In the spring of 1989, I was a junior at Harvard College looking for a senior thesis topic when the Exxon Valdez ran aground, spilling 10.8 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound. Topic acquired, I returned home over the summer to travel through Alaska interviewing Alaska residents. What made a person an Alaskan? What kind of development was appropriate for Alaska? What was the role of government? How should we protect the environment? Had the Exxon Valdez oil spill changed their views?
Throughout these interviews Alaskans used language of the frontier and pioneering to frame and explain their sometimes-conflicting feelings about independence and governance, development and environmental protections. Like historian Frederick Jackson Turner, who believed that the frontier shaped the American democratic character, they argued that the unique characteristics of Alaskans — individuality, independence, egalitarianism, faith in the common man — were developed through the frontier experience. While there is much to dislike about Turner’s “Frontier Thesis,” particularly his views toward Native Americans and the celebration of unbridled opportunism and exploitation, his ideas also reflect some of the best of the frontier spirit that has flourished in Alaska.
Listening to the current budget conversation in the state, I am reminded of Turner and of the conversations I had with my fellow Alaskans in 1989. I hadn’t realized just how much of those frontier ideals are missing from the current discourse. Some threads of the conversation have remained the same, such as a distrust of government and over-regulation of industry. However, some foundational values expressed then seem to have all but disappeared, particularly when it comes to ideas about Alaskan self-reliance, hard-work and neighborliness. No topic illustrates that change more clearly than how some Alaskans now view the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend.
Alaskans in 1989 weren’t complaining about the “free money,” but they weren’t about to depend on it, either. As one person told me, “We’ll take it while it’s here, but we don’t rely on it.” Now, as some Alaskans argue that the PFD has become sacrosanct, it feels like the key Alaska values I was raised with have been turned on their head. The PFD has gone from a tool to an entitlement, and we have become more like “food stamp pioneers,” the term one of my interviewees gave to people who wanted to have the Alaska experience without the actual work. So now we have PFD pioneers who believe it is more important than education, medical care or public safety — more important than taking care of each other. Alaska is in the Upside Down and the PFD is our Demogorgon.
Turner didn’t just look at how the frontier shaped the American democratic character, he also looked at how we could retain it with declining resources. His answer to that was the state university. In his essay “Pioneer Ideals and the State University,” Turner argues that state universities are a critical tool for advancing and preserving American democracy and supporting sound governance and development of resources.
His arguments rest on two basic premises: first, that education is necessary for sustainable development and growth in modern societies, and, second, that education must be provided to all people of talent and interest, not just the wealthy and powerful. He writes, “the State Universities must furnish at least as liberal opportunities for research and training as the universities based on private endowments furnish. It needs no argument to show that it is not to the advantage of democracy to give over the training of the expert exclusively to privately endowed institutions.”
Cutting the University of Alaska leaves the state without this important driver of innovation and development. It abandons the citizens of Alaska, taking away their opportunity for education and leaving them at the mercy of outside experts, politicians and economic interests. It is the opposite of the ideals and values that Alaskans have worked toward for over 50 years. We must not give up on our university, our young people or our right and ability to chart our own course. I leave you with Turner’s final words on the subject:
“The pioneer’s clearing must be broadened into a domain where all that is worthy of human endeavor may find fertile soil on which to grow; and America must exact of the constructive business geniuses who owe their rise to the freedom of pioneer democracy supreme allegiance and devotion to the commonweal. In fostering such an outcome and in tempering the asperities of the conflicts that must precede its fulfillment, the nation has no more promising agency than the State Universities, no more hopeful product than their graduates.”
If you want to read more from Turner, his full collection of essays, “The Frontier in American History,” is available online as a Project Gutenberg eBook.
Editor's note: This column has been edited to correct the amount of oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez.
Jennifer Carroll is a lifelong Alaskan and assistant professor of rural development in the Department of Alaska Native Studies and Rural Development at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.