of substantive limitations on self-governing power, such as retention of authority over the management of fish and game resources. municipal bonded indebtedness had to be approved by the Congress and was limited to 2 percent of assessed property valuation. During World War II and the early stages of the Cold War, residents had to obtain territorial resident identification cards, "green cards," from the immigration and Naturalization Service to enter and leave the territory. Clearly, buy the post-war period, such cumbersome, restrictive territorial governance was outmoded and unjustified.
Continuance of the territorial system suspended completion of Alaska's pioneer history, and the final act in the national historic westering saga. Paradoxically, Congress could not convey statehood until Alaskan culture more closely resembled American culture generally. The original reason for the territorial system had been to prevent irresponsible government by migrants whose primary interest in the West was not the construction of a new society, but their own aggrandizement. Territorial status shaped institutions and culture into familiar forms, consistent with national institutions and ides. So writers before statehood celebrated the strides Alaskans had made toward the establishment of American culture in north, often arguing defensively that Alaskans were as capable of self-government, as responsible and patriotic, and as committed to civic development, as people anywhere else in America, and certainly to the same degree as other citizens had been when they were granted statehood. And these writers chastised Congress for failing to honor this Alaskan achievement of conferring full "home rule."
The realities of Alaska's past were quite consistent with the history of the American West. From soon after the 1867 purchase of Alaska, investors across the country and from other countries gambled that the quantity and value of the region's natural resources would surpass the enormous costs involved in extracting a profit from their development. Until World War II, the only economy in the territory was generated by absentee investment first in gold, then in the salmon industry, and later in copper. At the same time, the federal government generously subsidized the settler culture, stepping in to assist when the costs of development overwhelmed private efforts, later moving to regulate monopolistic investors so as to preserve the democratic character of the new society. These sources sustained Alaska's thirty thousand non-Natives in the period between the Klondike gold rush and 1940. Then, with World War II, as in the rest of the American West, military and other federal spending supplanted industrial capitalization of resource extraction as the basis of the modern economy. In Alaska, this phase of economic development lasted until 1970, when oil development was added to government spending as the region's economic foundation.
But as in the history of the rest of the West, many non-Native settlers who moved to Alaska before statehood in 1959, and many who came afterward, as well, started north with the notion that they were latter-day pioneers with a last chance to participate in the frontier saga. The paradigm they carried with them was essentially imitative: they were going to do what had been done before--to establish their personal independence through self-reliant had work, building a new, democratic society. Like their earlier models, they were motivated in part by a strong sense of mission, but by now many shared the belief that something had gone wrong in America, that the dream of individual self-sufficiency had been corrupted, primarily by government restrictions and bureaucracy. Only by leaving America, that thought, going to a place as yet undeveloped and uncorrupted by government, could they live out the old American dream, in this, they considered themselves different from their brethren in the states. In truth, they resembled latter-day Puritans in their determination to demonstrate how to build a "proper" society. They did not recognize the irony that congressional legitimization of the new society they intended to build could come only when they had demonstrated sufficient imitation of the culture they fled that Congress would have no anxiety regarding their "normalcy." Nor did they, any more than did their models in the older American West, recognize that the society they wished to build, and did build, was possible only through the classic method of absentee investment capital in natural resource extraction, supported by generous, continuing federal subsidy. The fact that the capital came from outside the region created dependence, a condition that western settlers routinely denied, and which is still poorly understood in popular culture today.
Modern historians and others writing about Alaska have often emphasized the region's exceptionalities, and not without reason, for Alaska's natural environment is unique. Alaska is vast; it has the greatest expanses of wilderness land in the United States. Cold, long, dark, snowy winters are aspects of a climate that can appropriately be called harsh, under certain circumstances, brutal. Alaska has a particular cultural uniqueness as well, for the state's population is more culturally diverse than most places in america. Tribes from two major Indian groups live there--Athabaskan and Pacific Northwest Coast Indians, and two groups of non-Indian aboriginal people: Eskimos and Aleuts. Alaska has a higher number of Native Americans as a percentage of the total population than any other U.S. state. There are 211 designated Native villages in Alaska, and 227 federally recognized tribes. Of the total population of 626,000, 100,000 are Alaska Natives, 16 percent. At the same time, Alaska's non-Native population was, and remains, highly transient.
