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An updated history of Alaska, from Russian exploration to the current “fiscal gap,” shows influences and ironies

  • Author: Nancy Lord
    | Alaska books
  • Updated: September 19
  • Published September 19

Alaska: An American Colony

Second Edition, by Stephen W. Haycox. University of Washington Press, 2020. 424 pages. $34.95.

’Alaska: An American Colony, ’ Second Edition, by Stephen W. Haycox

First published in 2006, this political history of Alaska by University of Alaska’s emeritus professor Stephen Haycox has been updated to include new historical sources and recent developments regarding Alaska’s fiscal situation and Native sovereignty issues. For anyone wishing to understand why Alaska is the place it is today, “Alaska: An American Colony” is likely the best single source of information and analysis.

Any historian brings his or her own interests and biases to a project, and Haycox establishes his themes early on. As his title suggests, he views Alaska in a colonial context. He argues that, since the time of its early Russian occupation right through today, Alaska’s political and economic interests have been controlled by far-off governments and the capital, lacking in the region itself, needed to develop (mainly extract) natural resources. Haycox shows how the myth of Alaska as the “Last Frontier” and land of self-reliant pioneers clashes with the reality of Alaska as an extension of the places its settlers have come from, dependent on support and investment from elsewhere.

But there is a great more to this volume than that single theme, and readers interested in Alaska history more broadly will find much to appreciate here. Haycox has done extensive research, including into Russian sources. He refers, in context, to the work of many other historians of the past and present. A significant objective of the narrative is to refute the many myths that have taken hold in common perceptions over the years. “A more realistic history of Alaska ... organized around the theme of colonial dependence” is how Haycox describes his book.

In a lengthy introduction, the author first lays out the geography and significance of various regions of the state, the relationships of its Native peoples to the land, and the values that have sustained Native cultures through centuries of change.

Part 1, a full third of the book, tells the story of Russia’s expansion into Siberia for control of the fur trade and subjugation of its Native people, then into the North Pacific to find more land and wealth to control. As Haycox points out more than once, the Russian goals in the new land were not to settle it but to reap economic benefits; there were never more than 823 Russians living in Alaska at any one time, so it can hardly be said to have been settled (never mind owned) by them. Despite the combined efforts of the Russian America Company and the Russian government, the difficulties in keeping the colony supplied with food and other necessities proved impossible to overcome.

This section also elucidates early relationships between Russians and Alaska’s Native people — the people who became known as Aleuts and were treated very poorly by fur traders who enslaved them; the Tlingits, who proved skilled negotiators and formidable fighters; all who suffered from the clash of cultures, outright violence, and introduced diseases. The role of the Russian Orthodox Church, which managed to respect cultural beliefs and which still holds a place in the life of many villages, is presented here. Portraits of Shelikhov, Baranof, and other Russians who played outsized roles in the Russian period bring them into sharp view.

Part two, “American Alaska,” details the American purchase of Alaska from Russia and the political and economic transformation that followed. Haycox clarifies Russia’s reasons for wanting out of Alaska and America’s interests in the purchase. (The purchase was not as controversial as has often been suggested.) Haycox argues that, contrary to earlier historical analyses of neglect by the federal government, the territory received considerable attention and financial assistance, still in the mold of colonialism. The chapters in this section proceed through the Gold rush, the wars, the statehood debate, the discovery of oil, to the landmark legislation settling Native claims (ANCSA) and then setting aside conservation areas (ANILCA.) The various infrastructures — roads, railroads, ports, military bases, the oil pipeline, etc. — were primarily the result of outside forces intent on extracting resources, and sometimes for strategic defense of the rest of the country.

This section, as well, documents how America’s “manifest destiny,” assimilation policy, and outright racism regarding Alaska Natives gradually gave way to the considerable political and economic power wielded by Natives and their institutions today.

As he brings his discussions into our current era, Haycox again shows the effects of colonialism. In the national consciousness, Alaska shifted from being “the Last Frontier” to “the last wilderness.” Battles have been fought over dams, mines, oil drilling and pipelines, logging, subsistence use, Native sovereignty, taxation, and budgets, with considerable influence from outside forces. Our largely transient and largely urban Alaska population is often at odds with those other interests but is also frequently more interested in present rewards than in the future.

Aside from the big picture of Alaska’s history, readers will find many fascinating tidbits of information interwoven into the text and the answers to questions they may have wondered about. Did you know that the “ice trade” between Alaska and California is what kept the Russian colonization going as long as it did? Do you know why the border between southeast Alaska and Canada is as geographically nonsensical as it is? Why are Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, and Nome located where they are? Why are Anchorage’s streets named and numbered as they are? How did the Tongass Forest end up with 50-year logging contracts and pulp mills, and what brought that to an end?

A close reading of “Alaska: An American Colony” by those seeking and filling political office at this time could go a long way to understanding the attitudes, institutions and fiscal realities of Alaskans and Alaska today. It could certainly enlighten discussions of our future and possibly lead to realistic, responsible decisions.

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