Who is the Real Alaskan?

A solitary man travels across the snow-covered tundra by sled, with ice crystals forming on his beard, malamutes relentlessly tugging him along, the northern lights performing its spectacular light show up in the twilight, a log cabin just barely on the horizon, his only sanctuary to protect him against the brutal subzero temperatures. This is an image commonly conjured up when imagining what Alaskans are like: a rugged, individual man’s man traversing an unforgiving land and surviving on only his wits and the little that nature provides him. A powerful, romantic image to be sure, one additionally peppered with kind Eskimos, cartoony igloos, and man-eating bears. But how accurate is such a description of the typical Alaskan? Are all 700,000 citizens eccentric loners struggling in the wilderness? If not, why does such a stereotype persist in our collective mind?

man

Girly men need not apply. Actual hair shown.

There have been a plethora of reality shows that have been produced in Alaska, all telling essentially the same story: real men escaping the trappings of modern life and braving the harsh elements of “The Final Frontier” in order to live however they want to live. One such show, Edge of Alaska, portrays the small community of McCarthy as a haven for lawlessness and populated by rugged, masculine individuals surviving a brutal, wintry landscape.  Many activities in the show, such as hunting and tracking animals, are dramatized for the sake of engaging television audiences rather than telling an accurate story. There is one episode where a man tracks down a lynx, explaining how dangerous they are, even though cases of lynxes attacking humans are extremely rare, if not nonexistent.

With ominous music playing and frantic camera edits showing harrowing scenes of the Alaskan frontier, Edge of Alaska creates an atmosphere of danger by claiming that the town is 100 miles from a police station, even though there is indeed a police station right in town.  The citizens interviewed for the show were handpicked for their eccentricities that would fit the narrative of Alaska being the home for outcasts, thereby omitting some of the more conventional lives that would dispel such notions. The husky-voiced narrator constantly reminds viewers how no one but half-crazy outlaws would inhabit such a place, perhaps unwittingly attracting real criminals to an otherwise quiet rural setting.

guy“Finally, a place where I can be accepted for who I am.”

Just about every show about Alaska portrays the state this way, but just how independent and iconoclastic are Alaskans? A libertarian, anti-government attitude persists among Alaska’s citizens; however it turns out that of all fifty United States, Alaska receives the most federal money per capita despite paying the least in federal taxes. The image of the lone bushman living solely off the land is put into question knowing the fact that over half of Alaskans live in metropolitan areas such as Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau.[1]

It notable that the quintessential Alaskan is considered to be a hyper-masculine white male, thus relegating Native Alaskans to the sidelines. This is ironic, for it is known that Native Alaskans were the original inhabitants of this great land. This omission suggests that the romanticized myth of the Great White Hunter conquering his surroundings originates from the imagination of contemporary white men. Alaskan cultural studies have demonstrated that Native storytellers “show a complex, mutually supportive relationship between humans and nature” whereas “Euro-Americans frequently position Alaska as … a mythical, yet-to-be-discovered, precultural, prediscursive, and precommercial space still waiting to be conquered.”[2]

boy

The Great White Hunter

So, with the Alaskan stereotype being a white invention, to what purpose does it serve the contemporary Caucasian? Perhaps post-industrial man has regarded the cultured, comfortable urban life as too far removed from what he perceives as the more superior experience of battling an unforgiving wilderness. Perhaps modern man considers his disposition as too domesticated and effeminate, yearning for a mythological time where real men would test their mettle against the elements thus proving to themselves that they were true paragons of masculinity.

Alaska, then, would provide the perfect setting for such macho aspirations to venture in a land not yet civilized or tainted by modern society. Alaska would serve as a vision of what America used to be, back in the days of pioneers and gold panners. Alaska would exist in the dreams of men as a place where one could truly reclaim one’s manhood outside of an increasingly artificial suburban wasteland. “So  many people live within unhappy circumstances,” a young Christopher McCandless writes, “and yet will not … change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security …, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future.”[3] He, like many men, sought something more raw, authentic, and liberating.

The Alaskan tourism industry thrives on such notions, attracting people from all over to escape from their mundane lives and experience real, risk-taking adventure. It is ironic for all its perceived rugged individualism, Alaska’s economy relies heavily not only on government (its largest employer), but on its increasingly lucrative tourism business.[2] With its presumption as being more American than America, Alaska fills a psychological need for Americans to relive their collective memory of a land unsettled and free.

gal                                More American than you could ever dream.                                                          

A television show such as Northern Exposure takes this need and not only satisfies the hunger, but pokes fun at it, and explores it with unparalleled depth not seen in other Alaskan-themed shows. The premise of the show is essentially an isolated Alaskan setting that accommodates for each person to be an unapologetic, eccentric individual. It identifies each character’s ideology and temperament based on social class, background, and how they treat one another. For instance, some of the more urbane, elitist characters who try to impose some kind of unilateral law and order in the rural town setting are constantly rebuffed by the more community-minded characters.

