A Clash of Cultures
This week's (12-01-03) featured photograph: The sun sets over Anchorage as seen from Little O'Malley Peak in the Chugach Mountains. It's really great living in Anchorage because its only a twenty minute drive to Alaska from here! You can hike a few miles into the mountains or jump on a snow machine and be in the middle of nowhere real quick. Early this year I saw a wolf hunting ground squirrels in the mountains less than 16km (10 miles) from downtown Anchorage. The summer days never end but for the six months of winter (October through March) you get six to ten hours of sunlight and you forget what green looks like. Anchorage, at the northern end of Cook Inlet, is the hub of modern Alaskan commerce and culture.
Like most of North America, Alaska's modern culture is of recent origin. Native Alaskan people, on the other hand, had an extensive social network based on trade and a subsistence economy throughout all of Alaska by at least 4500 years ago. The invasion of Alaska by Europeans started 250 years ago when Russian fur hunters began harvesting seals and sea otters in the Aleutian islands, an area that had been the home of the Aleut people for 7000 years(Langdon). The Aleuts vigorously resisted the violent invasion of their ancestral waters but they were decimated by Russian guns and European diseases. The Aleuts bore the brunt of the invasion during the last half of the eighteenth century, but other native groups including the Yup'ik and Inupiat Eskimos, Alutiiq, Athapaskans and Tlingit were also attacked and displaced. European diseases, unknown to the natives, including smallpox, tuberculosis, and syphilis wrecked havoc and killed huge parts of the population.
The shores and inland areas of Cook Inlet including the vicinity of Anchorage is an area about the size of Ohio and is the home of the Dena'ina people (Kari and Kari 1982), known to anthropologists as the Tanaina. Over half of all Alaskans today live in Dena'ina country. Like some other native groups, the Dena'ina sometimes traded furs to the Russians and sometimes resisted the oppresive tactics of the fur companies which included murdering the competition, and taking women and children hostage in order to force the cooperation of the men. The Eskimos and Dena'ina fought many battles against the Russians. In 1799 the Dena'ina of Lake Illiamna destroyed the Russian fort and killed all the settlers (Vaudrin 1969). As elsewhere, the Russians returned and prevailed through force of arms and eventual acculturation and intermarriage. After the sea otters and seal populations were depleted, commercial fishing operations were developed by the Americans which further disrupted traditional native lifestyles.
American companies established salmon canneries on the best fishing streams in Cook Inlet in the 1880s (Townsend 1981). At the begining of the 20th century gold mining operations began in Alaska on a large scale at Nome,and in the Klondike. I have seen small claims that are still in operation today on the Susitna River, which drains into Cook Inlet and the remains of placer mines from a hundred years ago are easily visible in Crow Pass above Turnagain Arm. In 1915 Anchorage began as a tent city and was built as the headquarters for the construction of the Alaska Railroad. In the 1950s and 60s gas and oil wells were drilled on Kenai Peninsula and in Cook Inlet. In 1968 Atlantic Richfield Company struck oil in Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope.
Native groups had been asserting their right to ancestral lands throughout Alaska for many years. Cases had been brought to court and legal title to large areas was undecided when the estimated 10 billion barrel oil field was discovered at Prudhoe Bay. As Naske and Slotnick put it:
By now the oil companies realized that there would be no pipeline unless the Native land claims were settled first. British Petroleum soon agreed to help lobby for a Native claims bill and agreed to persuade its partners to do like wise.On December 18, 1971 President Richard Nixon signed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act into law. ANCSA settled all Native claims by transferring legal title to 40 million acres of Alaska to Regional and Village corporations owned by Native shareholders. Native corporations have important holdings throughout Alaska and in the Anchorage area including hotels, businesses, and real estate. It is ironic that the continued exploitation of Alaska's natural resources at the expense of the Native population finally gave them the leverage they needed to secure title to their own land.