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What does it mean to be an Alaskan?

  • Author: Karl Kircher
    | Opinion
  • Updated: March 18
  • Published March 17

Steam rises from buildings and fog rises off Cook Inlet on a cold morning in downtown Anchorage, Alaska on Wednesday, January 18, 2017. The snow-covered Chugach Mountains rise in the background. (Bob Hallinen / ADN)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy once again proved that nothing wins an election easier than supporting the peoples’ right to be an Alaskan. Simply chalking his victory up to promising big checks is too simple.

Today, if asked, “How do you define an Alaskan?” the quickest, easiest answer from most people would include, “somebody who gets an Alaska Permanent Fund dividend check.” Like it or not, on a basic level, voters saw Gov. Dunleavy as a defender of what quintessentially now makes them an Alaskan.

During the early days of statehood, the homesteaders’ definition of being an Alaskan would have been quite different. Their spirit of being an Alaskan would likely include a dedication to working together and contributing to create a society in the vast, beautiful place they wanted to live. They were proving up on homesteads and settling towns in hopes of persuading the government to support them with roads, bridges, and schools.

My quest to be an Alaskan began somewhere in between the two above time frames. It was the summer of 1979; I was a “spit rat” from “Outside,” living in a pup tent on the Homer Spit and hitchhiking back and forth to my job squeezing the roe out of rotten herring carcasses at the Whitney Fidalgo Plant.

When I returned the next spring, I possessed the following items that I felt were essential for being an Alaskan: a salmon-season deckhand job, a beat-up pickup truck, well-worn knee boots, Carhartts, Helly Hansens and, of course, a gun. Then I did something that really sealed the deal in my mind. I went to H&R Block in Soldotna and filed my state of Alaska income tax return for the previous year. It was this last fact that got me the most for my money when proclaiming my “Alaskan-ness” to my resident friends. After all, I was a contributor; I worked here and paid my share to help the state grow.

All that changed in 1983, when I finally moved to Alaska permanently and got my first PFD. Suddenly, receiving a check from the government and not paying taxes was the ultimate definition of being an Alaskan. I loved the definition when the pipeline was full, and admit I would get cocky when I went back East to visit and described how Alaskans get checks from their government instead of paying in. It was a great definition when a barrel of oil was worth more than $100 and Alaska was on top of the world while the rest of the country was in recession. Sarah Palin even threw in another grand for good measure. Unfortunately, like many others, I held stubbornly onto the definition and did not speak up as the state burned through its savings when oil prices and production dropped.

Although Gov. Dunleavy may very well have played to the voters’ pride in being Alaskan to ensure being elected, his proposed budget now shows the true cost to Alaska of maintaining the notion that real Alaskans do not pay taxes.

Alaska has changed considerably since 1980, when the state income tax was abolished. It now may be time once again to redefine what being an Alaskan is. Are we willing to see thousands of our neighbors lose their jobs and leave the state, have our educational systems gutted, eliminate services that our far-flung communities depend upon, squeeze our local communities financially by rewriting tax laws and limit services to our seniors and others all to maintain the bravado of being paid to live here?

We obviously cannot rewind the definition of being an Alaskan back to what it was in the homesteader days, when contributing physically was a necessity and the currency was sweat and time. However, it seems it is once again time to define an Alaskan as someone willing to contribute, in today’s currency, to make The Great Land a great place to live for themselves and others.

Karl Kircher got his start in Alaska as a Homer “spit rat,” then fished commercially statewide and was most recently an educator. He has three grown sons and a grandson, all of whom are lifelong Alaska residents. His hope is that they remain so.

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