Mike Dingman: Let's act as if Alaska's living history is precious

Mike Dingman
OPINION: Alaska's history is falling away before our very eyes, and we can all have a small part in preserving it. Pictured: The Fourth Avenue Theatre in downtown Anchorage. Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News

Alaska is losing its history.

It’s happening far too quickly and there is a lack of urgency in slowing the decline. Those who are uninterested in stopping this trend now will wish history was here later, though. Remember those words of wisdom from the rock band Cinderella – you don’t know what you got until it’s gone.

It seems harder and harder to find people who are from Alaska these days. When talking to new people in Alaska, we are almost always playing the “so where are you from, originally” game. While it’s not true about everybody that came from Outside, we have, unfortunately become a state of people trying to make this place as much like the places they came from as possible.

It is also true that not everybody from Outside is trying to change Alaska. Many of our “Alaskans by choice” have truly embraced Alaska’s culture and history. We have many great Alaskans in this state that have been transplanted from elsewhere.

We should not forget that the most important part of Alaska’s history is Alaska’s first people. Alaska Natives are the people who formed the customs and traditions that are Alaska. These peoples and particularly their elders should be revered. Their stories should be showcased, and their traditions should be honored and celebrated.

I first thought about the concept of “losing our history” when my grandmother passed on August 29, 1986 -- 10 days after my 11th birthday. Alice Lorraine Shumaker was born in 1928 in Sitka, and was a lifelong Alaska resident. She grew up in Alaska in the 1930s and took with her the oral history that surely nobody could tell quite like her, of her parents and grandparents who would have seen an amazing amount of Alaska history.

My grandmother told me one day that she was not looking forward to me becoming a teenager because “teenagers don’t love their grandmothers.” Little did she know at the time that this teenager would have given anything to have his grandmother during those formative years.

While my grandmother is my favorite Alaskan hero,  we have lost far too many of our elders and with them, they are taking our history. Alaskans like Jay Hammond, Walter Hickel, Ted Stevens, Joe Redington, Sr., Susan Butcher and many others have left us and taken most of their history with them.

Mary Smith Jones, who died in 2008, didn’t only take her oral history and knowledge with her, she took practically an entire language. Jones was the last Native speaker of the Eyak language. She fought hard to keep her language, culture and history alive, and others carry on her work today.

Carrying history into the future is difficult but necessary. Mike Dunham wrote a fantastic piece that ran in the Daily News on Sunday outlining the problem of decay among 10 of Alaska's most endangered historic buildings. One of the most interesting buildings, in my opinion, is the Wireless Transmitter Building on Government Hill.

The Wireless Transmitter Building was built in 1917, according to Dunham, and “from 1917 to 1931, it supplied the only radio communication link between Anchorage and the 48 states.”

One of my other favorite “most endangered” Alaska buildings is one that has a little bit of history for me. The 4th Avenue Theatre was not only a beautiful theater inside and out, its sign defined the entire street. Lighting up the night and giving small-town Alaska a big-time downtown feeling, it became one of the most photographed buildings in Anchorage.

The 4th Avenue Theatre is where I met my favorite author. Steven Ambrose spoke in 2000 at the historic theater. He spoke about a number of his books as a fascinated crowd listened. The downtown theater provided the perfect backdrop for one of America’s greatest historians to talk to Alaskans. Ambrose died in 2002.

Not far from the 4th Avenue Theater in downtown the controversial remodel of the Legislative Information Office is under way. Lost in the controversy over cost and posh was the fact that the expansion moved lawmakers into the old Empress Theater building, which Austin “Cap” Lathrop built in 1916. Lathrop, who was known as “Alaska’s first millionaire” also built the 4th Avenue Theatre, opened the radio station KENI, and at one point owned the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner newspaper.

Anchorage’s Empress Theater is now gone. However, much of Alaska’s history still remains. We cannot keep our heroes alive forever, but we can keep  much of their history. We can seek out the elders in our communities and ask them about the Alaska of their childhood, about their parents' upbringing and the lessons learned from their grandparents.

Some history is lost forever, some has been saved, and some is currently being written. We should respect it, read it and remember it. We owe it to our ancestors.

Mike Dingman is a fifth-generation Alaskan born and raised in Anchorage. He is a former UAA student body president and has worked, studied and volunteered in Alaska politics since the late '90s. Email, michaeldingman(at)gmail.com.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.