Americans have always spoken of the frontier in mystical terms, often while brutally taking it from the indigenous people, decimating the once-abundant natural resources, and working tirelessly to reshape the wilderness into forms more convenient for our lifestyles. This primeval wilderness where one could “live close to nature and be purified of civilization’s corruption” helped define and shape us as a nation even as we moved relentlessly to tame those very characteristics that made it wild. The restlessness that is part of our DNA has led many to imagine that they could live in a cabin in the wilderness even though the vast majority live in urban areas.
When historian Frederick Jackson Turner presented his thesis in 1893 that the west was closed, many looked elsewhere to fill the void. And nowhere said wilderness to 20th century Americans more than Alaska, the last frontier.
As is usually the case, it is a much more complicated story than what our mystical dreams have conceived. In planning for an upcoming trip and lecture, I looked for those who could help explain Alaska today.
The Wake of the Unseen Object: Travels Through Alaska’s Native Landscapes (1991; classic reprint edition 2020) by Tom Kizzia is one man’s exploration of Alaska’s ancestral landscapes and contemporary life in bush country. Kizzia, who wrote some 80 stories in the 1980s for the Anchorage Daily News that became the basis for this work, lets the native Alaskans tell their story. He went beyond the road system to visit villages and people who are working to maintain their balance and connections with the past while still living in the present. As Kizzia says in the new introduction to the University of Alaska’s classic reprint edition, “the great dramas of Alaska Native life revolve around efforts to adapt and resist, to preserve hunting and fishing and sharing traditions for future generations, to balance self-government and corporate capitalism, to overcome traumas that followed subjugation by colonial powers.”
Survival in a land that is harsh yet beautiful has always been the challenge of the Alaska Natives. The book opens with a saying by Inupiat shaman Najagneq that describes how the spirit speaks. “His speech to man comes not through ordinary words, but through storms, snowfall, rain showers, the tempest of the sea, through all the things that man fears …” Yet when times are good, the spirit disappears into “his infinite nothingness and remains away as long as people do not abuse life but have respect for their daily food.”
Throughout his travels, Kizzia relates stories of ancestors crossing into Alaska from what is present-day Russia. Of the first outside contact coming from Russia and then gold-hungry Americans bringing strange customs, unfamiliar religions, and — in 1918 — the worldwide epidemic of the Spanish influenza. Of World War II, which opened up previously untraveled territory with new military-built roads. Of oil booms to dwarf the gold rushes of the 19th century.
Everything in the land was shifting, migrating, becoming something new.
Kizzia would stay in a tent on the edge of the villages. But as this was before most native communities had a special place in which to funnel visitors, he was welcomed into the homes of the residents and introduced to family and friends over meals and long tales. He spends time in a summer fish camp where entire families take up residence and watch for the wake of the unseen object — the V-shaped formation in the water — that signals the return of the salmon. He takes a ride in a “tundra taxi” that uses a frozen river as its road.
Over the course of 11 chapters, Kizzia takes the reader on an adventure from the inland village of Tok, near the Canadian boarder, to the villages of Wales and Teller at Cape Prince of Wales, mere miles from Russia. It is, as one reviewer notes, not really “memoir, or a travel book, or a collection of nature essays, or a work of cultural history, but it somehow manages to be all of these things.”
Kizzia grew up in New Jersey but has lived in Alaska since his early 20s. In his late 20s, fearing he hadn’t launched a traditional career, he returned to Washington, D.C., where he was asked at a party what he had done since college. When he replied that he’d been living in a little fishing town in Alaska …
The guy said, “well that must have been weird.” He said it would be hard to live in a place like that where everybody is the same … I looked around the room and everybody there had like horn-rim glasses and a dress shirt and tie and had gone to an Ivy League school and was working in some sort of liberal spin-off politics. I thought about the incredible variety of old timers and fishermen and world travelers I’d gotten to know in Homer and it was a blazing moment of realization.
We’re all the better because Tom Kizzia decided to return to Alaska to tell its incredible, varied, and fascinating stories.
More to come…
The Weekly Reader links to written works I’ve enjoyed. I hope you find something that makes you laugh, think, or cry.
Image by David Mark from Pixabay
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