New history compelling despite flaws

Posted: Thursday, March 27, 2003

Alaskans imagine themselves as uniquely rugged individuals, surviving on the edge and triumphing over harsh nature. But historian Stephen Haycox says some of Alaskans' most cherished assumptions are myths.

In his book "Alaska: An American Colony," he maintains that Alaska has been a colonial society ever since the whites took over.

"Russian America never attained self-sufficiency," he writes. "American Alaska has been similarly dependent because the capital necessary to develop its natural resources has never resided in the territory.

"Alaska is no more economically self-sufficient today that it was in the Russian period; outside support is still necessary to sustain settlement in the region."

Haycox urges Alaskans to better understand the state's past to make more realistic choices about its future.

His prose is lively and lucid, he organizes his thoughts and he backs up his points with a wealth of scholarly information. He is engrossing and opinionated.

To support his thesis of colonialism, Haycox looks at Alaska's history in the broader context many other authors ignore, giving his book admirable depth and breadth. He discusses the collision between the European and Native cultures as part of worldwide European colonial expansion and the settling of the American West.

"As its history has developed, Alaska has been ever more closely drawn into and bound to the culture and life of the American nation. In fact, a primary drive of the majority of its people has been to reduce distinctions from the rest of America and re-create U.S. culture as thoroughly and quickly as possible," he writes.

Haycox's main thesis colors everything in the book. For example, he describes the Russian adventure in Alaska as motivated by mercantile capitalism: "... (The Russian American Company) was a classic colonial exploiter of distant resources solely for the economic enrichment of the investors, and through tax revenue, the government. During its first 21-year charter the company and the government paid but cursory attention to the impact of its exploitative activities on the American Native populations. They were a convenience when they could be brought to serve the pursuit of investor profit and an annoyance or worse when they could not."

He says the Russians moved into Southeast Alaska not only in pursuit of furs, but also to block the area from rival colonial claims from Spain, France, Britain and the United States. He attributes the eventual Russian decision to sell the colony not so much to the depletion of furs as to decisions in St. Petersburg to focus colonization on the Amur region, give up on the chronic problems of supplying food to Alaska and consolidate the Russian empire after the stresses of the Napoleonic and Crimean wars.

Haycox thoroughly explores the origins of modern Alaska rather than focusing on recent decades. He dedicates nearly half the book to the Russian period and works generation by generation through the 136 years since the United States purchased the territory.

He discusses how population surges during the Gold Rush and wars changed the territory's status, how land claims and subsistence became issues and how Alaska's politicians have played off outside investors against Alaskans' wishes for self-determination. He traces disputes over logging the Tongass and drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain to a shift in America's view of Alaska from "the last frontier" to "the last great wilderness."

He doesn't reach the Hammond Administration until 26 pages from the text's end.

Haycox has strong opinions and states them bluntly.

For example, he says, "World War II completely, profoundly, and permanently changed Alaska."

But sometimes he relies on tertiary sources, could have benefited from more peer review of his work and displays an uneven knowledge of different regions.

He seems lost on the Kenai Peninsula, calling the Kenaitze tribe "Kenaitzy" and putting the first Russian post and the Swanson River oil strike miles from their true locations.

But his descriptions of the history of Southeast are particularly strong. He views the area as a focal point for European interest in the new land and as the first part of the state to attract sustained American activity. He convincingly fits the Klondike gold stampede and the foundings of Sitka, Juneau and Wrangell into a larger picture.

The weakest part of the book is the introduction. Haycox allows a thousand words to do the work of one picture, describing what any reader could see on a good map. Striving for a comprehensive overview of Alaska's geography and first peoples, he can lapse into the painfully obvious. We don't need the good professor to tell us, "In the Arctic, Natives ... wore furs because their environment contained furbearers, and they needed the warmth of animal skins."

Readers can take heart that it does get better.

Although Haycox is out to debunk much of the romance of the last frontier of legend, the book is full of compelling adventure well told. Historical black-and-white photos enhance the text, even though the index and bibliography disappoint.

Alaskans still don't have an ideal, up-to-date, general-interest book on the state's history. But this one is better than most. Haycox at least gives us a book that is well worth reading for its scope, thought-provoking content and reader-friendly prose.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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