But, as suggested, these exceptionalities mask a fundamental replication of American culture in Alaska. Alaska's social, economic, political, and cultural commonalities with the states of the American West are so many that the region can be said to be culturally a part of that west. Most of its population is urban; 70 percent are concentrated in towns and cities along the southeast and south-central coasts, and along a rail corridor stretching inland from Seward on the Gulf of Alaska to Fairbanks in the interior. These communities are and always have been virtually indistinguishable from communities elsewhere in the United States. They consist of commercial establishments and office buildings, houses, condo and apartment structures, schools, universities, churches and hospitals, platted subdivisions, paved streets, parks, people, automobiles, and all the detritus of modern civilization: community government and organizations, civic institutions, service clubs, and traffic and congestion, noise, pollution, and "city hall." The people work for wages and salaries; like nearly everyone else in america they are dependent for their economic livelihood on decisions made by corporate managers and banking officers in places far from their homes and by people over whom they have little influence. Yet like many people across America they tend either not to know or to ignore these facts. They are more likely to be convinced that they are independent and self-reliant, adopting easily the mythology of the frontier West that is held so tenaciously by residents of the region from Omaha to Redding.
Canadian historian Ken Coates has written that we cannot understand northern settled places best by seeing them as exceptional. Virtually all of their citizens have reproduced the mainstream, settled-region's culture that characterized the places they came from. Rather, he has argued, documented commonalities among these communities provide a more useful starting point for analysis of their histories and characters. Some of these might include relationship with the "Outside," the nature of their internal politics, and their sociocultural and structural characteristics. He suggest two comparative criteria: remoteness and opposition. (Remoteness works better even than nordicity, Coates argues, for there are many remote places that are not northern.)
What are the unique qualities of remoteness? First, Coates suggests, there is the sense of being outside the mainstream, outside the centers and sources of culture. Since remote communities, increasingly even Native communities, take their values from these external centers, their leaders' expressions of community identity and collective goals often appear defensive. When the institutions and norms of the settled regions are finally put in place, community leaders announce their arrival with a mixture of pride and relief. This, every new hospital, community center, and choral society, every new government department, every new commercial outlet elicits proclamations of normality and progress.
It is not only Alaska's culture that is defined by outside forces. The same is true of the economy, which today is dominated by extraction of single natural resource: petroleum. Oil has transformed Alaska. It is the foundation of the state's modern economy: jobs, business, government revenue, and spending, all sectors of the economy benefit from their dependence on oil production. The oil industry paid about $50 billion in taxes to the State of Alaska between 1977 and 2000. It would be difficult to overdramatize the significance of oil production to Alaska since 1970. without it, the non-Native population of the region would be much less; there would be fewer jobs, and much smaller regional ancillary economy. Oil dependence in Alaska is a major theme in this study. The oil industry remade Alaska, and continues to do so. But Alaska residents had very little to do with that transformation, either its origins or its structure. The pipeline project was facilitated only through Congress's passage of the Native claims settlement act and, later, direct congressional authorization of construction.
Economic dominance from outside the region is accompanied by outside political control, manifest most powerfully in the presence and activities of the federal government. In Alaska, for example, the federal government holds title to 228 million acres of land, 60 percent of Alaska's landbase, an area more than twice as large as California; 154 million acres are in conservation and strategic mineral reserves, and 74 million acres are unassigned public domain, a portion of which is also designated wilderness. In addition, since federal power is constitutionally superior to state sovereign power, the federal government's role in land and resource development is substantial. An additional 44 million acres are owned by regional and village Native corporations.
Federal and Native ownership of large blocs of land in Alaska, together with substantial control of the region's economic survival by the oil industry, conflict with Alaskans' expectations of independence. The presence of so much federally owned and protected land, and the large bureaucracy responsible for it, challenges Alaskan's notions of their destiny, for most still believe the land should be "opened up," i.e., made to serve economic development. The Alaska Native Claims Act of 1971 (ANCSA) and the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) both significantly influence life in the state because they so directly define the opportunities for and character of economic development. Collectively their provisions impact 72 percent of Alaska's vast land area, whose resources hold the only potential for future economic development.
