Opinions

Half a century after ANCSA, revisiting the dynamic contrasts of rural Alaska

In 1985, concerned about a growing rift between rural and urban Alaska, the editors of the Anchorage Daily News launched a series about life in the state’s remote regions. Reporter Tom Kizzia spent two years traveling to fly-in villages and camps to write about the people and their concerns, the local sagas, and the fast pace of change. The “Northcountry Journal” series won numerous press awards and served as the basis for a non-fiction book published by Henry Holt in 1991.

On the 50th anniversary of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, Kizzia’s book, “The Wake of the Unseen Object,” has been reissued by the University of Alaska Press as part of its Classic Reprint series. The book was cited for its literary quality and for presenting an unusually vivid portrait of a time and place.

In a new introduction for the reprint edition, excerpted here, Kizzia recalls the agenda behind the original newspaper series. He is frank about his own fumbling efforts to understand the places he visited, where much of the culture was unseen, and he reflects on how differently a white reporter’s accounts might be received in today’s world.

“Northcountry Journal” cast a wide net. I wrote about homesteaders, missionaries (religious and secular), social workers, and a great deal about life in Alaska Native villages, all beyond the road system. Travel in the Bush was harder then, which made the stories better. The absence of village facilities for shunting off visitors allowed for more human interaction wherever I arrived. I learned about the wonder of rural hospitality.

[Excerpt from “Wake of the Unseen Object”: People of Kauwerak]

My editors steered me away from some of journalism’s bad habits. They wanted stories about real people: no whaling-camp cliches or background-heavy thumbsuckers. They gave me a three-by-five card of instructions, to carry in my backpack. If I came across a news event in a remote village, I was to “turn and walk in the other direction.” If ever I felt the need to use a term of anthropology, I was to “lie down and breathe deeply until the feeling passed.”

The decision to fashion from all this material a book focusing on the Alaska Native world came later. A New York book editor saw how lucky my timing had been. The 1980s were a critical period in the history of this region. A mark of the era’s vitality is that current events in Alaska today have not drifted far from the book’s themes.

Alaska was experiencing a first resurgence of tribal governance, under an assertion of federal Indian law, as a response to the previous generation’s creation of Native-owned corporations. Conflicts between the two centers of power continue, as do the many challenges to subsistence practice arising from urban growth. The struggles of a first people to persist in their ancestral landscapes, while asserting themselves fully in the modern world, remain the focus of rural politics and village life.

Many things have changed, to be sure. The unblinking larger world now beams in over the internet, not Ratnet (the experimental satellite-TV station of the 1980s). All-terrain vehicles have four wheels instead of three. Strides have been made in village housing and sanitation. The permafrost is thawing and the ice is going away. And we have seen the passing of a last generation of elders whose memories reached back to the time before modern settlements — men and women whose stories give an elegiac tone to parts of this book.

Unlike many Alaska memoirs, however, this project was never meant to evoke a vanishing world. Quite the opposite: I was trying to portray the lives of contemporary Native American people, for whom past and future lie side by side in surprising juxtapositions.

Those incongruous moments are still part of Bush life, I was reminded recently, as I stood shivering alongside two teenagers in subzero cold outside the Point Hope gymnasium, all of us trying on a weekend to pick up the school’s Wi-Fi signal.

Today, as during the time described in this book, the great dramas of Alaska Native life revolve around efforts to adapt and resist, to preserve hunting and fishing and sharing traditions for future generations, to balance self-government and corporate capitalism, to overcome traumas that followed subjugation by colonial powers. And beneath all this, the land remains, as it was then, wild and serene and withholding, bountiful and remote — its deep cultural meaning for its first people unseen by casual visitors, perhaps, but ever-present, still a pounding in the heart.

For the book, I revisited fewer than half my newspaper trips. Rather than a collection of short articles, the book would be the story of a two-year journey, each chapter structured, geographically and thematically, to tell a piece of the larger narrative.

In the Anchorage Daily News, I appeared as a character only as an occasional story device. The book, however, would be a traveler’s tale from start to finish. First-person: meet the First People. The traveler would be well-informed but modest, not some kind of expert (breathe deeply — certainly not an anthropologist!). Sometimes he was the white kid from America’s suburbs, sometimes the cabin-dweller from Homer, in either case the traveler whose voice was there in my private journals — curious and full of energy, uncomfortable but hopeful, not Native but not altogether naive. A witness, then, from someplace far away, but also an Alaskan exploring his homeland.

The presumptuousness of reporting a series like Northcountry Journal would be more apparent today. The “arc” of the book’s plot, as I saw it, was my own education: my progress through hard-won lessons in paying attention, in learning to perceive “a separate world lying beneath the visible surface” of a contemporary Native village. In an era of heightened concern about cultural appropriation, Alaska Native readers might well cringe at the haphazard pedagogy of a visiting journalist. If this portrait of a place holds up, it’s thanks to the counsel of some of Alaska’s wisest minds of that era, Native and non-Native, who trusted my previous work enough to coach me, to describe for me the structures of village life and the visible wake in the present day of Russian and American expansion in the 19th century. Those guides, rarely named in the book, seemed to appreciate that, although we didn’t talk in those days about “de-colonization” or “white privilege,” I traveled and wrote with a sense of the blinders to my own perception.

Indeed, challenging the presumptions of the dominant culture — looking from a distance back toward the alien spaceship of Anchorage — was a deep theme of this project from the start. The goal was not to sort between various claims of authority within the Native community, but to emphasize, for urban readers in the modern oil era, the underlying geographical and moral and historical case for “tribal consultation” — for acknowledging the rightful place in Alaska life of the land’s Indigenous people.

Happily, the book over time found an appreciative audience in Alaska. I was never more pleased than the night, a few years after publication, when I was summoned to witness, at a festival of Alaska Native dance, a stage performance led by the expressive elder Mary Sundown of Scammon Bay. Her family, whose story I told in the book’s last chapter, had choreographed a new dance about watching for the wake of unseen animal spirits. Qavlunaq.

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