North: Finding Place in Alaska
Julie Decker, editor. University of Washington Press in association with Anchorage Museum. 304 pages. 2017. $39.95
Trying to create a comprehensive book about Alaska is a daunting task. The Native cultures alone are as varied in their histories and languages as the differing peoples of Europe; perhaps more so. The land is divided into five broad ecoregions, and within each lie an abundance of local climates, geological differences and unique flora and fauna. And while written history only goes back to the arrival of the Russians, Alaska's human history extends thousands of years into the past.
Trying to summarize all of this in one book is probably a fool's errand, but if anyone is positioned to make something comprehensible of it, it would be Julie Decker. As director of the Anchorage Museum, she deals with virtually every aspect of the state as part of her daily job. In "North: Finding Place in Alaska," a large book that the museum has published through University of Washington Press, Decker and a collection of other authors have tackled the ambitious project of introducing readers to – if not all aspects of Alaska – certainly a broader number of them than can be found in any other single volume.
The book is a visual treat, filled with hundreds of images, both artworks and photography, drawn from throughout Alaska and ranging from pictures of ancient artifacts to images of today's industrial-era North. The authors, rather than trying to capture both history and current events in a linear fashion, have instead employed words and accompanying images to offer perceptions on what it is to be an Alaskan, how life here differs from elsewhere, and to ponder what the future holds.
The approaches to these questions are numerous. In her introduction, Decker begins with the first artists to come to Alaska after America purchased the territory, who sought to capture its essence. Then she works her way forward to today, showing how contemporary painters continue this tradition while finding new means of expanding on it.
From there the book takes a long dive into Native history and current life, as seen through artifacts, art and photography. In the first chapter, anthropologist Alan Boraas looks at the tools, baskets, masks, and other items recovered from pre-contact era Native life. These are examined more closely two chapters later by Walter Van Horn, who details how the varying Native groups of Alaska employed technology derived from the materials at hand to survive and even thrive in often forbidding climates. A later chapter on science in the north by John Pearce and Sandra Talbot opens with the understanding that these tools sprang from what can fairly be called a scientific approach. Through observation and experimentation, things like kayaks were perfected.
In a separate chapter, art historian Nadia Jackinsky-Sethi shows how traditional Native art styles have been used as springboards for contemporary Native artists to update and even depart entirely from in an effort at locating a sense of identity. All of these chapters are richly illustrated with images mostly pulled from the Anchorage Museum.
The book's best chapter in terms of writing and insight comes from Priscilla Naungagiaq Hensley Holthouse, whose heritage is part Inupiaq, part European. This divided sense of where she comes from leads her to seek out an identity that transcends "Native" or "Western." She settles on the term "Northerner," which she admits is somewhat vague, but allows a broader idea of what it is to be Alaskan than the more specific labels of her background.
Also notable on the writing end is Kirsten J. Anderson, who ruminates on Alaska's remoteness from the center of American life, on how the very notion of remoteness requires a center, and how the distance that once defined Alaska in the American imagination is shrinking with technological advances. She also addresses the urban living reality of most Alaskans, which contrasts with popular perception.
David Holthouse goes furthest afield, discussing how the North in Western literature has long been seen as a place of eternal winter and a storehouse for evil. Citing works like "Lord of the Rings" and "Game of Thrones" he shows how northern latitudes are even now presented as lying outside the realm of civilization.
On the visual side, Decker contributes several of the chapters exploring how artists and photographers have depicted Alaska, and how shifting perceptions and public tastes have changed these views. Ansel Adams' iconic 1947 black-and-white photograph of Denali taken from Wonder Lake is included, but so too is Bradford Washburn's lesser known, but in some ways more visually impressive, 1964 image of the mountain's south face, a closer examination of its surface.
Decker presents historic landscape photos as well as more recent works, which have narrowed to closer views. Unlike the older photographers who sought to show Alaska as pristine wilderness ("The idea of 'untouched landscape' suggests a place never adapted to by indigenous peoples and a remote, barren place lacking in life," she writes. "It remains inaccurate."), many of today's best photographers bring in a human aspect in interesting and sometimes disturbing ways. Her chapter on the interaction of art and environmentalism highlights this latter approach.
One of the funnest images found in the book is Finnish photographer Tiina Itkonen's "Three Towels and Two Polar Bear Trousers" which depicts these five items on a laundry line against a snow and ice filled high Arctic background, with an unidentified structure to the side. A completely unrealistic cartoon of assorted animals including bears, a wolf, a caribou, and a moose all holding hands and smiling, created for the Anchorage Convention and Visitors Bureau, serves to remind that even today many people maintain a completely anthropomorphized view of wildlife.
There's quite a bit more to this expansive book. While some of the writing leans toward the academic, it's highly informative. And the essays and visuals present an Alaska far more complex and varied than television reality shows and tourist websites depict. "North" isn't a comprehensive book about the entirety of Alaska, but it might be the most inclusive one yet published.