Many Alaskans, perhaps most, have chafed mightily under federal sovereignty. Most non-Natives have come to Alaska poorly informed regarding the federal/state relationship articulated in the U.S. Constitution and adjudicated through two centuries of political development. many confuse the moral right of self-governance with limitations on that right imposed by the federal constitution and membership in the federal union. Thus, they are surprised to discover that residence in Alaska does not guarantee control over the real estate and natural resources in the state. This partly explains how the atmosphere in which the Alaska lands act was debated in the 1970s and passed in 1980 became highly charged and volatile in Alaska.
Over thirty years, congressional action has defined Alaska, and Alaskans generally resent Congress's proprietary role in their state. Nor surprisingly Alaskans are less resentful of corporate control of the economic conditions of their lives by the oil industry. The oil industry provides jobs and supports the ancillary economy; the federal government also provides jobs but in addition threatens to prevent the creation of new ones and perhaps even reduce the number already existing through land withdrawals. So it easily becomes an agent of villainy for Alaskans. But development in Alaska today and in the future will continue to depend, as it has historically depended, on investment of private capital from outside the region and cooperative development strategies by the federal government. Alaskans joke about the future of their state being determined in the boardrooms of British Petroleum in London and Phillips Petroleum in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. These corporate boards act in response to a variety of factors which may influence profit and development, in particular market forces. this, when the price of oil fell to less than $15 per barrel in 1985, producers in Alaska curtailed exploratory activity. When the price recovered to $25, and the industry received assurances of support from state government, British Petroleum and ARCO resumed exploratory work in Alaska's North Slope. In far northwest Alaska, on the Arctic Ocean coast, the world's largest known zinc deposit, called Red Dog and owned by the Canadian firm Cominco Mining, was discovered several decades ago. But development began only in the mid-1980s and production in 1989 because the world price of zinc would not support development until that time. In 1999 the mine produced #123 million worth of zinc. In the 1990s, two pulp mills operating in southeast Alaska, in the Tongass National Forest, closed down. These were the only pulp mills in Alaska. Though environmental factors contributed, the primary reason for the closures was the collapse of the pulp market. Such immediate dependence on forces beyond Alaskans' control exacerbates their sense of isolation and powerlessness.
Another feature of remote regions has to do with self-perception. People in remote regions often seem to deny their dependence on the "Outside." Alaskans who are by choice living physically outside the mainstream of American culture call people who are not Alaskans "Outsiders" and refer to the place where non-residents live as "Outside." Politicians frequently call for diversification of the regional economy, proposing unrealistic projects. Former Alaska Governor Steve Cowper, for example, urged that Alaska attempt to attract electronic banking and stock-trading firms and other cyberbusinesses whose physical locations are theoretically independent of their activities. The governor seemed to think that Alaska's unusual winter living conditions would not be an impediment to the personnel who work in those industries. Sometimes politicians assert more influence than they actually have over the federal government and distant corporation boards, and sometimes may act on their own naÏve assumptions. In 1991, for example, Alaska Governor Walter Hickel's administration sued the U.S. in federal court for breach of contract, charging that passage of the Alaska native claims act in 1971 and the Alaska lands act in 1980 constituted a violation of Congress's statehood compact with Alaska, asking for $29 billion in compensation. As predicted by a number of constitutional lawyers, the judge dismissed the case, stating that a statehood compact cannot be analogized to a commercial contract, and that as federal sovereignty is superior to state sovereignty, Congress can amend its previous legislation as it deems necessary.
As Coates's analysis suggests, the power of the federal government in Alaska exacerbates greatly the sense of being outside the mainstream. Not only have Alaskans felt the federal presence in the 60 percent of the land base that is in federal ownership, but they have felt it, also, in regard to federal protection and representation of Alaska's Native people, and their distinct concerns. Alaska natives, with all native Americans, enjoy a special trust relationship with the federal government. The Alaska lands act manifested one aspect of that special relationship in the provision mandating a rural preference for subsistence hunting and fishing. The state's failure to provide for rural subsistence preference led the state's principal Native organization, the Alaska Federation of Natives, to resolve, in the spring 2000, to rely on Congress and the federal government, rather than the state government, as previously, to fairly address the subsistence issue. Alaskans, then, have an acute sense of their relationship to and dependence on "Outside" forces, one which exacerbates their perception of difference.