Using Alaska as a setting for a story, the authors were free to write colorful characters getting into absurd situations due to the wild, untamed aura surrounding it. Alaskan stereotypes are subverted, not only for the sake of humor but for the sake of revealing the true humanity of the characters portrayed. The show represented a place where people could ultimately get along despite their differences in a beautiful, unspoiled wilderness.[4] This familiar nostalgia of a place of where community and empathy are paramount is in direct opposition to the anxiety-ridden, alienating realm of contemporary society that we exist in today.

In conclusion, it is apparent to me that the Alaskan stereotype is a manifestation of the rural American folk hero (ie Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed) from the minds of modern, urbanized man. The mythos persists for both psychological and economical reasons, providing a pre-civilized state of being for the American who tires of his domesticated livelihood, and providing revenue for a state that continually exploits this branding to attract such people.

 hbteds

Doing this research assignment I learned a lot about the American consciousness with its cultural peculiarities emphasizing masculinity yet with society simultaneously promoting domestication. I understand why people of all walks of life travel up to Alaska, whether for embarking on wild adventures, appreciating nature, or attempting to find themselves as well as seeking greater truths about life. I amusingly realized how many of the common stereotypes and myths about Alaskans were propagated by Alaskans themselves, including myself. I take a lot of pride in where I come from, so I guess any chance that I can talk up my homeland, it is apparent that I am willing to use any means necessary!

There is a lot of truth to the soul-searching aspect for travelers in Alaska. I have met many a person abandoning their comfort zones to come up there, some of them choosing to stay and become real Alaskan citizens. It is fascinating how this state serves as an outlet for people wishing to escape the confines of their daily humdrum. These facts further enhance my feelings of being blessed for being born and raised in such a great, unique land.

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Works Cited & Sources

 

[1] Drutman, Lee. “Alaska: Land of Contradictions.” Pacific Standard.  n.p., 2 Oct. 2008.  Web. http://www.psmag.com/politics-and-law/alaska-land-of-contradictions-4209

[2] Hogan, Maureen P. &  Pursell, Timothy. “The Real Alaskan: Nostalgia and Masculinity in the Last    Frontier.” Men and Masculinities 11.1 (2008): 63-85. Web. http://www.researchgate.net/publication/249696483_The_Real_AlaskanNostalgia_and_Rural_Masculinity_in_the_Last_Frontier

[3] Krakuer, Jon. Into the Wild. New York City: Villard, 1996. 56-57. Print.

[4] Gatzke, Jennifer. “Northern Exposure: A Site for Hegemonic Structure?” Department of Anthropology. University of Idaho, April 2003. Web. http://www.webpages.uidaho.edu/sense-place/northernexposure.htm

Everything is Terrible!. “Alaskan Hunks.” Web Advertisement. Vimeo. Apr 2015. https://vimeo.com/124783232

“Pilot” & “Brains, Know-How, and Native Intelligence.” Northern Exposure. CBS. 12 & 19 July 1990. Television.

“Winter’s Grip.” Edge of Alaska. Discovery. 9 July 2014. Television.

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2 thoughts on “Who is the Real Alaskan?

  1. I really liked how you dug deep into this false indoctrination of what Alaskans are like. I like to think of Alaska as a quiet and secluded place, where man lives in harmony with nature. And yet, does not have the drama of the urban settings such as we see in the lower 48 states. I really liked the fact that you point out, how modern media exploits peoples lack of knowledge to get them into what they are selling. This constitutes a misleading and far fetched notion of live, and residing in Alaska. I know from reading about the people who catch crabs commercially, is the most dangerous thing in Alaska.
    I have a couple of questions…1) Are you from Alaska?, 2) If not, have you traveled there, and what is it like for a vacation there?, and 3) How did the United States really get Alaska from Russian rule? (I put that last one in there, as I am curious. I have heard many different sides to this story). Excellent post, I really enjoyed reading it, and appreciate your creativity in your writing.

    • I was born and raised in southeast Alaska in a small fishing village on a tiny island. In 1867 the Secretary of State, William Seward negotiated a purchase of the vast acreage of land known to us as Alaska from the Russians for around $7 million. In retrospect, this was a steal despite the fact that Seward was ridiculed by his colleagues for this enterprise. However, they were proven wrong as Alaska has demonstrated itself to be rich in natural resources as well as a strategically important landmass for America.

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