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Preston Jones

The Last Frontier?

"If you see a moose, make sure you don't get between it and its calf." This postprandial advice was offered to me by my mother-in-law, who knows something about moose: last spring her newly planted saplings fell victim to one.

"Remember the guy at the University of Alaska who got stomped," added my wife, who herself was once chased by a moose.

So as I headed out into Alaskan suburbia with a deranged dog called Esther in tow, I ruminated not on potential crooks and drive-by shooters but on moose and wolves and bears. For this is Alaska, the Last Frontier.

Never mind the flimsy "communities" that are being founded, even here, on the outskirts of Eagle River. Subdivisions with names such as Park View Terrace and Northwood Park are dissected by streets named Driftwood Bay and Meadow Park, the absence of any bays or meadows anywhere nearby notwithstanding. Fabrications such as these make sense in Southern California, where nature has been paved over for so long the irony of apartment complexes with names like Willow Creek and Forest Hills passes unnoticed. But in Alaska, where wilderness dwarfs even Wal-Mart, the contrivances seem slightly ridiculous, or at least out of place.

Then again, maybe not. Americans have never really considered the frontier a place to be left alone but rather something to be possessed and improved—that is, made profitable. In the words of Robert Hine and John Faragher, "Americans have always had itching feet" that carried them to wherever they thought the grass might be greener. And, as Hine and Faragher make clear in The American West, the same story that played itself out in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina early in the American experience took center stage in Alaska in the nineteenth century.

Urbanites from the "lower forty-eight" still see Alaska as a place to which they can repair to overcome the baleful strains of modernity.com. "I know the accepted wisdom that westering folk are running away from something or making a fresh start, taking a new hold on life," writes Nancy Lord, an Alaskan resident who is herself a refugee from New England. "The truth of this is everywhere in Alaska, from the early goldminers and settlers to today's end-of-the-roaders making one more try at whatever it is they think will bring them success, or happiness, or love."

I suspect that most Americans haven't ever really known what to make of Alaska, where in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries Russians hungry for furs to trade in China battled Aleutian natives, spread Orthodox Christianity, and, less fortunately, introduced dread European diseases that (as everywhere else in the Western hemisphere) devastated the locals. In 1867, the same year four British North American provinces confederated and formed the nation of Canada, that vigorous proponent of American expansionism Secretary of State William Seward orchestrated the purchase of Alaska from the Russians for $7.2 million (about $85 million in today's dollars). Some, believing Alaska a wasteland, called the deal "Seward's Folly."

Hine and Faragher observe that Alaska did not register on "the mental maps" of most Americans "until the discovery of gold"—and later, it might be added, oil. But some, such as Senator Charles Sumner, immediately perceived Alaska as a country rich in resources that would redound to the wealth and strength of the United States. Sumner himself wrote loftily about "pine and fir waiting for the ax." And the bombardments that soon befell the coastal villages of Alaskan Tlingits—who were less than pleased with the arrival of the Americans, and who put that displeasure to work when they destroyed stockades and government buildings—announced that, like the rest of the West, Alaska was under Yankee control.

Nancy Lord describes some of what followed Seward's purchase in Green Alaska, a collection of short essays inspired by her retracing of railroad magnate Edward H. Harriman's expedition along the Alaska Peninsula in 1899. Already by that year, writes Lord, American fishermen, with the assistance of Chinese cannery workers (and to the usual and justified chagrin of native populations), had put a significant dent in the salmon population along Prince William Sound. So much so, in fact, that the territorial governor was compelled to ask Washington for limits to be placed on the catch. Meanwhile, as gold fever seized the small village of Nome, seafarers hunted Pacific gray whales to near extinction—Atlantic grays had been wiped out entirely by the 1700s—and men eager to make a tidy profit from the sale of fur introduced foxes onto Alaskan islands, to the lasting detriment of local bird populations. As for Alaska's natives, the editor of the outdoor magazine Forest and Stream and founder of the Audubon Society, George Bird Grinnell, expressed a view common among late-nineteenth-century imperialists and proponents of manifest destiny: "There is an inevitable conflict between civilization and savagery, and wherever the two touch each other, the weaker people must be destroyed."

Of course, Grinnell had a point. For even if some of Alaska's most remote Arctic natives, the Inupiat, continue to hunt whales in the early twenty-first century—or, as they believe, even if bowhead whales continue to surrender themselves to the Inupiat—the still sacred ritual hunt, captured by journalist Bill Hess in words and some 180 compelling black and white photos, has taken on modern features. Harpoon guns and rifles with scopes have replaced simpler weapons; snow machines now ply paths previously trod by dog sleds; basketball has to some extent replaced whatever games Inupiat children played 100 years ago; and Chicago Bulls baseball caps have found their way even onto the heads of the peoples of the forbidding American Arctic. If this last of the last of the frontiers has not been quite possessed by westerners or, in Grinnell's words, "destroyed," it has certainly been transformed.

The Inupiat are no longer responsible only to themselves and the spiritual world for the spring whale hunts that follow the Arctic Ocean's receding ice; they must now give an account of their catch to the International Whale Commission (founded in 1947) and the National Marine Fisheries Service. The reason for this is familiar: the bowhead whale population is recovering from the depredations not of natives but of eager Yankees, who by 1915 had hunted the 60-foot creatures to near extinction. Hess's Gift of the Whale documents the efforts and sometimes necessarily grisly traditions of a people who have embraced modernity to some extent, but who also wish to prevent a way of life from fading into a romanticized and foggy past. The high vitamin C content of the bowhead's thick skin and oily blubber provides the Inupiat with a source of nutrition many of them continue to prefer to "white man's food."

What these books have in common is their authors' interest in frontiers. Hine and Faragher paraphrase historian Sarah Deutsch as writing that frontiers are "what happens when cultures meet"—which is to say that frontiers have probably "happened" in America more than in any other nation in the world. Wampanoags met Englishmen in the wilds of New England. French met the Spanish in Louisiana. Russians met the British in Oregon Territory. Americans met Tejanos in Texas. Sioux met the Seventh Cavalry at Wounded Knee. Chinese laborers met union workers in San Francisco. Bewildered Japanese immigrants met fearful Californians during World War II. Korean merchants met angry, longtime inhabitants of the inner city during the Los Angeles riots of 1992.

What's clear is that if Alaska ever was the last frontier, that was in an old dispensation. Americans with itching feet still pick up and move, immigrants still come, families still disperse, and new frontiers are springing up all around.

Preston Jones, who has contributed articles on Alaskan topics to the San Francisco Chronicle, the National Post (Toronto) and the Ottawa Citizen, wrote this review during an annual winter visit with family in Eagle River, Alaska.

Preston Jones who has contributed articles on Alaskan topics to the San Francisco Chronicle, the National Post (Toronto) and the Ottawa Citizen, wrote this review during an annual winter visit with family in Eagle River, Alaska.

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