Apart from being an Alaska Native, there’s never going to be a definition of a “real Alaskan” that everyone can agree on, especially in a place with such relatively recent colonization and development. Alaska’s economic history, back to the Russian-American Company, is one of booms and busts. Each new boom -- furs, gold, canning, federal spending, or oil -- inspired a new wave of settlers. During each boom, Alaska’s existing population became interested in terms that could divide residents from newcomers, words like “cheechako,” “sourdough” and “real Alaskan.”
That said, perhaps we can learn something from the historical usage of “real Alaskan.” The following is just that, a survey of how some Alaskans earned that elusive title.
In 1896, Peter Trimble Rowe, the future first bishop of Alaska, arrived in Juneau with several other fortune seekers and adventurers. A 1917 book described Rowe as the “only real Alaskan” of the group, as “he alone intended to make his home in the country.” That’s a nice distinction. Whether you’ve lived here a day or decade, it matters whether you plan on staying. But is becoming a real Alaskan as simple as a change of address form?
In her 1912 collection of poetry, “Up in Alaska,” Nome-based author Esther Birdsall Darling described a real Alaskan as one who respected their dogs, understandable from a woman who ran dog kennels. In that same book, she also wrote:
If you’ve lived up in Alaska,
Where the Arctic breezes blow,
Till you’ve seen the Autumn ice come,
And you’ve seen the Spring ice go,
And survived one long dark winter
When the Mercury ran low,
You can drop the name “Checkako”
And become a “Sourdough.”
In June 1917, the Anchorage Daily Times declared that only “a hard-fisted, tightwad” refused to donate to the Red Cross, and that “no real Alaskan had been accused of having any claim to such a title.” A 1922 Times article boldly claimed that Anchorage’s fame derived from the residents’ “real Alaskan hospitality.” When George Parks was named governor of Alaska in 1925, the Times said, “In appearance Mr. Parks is what you would expect in a real Alaskan — tall, physically agile, ruddy and rather rough faced.” Perhaps not everyone wants to be a real Alaskan then.
John Holzworth’s 1932 study of a mother bear and cub, “The Twin Grizzlies of Admiralty Island,” suggested that for anything to be regarded as truly Alaskan, it must be “steady, enduring, uncompromising.” Similarly, a Jesuit missionary memoir described a group of pioneers as “like so many of the real Alaskan pioneers, they had known suffering and hardship, but had not succumbed to either.”
In 1954, the Times claimed that only newcomers looked at weather forecasts: “A real Alaskan sourdough," claimed the author, “can tell what’s ahead just by looking at the sky.” In 1962, an impressed Outsider wrote that the “real Alaskan spirit” came from “young men and women with families fighting side by side against cold and inconvenience to carve an existence out of a faraway territory.”
Weather is a common theme for those defining “real Alaskans.” In 1983, Alaska humorist Eric Wallace described March 21 as the dividing line. At that time, “real Alaskans start wandering about in shortsleeved shirts and sandals . . . In the meantime, newcomers will still be bundling up as though the next Ice Age is imminent.” One sailor said to the Anchorage Daily News in 1987, “Real Alaskan sailors ignore the weather . . . the skipper who waits for sunshine can spend most his time docked, noshing, and reading books.” In the same way, everyone living in Alaska knows or learns quickly that you can’t wait for the skies to clear or the ice to melt if you want to accomplish anything, let alone have any fun.
A 1982 Daily News feature asked readers to define a “real Alaskan.” As should be expected, the suggestions contradicted each other. One wrote that five years here should about do it. Another claimed the amount of time you spent in Alaska didn’t matter. You weren’t a real Alaskan until you cared about Alaska more than yourself. Other suggestions included driving the Alcan, receiving a PFD, and hunting/fishing.
Then there are the jokes. In 2008, two Anchorage DJs were suspended for a distasteful remix of one of the most infamous of those. Jokes about Anchorage are industry in and of itself. Locals know what some people call the city, Los Anchorage and Anchoragua. From this perspective, the real Alaska begins somewhere outside the borough, safely away from the corrupting influence of Starbucks. In the joke’s most popular form, “the nice thing about Anchorage is it’s close to Alaska.”
These are just the tiniest sample of what and who have been called “real Alaskan.” Some of these examples display some unifying themes, such as enduring hardships and the amount of time spent in Alaska. Other examples just seem odd. How many women — or men — can be real Alaskans if the standard is to look like George Parks, tall, ruddy, and rough? Maybe all this disagreement is the point. Maybe arguing makes someone a real Alaskan.
Readers, please take to the comments and offer your definition of a real Alaskan.
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Allen, David. Letter to editor. “Real Alaskan Spirit.” Anchorage Daily Times, December 7, 1962, 4.
Birdsall, Esther. Up in Alaska. Sacramento: J. Anderson Press, 1912.
“Fifty-Ninth Infantry Post to Remain in Anchorage.” Anchorage Daily Times, July 29, 1922, 1, 6.
Freedman, Lew. “Summer Obsessions Ship Shape.” Anchorage Daily News, June 10, 1987, B1.
Geiger, Chris. “Drawing the Boundaries: Some Thoughts on Where the ‘Real Alaska’ Begin?” We Alaskans, November 17, 1986, 1.
Holzworth, John M. The Twin Grizzlies of Admiralty Island. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, c. 1932.
“Kashevaroff Real Alaskan.” Anchorage Daily Times, July 6, 1917, 2.
O’Connor, Paul. Eskimo Parish. Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Company, 1947.
O’Malley, Julia. “DJs Silenced After Racial Slur.” Anchorage Daily News, April 16, 2008, A1.
“Ptarmigan Ptalk.” Anchorage Daily Times, November 13, 1954, 6.
“’Real Alaskan’ is Selected as Governor of the Territory of Alaska: Parks Gives Interview.” Anchorage Daily Times, March 26, 1925, 6.
“Red Cross ‘Tag Day’ Tomorrow.” Anchorage Daily Times, June 19, 1917, 7.
Parkman, Mary R. Heroes of To-Day. New York: Century Co., 1917.
“People’s Forum: How Do You Become a Real Alaskan?” Anchorage Daily News, August 14, 1982, A11.
Wallace, Eric. “Alaskans Break Up at Thought of Spring.” Anchorage Times, March 20, 1983, B4.