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Review: 'Alaska at 50' fails as comprehensive overview but has some redeeming qualities

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Posted: Sunday, April 4, 2010 4:24 am | Updated: 1:41 pm, Wed Dec 26, 2012.

FAIRBANKS - Unless you spent all of last year living in a permafrost tunnel, you probably heard that 2009 marked the 50th anniversary of Alaska’s statehood. But you might not know that amidst the numerous efforts undertaken to mark the event was the Alaska Statehood Experience grant program, which this spring released “Alaska at 50,” a book that attempts to take stock of where our state has been and where it is going.

The book, edited by G.W. Kimura, includes contributions from numerous Alaskans, many of them quite prominent. But while it does offer some food for thought, as an omnibus overview of our state, it ultimately falls far short of its goal.

Let’s start with what works.

Kimura notes in his introduction that Native Alaskans were for all intents excluded from the push for statehood during the 1950s, and in an effort at balancing this out he has represented their interests well.

Among the several essays concerning Native issues, two in particular stand out. The first, titled “A Journey to What Matters,” was contributed by Tlingit author Susan A. Anderson, and examines the struggles Natives have faced in reclaiming their culture. As she notes, the parents and grandparents of today’s Native Alaskans were often forcibly removed from their homes and sent to boarding schools where they were, in the minds of their teachers, “cleansed” of their culture.

Among the results of this shameful episode were the loss of Native languages and, even worse, the loss of identity. Anderson points to the success of the Ya Ne Da Ah School in Chickaloon, which emphasizes Native culture in its curriculum, as one antidote. Students from this school are performing exceptionally well, indicating that this model should be emulated in other villages.

Dennis and Jason Metrokin, who have been heavily involved with Native corporations that grew from the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, offer a thoughtful and enlightening look at how these institutions have functioned. Since Native corporations differ from both the tribal government system in use elsewhere in the nation, as well as from traditional corporations, they have been in effect an experiment, and the two authors explore some of the lessons learned from this.

Politics also get a fair shake. Vic Fischer, a delegate to Alaska’s 1955-56 Constitutional Convention, reminisces on that event. He also reminds us that a constitution, as he puts it, should only provide a foundation. It is up to the legislative process to build the rooms. With that in mind, and citing the 1998 marriage amendment, he rightfully chastises Alaskans for sometimes viewing the document as a means of passing legislation.

The single best essay comes from Charles Wohlforth, who presents a scathing indictment of the failure of Alaska’s political class, particularly since the onset of the oil boom. He reminds us that Bill Allen’s corrupting influence had been documented as far back as 1984 when he was caught making illegal contributions. And yet he continued to operate the legislature as his private fiefdom, and it wasn’t until the feds stepped in that this was stopped.

Wohlforth lays the heaviest blame for this on Alaskans themselves, who ignored the blatant cronyism as long as they received their oil checks. He notes that unless some sense of civic responsibility is restored in the citizenry, the state will be unable to resolve its myriad problems. It’s the most penetrating essay found in this book, and it offers a glimpse of what could have been if the contributors had been pushed a bit harder.

Outgoing University of Alaska President Mark Hamilton offers a concise history of that institution and presents a strong argument for why it needs to be supported. Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Dana Fabe presents a similar overview of the state’s judicial system. These essays could have been a bit more critically minded if they’d been written by persons a step or so removed from these institutions, but both still provide good insight.

So where does this book go wrong?

The first major weakness is found in the opening section, which focuses on arts and culture. It’s simply far too long — nearly half the book, in fact — and features too many authors. Several articles are disjointed, and the chapter on literary Alaska, which includes nine writers, gets redundant. Had this section been cut by half, it would have resulted in a much more readable overview.

But the real failure here is how much is left out. The challenges facing Alaska’s villages are well covered, but the state’s urban areas, where the overwhelming majority of the population lives, are completely ignored. On economic matters, resource issues receive good coverage, but there is precious little about our precarious dependence on the federal government for handouts. The strategic importance of Alaska is never mentioned, nor is the impact of the military on our economy. Indeed, this is a very parochial book that never seriously considers Alaska’s role in the nation and the world.

Also missing is any close examination of environmental debates. Energy issues are ignored. Wildlife management, a perennially hot topic, is overlooked. The still unresolved conflicts between subsistence and urban hunters also are left out. And on it goes.

Additionally, the proofreaders and fact checkers missed some doozies (Jay Hammond was not governor in 1966), indicating sloppy work.

“Alaska at 50” includes some good history, plenty of thoughtful writing, and a few flashes of truly penetrating analysis. But by excluding so many of the issues facing Alaskans, it fails to be the comprehensive overview it sets out to be. And that’s a shame, because we probably won’t get the chance to see another book of this sort until we hit 100.

David A. James lives in Fairbanks.

Alaska at 50

Edited by G.W. Kimura

University of Alaska Press

304 pages • 2009

$24.95

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