Coates suggested another characteristic of remote settlements: intense internal political struggles. One such struggle is between native and non-Native peoples, regions, and communities. Issues which have divided northern societies along racial lines include conflicting visions of land ownership, resource harvesting, and social policy. As noted above, the federal government has intervened to guarantee Native rights. Alaska manifests a long history of such intervention and native empowerment. Other circumstances have empowered Alaska Natives, as well.
The federal government executed no treaties with Alaska Native people. Congress halted treaty making in 1871, just four years after the Alaska purchase; the only mention of Natives in the purchase treaty was a clause stating that the "uncivilized tribes" were to be "subject to such laws and regulations as the United States may, from time to time, adopt in regard to aboriginal tribes of that country." In the first civil government act for Alaska, in 1884, Congress elaborated on the relationship between natives and non-natives. The statute protected Indians "In the possession of any lands actually in tehir use or occupation." native title to land in Alaska would not be fully clarified until the modern claims settlement act, in 1971.
The same 1884 legislation authorized the government to establish schools "without regard to race" wherever there was school-age children in the territory, a duty, carried out by the U.S. Bureau of Education. (This did not mean, incidentally, that the schools were integrated; it meant that the government assumed a responsibility to provide schools where there were children, native schools for Native children, white schools for white children.) The schools empowered Natives, both by imparting literacy, general knowledge, and some practical skills (i.e., acculturation) and by encouraging leadership. School personnel accepted, nay, celebrated, the concomitant suppression of traditional Native culture, and were naive or ambivalent on the question of racial equality. As we shall see in subsequent chapters, Alaska Natives early developed the capabilities to pursue their own objectives, and profited immensely from the absence of treaties, reservations, superintendencies, annuities, and dependence on the government for direct survival, a dependence often enough betrayed by the trustees in the contiguous states and territories.
There have been moments of cooperation between Alaska Natives and non-Natives: passage in the territorial legislature of an anti-discrimination act in 1945, the battle for statehood in the 1950s, the framing of the Native claims settlement between 1968 and 1971, and others. But there have also been many other moments of discord, distrust, and frustration, most recently over the guarantee of access to subsistence resources, the question of Native sovereignty, and the allocation of state funds for material infrastructures and to support economic sustainability in Native villages.
Access to subsistence resources is but part of a larger issue, connection to the land. Indigenous people not only have a permanent commitment to residence in the state, but are rooted to the land, both as a homeland and as provider of daily resources. In most of Alaska's 211 Native villages, many people could not get by without reliance on subsistence, for fish and for game. The contrast is extreme between their sense of identification with the land, and the attitudes of short-term periodic oilfield workers whose commitments lie far outside Alaska and whose livelihoods depend on commodification of the land. But the social structure is more complicated, for the indigenous people who live in the vicinity of Prudhoe Bay, where they have created a municipal government which permits them to tax oil production, support the commodification of these resources. The Athabaskan Indians, living several hundred miles away, but dependent upon caribou herds that migrate through lands adjacent to the oil patch, fear such commodification, and the development which accompanies it. This is only one of the tensions among native groups in the state.
In his history of the American West, Richard White identified three types of westward migration: community, utopian, and modern. The first two types of migrants went West to stay, either to build a new but replicated society from a base of kinship or former acquaintance, or to build a wholly new kind of society, with alternative values, such as the Mormons. The third type, increasingly important in the later history of the West, comprised the individuals who went to get rich and then transfer their new worth back to more settled regions. Coates suggests that another important struggle in remote regions is that between permanent and transient residents. Newcomers, Coates asserts, always outnumber permanent residents, and greatly outnumber the indigenous population.
There has not been much study of transiency in Alaska. Analysts recognize that it may be manifest in political commitment--or lack of it--and social programs, but disagree on the nature and degree of its impact. Transients may not participate in politics at all, judging that they know too little. Or if they do participate they may favor candidates who endorse short-term policies with immediate benefits, such as low taxation and a refusal to pass bond issues or zoning ordinances, over longer term measures that might call for greater sacrifice. Transience seems to have been an accepted aspect of the northern experience in Alaska. In a series of oral history interviews of people who had lived in Anchorage before 1940 and were still there in 1996, several respondents, including a newspaper editor and a noted civic leader, spoke without malice or bitterness of employing the talents and financial contributions of "short termers." On the other hand, most respondents acknowledged the potential negative effects for long-term community goals of a highly transient population.
