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Alaska as the Last Frontier

Posted: August 21, 2012 - 11:00pm

Over the years, I have seen our state described as The Last Frontier. The phrase looks good on license plates and bumper stickers, or even as a state motto, but I question whether Alaska is a last frontier, or what that expression really means.

Using a good American English dictionary, I found that the term frontier, is defined as a boundary between two countries. A region that forms the margin of a settled or developed territory, the farthermost limits of knowledge or achievement with respect to a particular subject, a new field that offers scope for exploitive or developmental activity.

Certainly, perhaps more than fifteen thousand years ago, what we now call Alaska was a new place for humans migrating across vast territories in Asia. Their descendants explored and used every part of area now known as Alaska. I recall during the Native land claims debates, how Native elders, like Peter John of Minto, stood up and gave their names for every hill, creek, river, mountain or plain in the Minto area. It was the territory they knew.

Then, when the Russians, Spanish and British explorers arrived, it was a boundary between settled or developed territories. There was an assumption among the Europeans and others that if one of them had not previously claimed an area, it was a terra nullius, which in Latin means a land with no owner. It was a land they could claim because they were superior and civilized. The descendants of people who had lived there for countless generations, knew it in detail as their homeland. They felt they owned their land or territory despite what the Europeans or others thought.

Looking at the third possible meaning of frontier as the foremost limits of knowledge, I feel quite sure that today’s Alaska is not the farthermost limit of knowledge.

The last definition does seem to apply to Alaska from the time of the Russian occupation, the whaling industry, the gold rush, corporations coming to the area to mine the copper, the salmon fishing industry and now the oil industry. It is a field that offers scope for exploitive or developmental activity. This has been a place where others could come and exploit, take whatever they could for their benefit, or develop whatever natural resources they could find, bringing with them many new occupants. Each time a new group has come to exploit or develop Alaska they have come, taken and left.

There is one difference now. In the past, the indigenous people did not speak the languages of those coming to develop the resources they found. They were considered inferior to the newcomers, and so their territories were a frontier. Today, descendants of those people, and people whose families have lived here for several generations, those who have spent their adult lives here are now speaking out and challenging that fourth definition of the idea of Alaska as a frontier. These people now speak, read, write and understand English as well as any others. They also continue to speak their own language, just a various populations in Europe and Asia do.

Yes we lie between the borders of Canada and Russia and are a frontier, in that regard. But Alaska is a state in the United States with all the rights and responsibilities of a State.

So when visitors, corporations, businesses, outside interests and even some elected officials view us as the Last Frontier, I think Alaskans need to stand up and say NO. We are not a Last Frontier. We are the State of Alaska with our own government and elected officials with a mixture of people, old and new. Alaska is not a Frontier, for many of us, it is Home.

We are not the Last.

• Olson is a Professor of Anthropology Emeritus at the University of Alaska Southeast.

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