Sunday, March 30, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: Real and Fictional Alaskas

Today's garage sale is easy, since this is the anniversary of the purchase of Alaska - $7.2 million dollars given for an enormous chunk of land the purchasing entity didn't know how to use or control, from a government entity that didn't use or control it.

Russians did use Alaska, of course, but the land area was largely irrelevant to them. Private citizens profited from the cold, rich waters around Alaska. But the people who lived there, and whose ancestors had lived there for longer than any American at that time guessed, are the only ones who could be said to own any of it.

It would take someone better acquainted with them than me to sort out the reality of the places we lump together and call Alaska, dividing it off from other circumpolar places of which, in a very real sense, it is a part. Just as, when we look at the American Southwest, it only takes a slight adjustment of the eye to see that South Texas and Northern Mexico have a unity not acknowledged by political geography, we can look down at the top of the globe and see that Alaska, much of Canada, Greenland, Scandinavia, and much of Russia make a coherent whole, and can also be divided into a number of distinct but related cultural areas, independent of the influential fictions of States and Nations. The $7.2 million dollars was an exchange at the fictional level (money being exactly as fictional as nations, and providing a fair barometer of how well the fiction of an individual nation is faring at any given point in time), so it's not that surprising that it seemed a worthwhile deal in the abstract, map-driven plane of deal-making, as opposed to the practical day-to-day reality that named the place "Seward's Folly."

A century and a half later, it's easy (given appropriate research) to look back and spin alternate twentieth-century histories out of notions like "what if Russia still controlled Alaska in 1963?" or "What if Canada had bought it instead?"

Alternatively - and fruitfully, particularly, for Alaskan natives - far too few of the stories of the intersection between the real "Alaska" and the overlay of its imperialist fiction counterpart have been told, and even fewer have attracted as much notice as they deserve. A book like My Name is Not Easy, by Debby Dahl Edwardson, was a finalist for the National Book Award, yet I bet you've never heard of it. Which of course discourages people from writing such books, which is a damn shame. Especially for the non-white natives of Alaska who are discouraged from reading when they don't find themselves reflected in the books they can find, but that's another rant.

And finally, and what interests me particularly as someone who loves books that grow out of research and imaginative engagement with facts, it seems to me that the circumpolar regions provide a place for a creative exploration of the intersection between daily reality and overlying fictions. What if the people who really own a place, the folks who live there and understand its hardships and resources, are able to find a way to retain control of it? What if, in 1963, neither Russia, nor the US, nor any other overwhelming fiction of statehood has any recognized claim to that area, but the people who live there do?

Or what if there's a Circumpolar Nation, made up of all those cultures bonding together at the abstract government level?

This is one for people who live in Alaska to sort out.

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