The rate of transience has declined slightly in the most recent years in Alaska as production at the Prudhoe Bay oil field has passed its peak, and there is no new economic boom on the horizon. But it is still high, and rapid turnover in public-and private-sector jobs is the norm. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the tension between community and modern migrants is not substantial in Alaska; people seem focused on the demands of the present, with little historical perspective, and little vision of the future.
Coates's analysis of all of these factors led him to conclude that northern settlements are characterized by a culture of opposition. Struggles between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples, between transient and permanent residents, between the region and the nation, between the desire to control the development of their natural resources and the realities of the global market, and finally, between popular culture and the realities of northern economies seem to preoccupy northern residents. They have certainly preoccupied Alaska. These oppositions are rooted in the regions' histories, and are perpetuated and exacerbated by contemporary influences. They have been internalized, Coates suggests, into a culture of antagonism. opposition has generated a regional consciousness built on a sense of grievance that is usually ill founded. It has made northern populations vulnerable to political manipulation, both from without and within. And it has contributed to an inflated sense of region importance. It has been, Coates argues, a barrier to development and has been intensely destructive of community bonds and the generation of a positive, supportive culture.
Coates's analysis seems to fit Alaska well. The inconsistencies in Alaskans' views of themselves and their history, the confusion regarding Native culture and legitimacy, the high transiency rate, and the dependence on global, absentee investment are all consistent with Coates's characterization of other northern and remote places. In the following pages we will examine Alaska's history in light of this analysis, with the hope of understanding more fully the nature of Alaska's society.
Two oppositions in Alaska's history, however, claim pride of place as preoccupations for Alaskans. The first is between indigenous and non-indigenous people. Today Alaska Natives are perhaps more empowered than any other groups of Native Americans, yet distrust between Native and non-Native residents is potent. Historically, Alaska Natives suffered significant discrimination. They achieved economic and political parity only with the passage of the Native claims settlement act in 1971, and while that parity has produced substantial social equity today, it is hardly complete and cannot be taken for granted, as is manifest in statistics dealing with the criminal justice system, and with sexual crimes and abuse.
The other opposition is that directed at environmentalism, and restrictions, primarily federal, on current land use and potential future development in Alaska. Today, most Alaskans favor congressional action to open a portion of the Arctic national Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration, and should oil be found, development. Most people in the nation apparently do not, though the majority view on the issue seems somewhat related tot he price of gasoline. Alaskans have attacked federal conservation and environmental actions through most of the region's history. Federal policy on game, on fish, on migratory mammals and waterfowl, federal creation of conservation areas such as Mt. McKinley and Glacier Bay, and the creation on the Alaska lands act of vast wilderness areas in Alaska have consistently been vilified and resisted. Only in their reaction to the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 have Alaskans seemed broadly supportive of measures to restrain development in the name of environmental protection. With other Americans, Alaskans profess concern for the environment. But a majority of state politicians, as well as spokespeople for commercial and financial interests, argue that industry can develop Alaska's resources without damage to the environment. Such groups as the Resource Development Council, the Alaska Miners' Association, the Alaska Loggers Association, and the Alaska Chamber of Commerce, together with the predictable Alaska Oil and Gas Association and the development giants British Petroleum and Phillips Petroleum, assert that ANWR, for example, can be drilled with no significant alteration of the land or its resources. In this they are supported by those Iniuit people who have municipal governmental jurisdiction over existing north Slope development and who control part of ANWR. Alaskan leaders supported the Atomic Energy Commission's nuclear test regime on Amchitka Island in the 1960s, and that same agency's planned use of low-yield nuclear devices to create an artificial harbor on Alaska's western Arctic coast in the 1950s. They supported the U.S. Army corps of Engineers' 1950s plant to construct a massive hydroelectric dam on the Yukon River. They supported construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline, and vigorously and vociferously opposed the Alaska lands act. They supported opening the Tongass National forest to time lease sales in 1947 despite protests by Tlingit-Haida Indians who had an active land claim for the area before U.S. courts. And in the 1980s they loudly protested reforms to the Alaska lands act which, when passed in 1990, reduced the annual federal subsidization of lease sales on the forest and reduced the mandated annual number of board-feet to be cut. Not all Alaskans took anti-environmental positions on these issues, but most did. And in every case, opponents argued that environmental concerns were overstated and alarmist.
