A to Z Alaska-Style: Day 1 A is for ALASKA

(Yours Truly, for the next 26 days, will be relegated to a link in the menu above. It’s still going and getting stranger and stranger)

It’s a nearly month-long romp through the alphabet Alaskan-style! Twenty-six letters, twenty-six days to learn something new about ALASKA “The Great Land;” Okay, there’s the first thing you learned—that “Alaska” actually means “The Great Land.”

Let’s start with a bit of history….. okay … prehistory (mostly because I’m on Prince of Wales Island, which has the highest concentration of 10,000 year-old (BP)+ sites (human habitation) in the New World. Prince of Wales has the famous Shuka Kaa (formerly named “On Your Knees Cave”).

If you paid attention in high school, you know  a bit about  Beringia and the land bridge. Dan O’Neill wrote a fantastic book about it called “The Last Giants of Beringia.” It’s worth picking up and reading, and if you ever get to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory (which is, unfortunately NOT in Alaska), you should make time to visit The Beringia Center because it’s all sorts of wonder and awe. Now, we can move forward a bit.

The Spanish were here in Southeast. Really. You think I just make this stuff up? The Spanish did explore in Southeastern Alaska (just north of Haida G’waii) waters in the mid- to late-1700s. The last of their exploratory voyages was in about 1794. There’s an excellent book entitled “Through Spanish Eyes,” which contains large excerpts of journals and primary source documentation about the voyages. Sadly, it’s out of print, but if you ask your local library, I’m sure they can find it through Inter-Library Loan.

The Russians were here as well. They came in around 1740 and established themselves as traders. Sort of. They were also a blood-thirsty lot, and, in 1784, Grigory Ivanovich Shelikhov cemented this image at Three Saints Bay on Kodiak Island after he set about slaughtering hundreds of the indigenous Koniag in order to set up the first permanent Russian settlement. The draw was sea otters. Prized for their pelts, the sea otters were hunted nearly to extinction. Conservation laws have brought their numbers back. Actually, we now have an over-population of the cute, furry “chubby-tummies” of the sea, and they are, truly, the bane of fishermen.

But, I digress… Russians… Baranov—he’s probably a guy you might have heard about. His full name was Alexandr Baranov, and he went by “Lord of Alaska.” Needless to say, the Tlingit would have none of that, so they destroyed his settlement of Arkhangelsk on, um, Baranof Island in the, um, Alexander Archipelago (apparently, he had an ego), in 1802. By 1804, he had rebuilt and rechristened the settlement Novo-Arkhangelsk. After we got the place with Seward’s land deal on August 1, 1867 (called “Seward’s Folly” or “Seward’s Ice Box,” but, looking back should be called “Best. Real Estate. Deal. EVER) for $7.2 million, we renamed it “Sitka.”

Alaska was a District until 1912 (I’ll go into the Syndicate and more of the history as I go through the alphabet), There’s ANCSA (Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act) and ANILCA (Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act – say THAT three times fast!), which could both come under “A,” but I’m saving them… just wanted you to see them coming. “A” could also be for “ANWR” (Arctic National Wildlife Refuge), which contains the NPR-A (National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska), and that’s another kettle of fish in the offering.

One thing we Alaskans hear from people Outside (meaning, everyone in the Lower 48…usually) is how Alaska is a “Spiritual Home” or that they somehow feel an ethereal connection with Alaska—even if they’ve never set foot in the state. I blame National Geographic. Actually, if you visit Alaska unprepared, Alaska will become, in a very real way, your “Spiritual Home,” because Alaska actively tries to kill you. Daily. Chad Carpenter, brilliant cartoonist of all things “The Great Land” drew this comic that I have emblazoned on a refrigerator magnet … you know, lest I forget. It shows a group of tourists wandering around their bus and snapping photoraphs–completely unaware of any danger. The caption is: “Alaska: Step out of the bus and into the food chain.”

Alaska is a land of contradiction. We’re friendly and community-minded, we’re insular and wary of strangers, we’re the kindest, most giving people I’ve ever seen, we’re the most grasping and greedy of humans on the planet. We love the wilderness, but don’t see a problem using Super Cubs, snowmachines, and ATVs to access it. Even in the cities, the idea of subsistence runs deep—ask anyone who’s dipped a net in Chitina. The resources are ours. The U.S. Government expends a lot of money in Alaska and creates jobs, but we grumble how ANILCA locked up the land in an epic land-grab in the 1970s…

This will be an epically Alaskan twenty-six days on the blog. I’m going to be brutally honest. You want to see Alaska? I’ll show you. The Sierra Club might hate me for it, but so will Pebble Mine. You may love it or be offended by it. I’ve been in Alaska for a decade–not born here, but got here as fast as I could. There’s no other place on Earth I’d rather live. Back and forth and up and down, it goes back to the psychosis of protectionism verses the concept that people have to have jobs, and how the needs of many should outweigh the needs of just a few.

If you want a reading list for this part, try:

The Last Giant of Beringia: The Mystery of the Bering Land Bridge, by Dan O’Neill








Travels Among the Dena: Exploring Alaska’s Yukon Valley, by Frederica De Laguna




Northwest Coast: Archaeology as Deep History, by Madonna Moss





Through Spanish eyes: The Spanish voyages to Alaska, 1774-1792, by Wallace M. Olson




Baranov: Chief Manager of the Russian Colonies in America, by Kiril Khlebnikov




Anooshi Lingit Aani Ka, Russians in Tlingit America: The Battles of Sitka, 1802 and 1804, Nora Marks Dauenhauer and Richard L. Dauenhauer (Editors) (This one is a collected Tlingit Oral History)