OPINION: Let’s improve civic discourse in Alaska

To help raise the level of civil discourse across Alaska, the Alaska Historical Society (AHS) is undertaking two initiatives to create a more productive environment in which to arrive at sound public policy.

Beginning Thursday in the central Kenai Peninsula, the AHS will hold its annual conference with nearly three dozen compelling presentations over two and a half days on subjects from gunboat justice to challenges with Native education.

Two weeks later, the Society will launch a new four-part lecture and panel discussion series on pressing public policy issues facing Alaska. The first session, Oct. 19 at the Anchorage Museum, focuses on Alaska Native sovereignty with three of the nation’s top experts on the subject.

They are attorney and Alaska Native Justice Center Chief Operating Officer Alex Cleghorn, legal scholar and author David S. Case, and Tlingit scholar and anthropologist Rosita Kaaháni Worl, Ph.D.

It will focus on the history of the relationship between Native groups and the federal government. The landmark 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was broadly seen as the settlement of long-standing Alaska Native land claims. Some contend the act greatly limits Native sovereignty, while others point to Native assertion of sovereignty in self-government and active management of vital services such as health care delivery.

Both the conference and Critical Issues Lecture Series are designed to combat the often-willful distortion of history and create a more productive environment in which to arrive at sound public policy.

Today in Alaska and much of the rest of the country, our civil discourse has deteriorated to a point where sensible public policy is not only enormously challenging but often unachievable. By demonstrating how knowledge of history can inform and improve current public policy debate, we hope to raise the level of discussion so an informed public can encourage decision-makers to draw on history to make fact-based policy that serves the broadest diversity of Alaskans.


The statewide AHS is dedicated to the promotion of Alaska history through the exchange of ideas and information, the preservation and interpretation of resources and the education of Alaskans about their heritage. The society has a long history of advocating for Alaska history, including adequate state funding for historical preservation.

The AHS also has weighed in on giving proper context to statues and monuments of controversial figures such as William Seward and Alexander Baranof. The society also joined with other Pacific Northwest historical organizations to kill a Trump administration proposal to close the national archives in Seattle, which contains millions of Alaska records, and move them even further from Alaskans to the California desert.

The theme for this year’s conference, the first fully in-person since the COVID-19 pandemic, is “Connections and Disconnections in Alaska History.” It speaks to historical processes that have created wealth and opportunity for many in Alaska while causing profound loss of lands and livelihoods for many others.

Keynote speaker Diane Hirshberg, director of the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Institute of Social and Economic Research, will kick off the conference with a focus on Alaska education, especially that affecting Indigenous and rural youth.

While statistics show students struggle to succeed in school across the state, Hirshberg says many factors are to blame — high teacher turnover, poor facilities and inadequate teaching methods. She argues too many policymakers, researchers and educators fail to critically examine how historic colonization and assimilation efforts in Alaska created and propagated the current situation.

Other panels will focus on many aspects of Alaska history, from life in our state over the centuries and prominent Alaskans to examining various industries such as aviation, tourism and transportation, including the Alaska Railroad, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.

Each program will feature a small panel of experts who will discuss the topic at hand and take questions from both a live and online audience.

Subsequent programs will explore:

The “Americanization of Alaska”: Starting in 1867 with the transfer of Alaska from Russian to American control, the federal government extended its administration over the territory. Americanization through the years had both enormously positive and negative impacts that continue today.

Historic examples of how conservation and development can co-exist: Alaska is recognized as a state rich with natural resources vital to the nation. Since statehood in 1959, resource development has been vital to the state. Conservation advocates and organizations have played a role in ensuring responsible development. This session will assess the historical record with examples that are relevant to present and future development.

Alaska as the canary in the coal mine for climate change: Many scientists consider Alaska to be Ground Zero for predicting the direction and impacts of climate change. This session will examine research produced in Alaska and how it speaks to developing climate change policies.

The lecture series is in partnership with the Cook Inlet Historical Society and supported by a generous grant from the Atwood Foundation.

Details on both the annual conference and lecture series are on the AHS website: AlaskaHistoricalSociety.org.

Will Schneider is a University of Alaska Fairbanks professor emeritus and recent past president of the Alaska Historical Society. Author and former reporter David Ramseur is the current president of the AHS.

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