Writing in the Anchorage Daily News on the eve of the millennium celebration, editorial page editor Michael Carey wrote that several themes ran through Alaska history in the twentieth century. He chose the paradigm "tension" to express them. There had been, he wrote, "tensions with the federal government," which expressed themselves in battles over land use, resource management, the question of statehood, and federal obligations to Natives. To many Alaskans, Carey wrote, Washington "is still the distant, careless landlord." There were as well, he wrote, "tensions with Outside interests." Alaska has been "a resource colony to generations of Outside investors." Long before the oil industry showed serious interest in the north, the great Alaska fortunes were in Seattle, San Francisco, and New York and other stateside cities. The statehood movement was in good measure, Carey wrote, a rebellion against the canned salmon interests and mining companies that "refused to leave a nickel in Alaska." Outside capital has long been sought, but feared. Politicians' frequent outbursts against environmentalists also have their roots in Alaskans' traditional fear of the power of Outsiders over their lives. Finally, Carey wrote, there were "tensions between regions and races." Alaska Natives' assertion of their rights, and their growing economic power in the state following the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, have "not always been greeted with enthusiasm by their non-Native neighbors."
Carey's was an astute analysis of Alaska's history. born in Alaska and raised in the bush and in Fairbanks, Carey spoke from the perspective of fifteen years of editorial work at the state's largest circulation newspaper. His conclusions were remarkably consistent with Coates's theoretical analysis. In the following pages we shall examine these oppositions in Alaska history, especially the issues of indigenous rights and environmental protection. While they are not unique to Alaska in content, they may be quite unique in magnitude, and in their history. But Alaskans do not recognize the historical character of these issues and the oppositional stance their predecessors have taken toward them; they are not well educated about the history of the region and the high transiency rate mitigates against historical understanding. Thus, most Alaskans miss the historical context, which gives force to native reactions to contemporary policies which disadvantage Natives to the benefit of urban Alaskans. A per capita redistribution of state education funds in accord with population increases in urban Alaska, for example, reminds Native Alaskans of the long history of educational discrimination. Not realizing that the issue is not new condemns modern Alaskans to failure to appreciate its depth of meaning.
By the same token, ignorance of the realities of the federal/state relationship, together with lack of understanding of the rise of environmentalism and the history of conservation withdrawals in Alaska, condemns Alaskans perpetually to fight on the wrong battleground, challenging "violations" of the "statehood compact." Most particularly, such ignorance condemns Alaskans to misunderstand the legitimacy and the origins of federal environmental regulations applied in the state. It is particularly important that each new generation of Alaskans have the opportunity to understand and assess the significance of the state's historical legacy, for only then can they bring an informed view to their participation in the shaping of public policy.
To the oppositional mode of thinking on these issues, I will add another in the following pages: greed. I will argue that the false notion of Alaska's history, together with the recent phenomenon of the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend program, has exacerbated the pattern of modern migration delineated by Richard White, migrants whose primary interest is not the creation of a society for their progeny, but self-aggrandizement, primarily economic self-aggrandizement. Oil production in Alaska has supported a high material standard of living for many more people than could be sustained by all other economic factors presently extant in the state combined. Distrust of government, partly a function of a jaundiced view of federal sustenance of Alaska and stemming partly from ignorance of the nature of the federal/state relationship under the U.S. Constitution, seems to have focused the attention of the citizenry on what they can get for themselves. The Alaska Permanent Fund dividend is a tangible benefit of being in Alaska, tangible benefit of being in Alaska, tangible in the year 2000 in the amount of nearly $2,000 per resident. Many citizens seem to agree with the writer of a letter to the editor of the state's largest newspaper but one of many, who said "to the government: keep your hands off my dividend." That the dividend is generated by a taxing structure enacted by the state legislature and administered by the executive branch, and that the distribution of the earnings of the Fund as a dividend to Alaska citizens was and is a program created and sustained by the legislature, seems not to have registered with this citizen.
We shall take up the story of Alaska's historical reality with the establishment of the first modern economy in the territory, thirteen years after the region's purchase by the United States in 1867.
"In clear and compelling style, master historian Steve Haycox puts in perspective the elements, events, and conflicts that shaped Alaska culture and politics . . . it rates a place with the classics on how the West was won."
Extreme Conditions: Big Oil and the Transformation of Alaska