Alaskans more tolerant in earlier days

Alan Boraas
Photo courtesy Kenai Peninsula College Historic Photo Repository

For 30 years starting in the 1950s, Eadie Henderson, or just Eadie, as she was locally known, was one of the last larger-than-life madams of Alaska. Her topless bar north of Kenai, Eadie's Last Frontier Club, had rooms upstairs where the girls entertained clients. Though Eadie never publicly admitted to running a house of prostitution, it was common knowledge that she did.

One of the more remarkable photos in the Kenai Peninsula College Historic Photo Repository shows Eadie on a bar stool at Kenai Joe's Bar in 1960s Kenai. Kenai Joe's, incidentally, is the oldest continuously operating business in the Kenai and Soldotna area; you can still get a beer and play a little pool there. Standing behind the bar is Kenai Joe himself, Joe Consiel, and Eadie is wearing her signature leopard skin coat and one of the many hats she always wore in public. She's putting the "touch" on a bar patron, maybe an oil field worker in the booming Swanson River oil field or maybe a construction worker. Another lonely man in a lonely place that was not yet, or never would be, home.

In those days, everyone in the Kenai and Soldotna area knew about Eadie. But she was not a myth cloistered in her North Road brothel. Eadie regularly attended public concerts, plays and movies, entering with a flourish left over from her burlesque days in Ohio. You'd see her in the grocery store or at other businesses pleasantly chatting about the weather or local gossip just like other customers. She frequently brought her girls to enroll at classes at Kenai Peninsula College. Eadie also helped a lot of men who were down on their luck by giving them a loan or a job sweeping the bar or working on her homestead until they got back on their feet.

To be sure, not everyone approved of her chosen profession, old as it is. But while most disapproved of illegal prostitution, to my knowledge no one condemned her publicly. No one got in her face while in line at the grocery store. No one called her a whore while she sat waiting for a concert to begin. In the frontier days of 40, 50 years ago, Alaska was more civil than it is today.

Gradually, over the past few decades, the window of tolerance in Alaska has been closing. Behavior that used to cause a raised eyebrow or a "whatever" now is vilified in the burgeoning outlets of public condemnation, many of which do not require the condemner to reveal their name.

It's not just Alaska, of course. We are following the lead of the culture wars of the United States made large by the intensity of the media. Mean-spirited political debates provide entertainment and shock value as candidates snidely smile condescendingly at each other's point of view. Talk radio, blogs and online comments provide a forum for derogatory statements that pretend to be analysis. Hannah Montana becomes a tweener role model as she makes demeaning others cool. "Gay" is the insult of choice. The news is framed in fear and xenophobia. And so it goes.

Intolerance and incivility are, of course, nothing new. What is different now are the many increasingly sophisticated ways they can be expressed: blogs, YouTube, Facebook, videos and websites in addition to TV, movies, radio, newspapers, sermons, lectures and political speeches.

We have lost sight of the humanity of the other.

In the 1950s, the famous Jewish philosopher Martin Buber defined the essence of human relations as two people recognizing the humanness of the other person regardless of their politics or religion. Buber called these I/Thou relations. I/It relations result when others are dominated, ridiculed, marginalized, objectified or manipulated.

At a speech, a woman began to harangue Buber about his belief that humans could affect their own destiny. It went on for some time and Buber, rather than engage in a shouting match, patiently waited. When she finished, he came down off the podium, walked up to her, took her hand and said, "Quite right." She reportedly burst into tears as he went back and finished his speech.

Buber recognized her humanity just as Kenai and Soldotna recognized the humanity of Eadie Henderson. We don't have to agree with one another, we don't have to like one another, but we do have to recognize one another as human beings. If we're going to survive as a culture, we need to reawaken the I/Thou of Alaska.

Alan Boraas is a professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College.

Alan Boraas