Anchorage 3/20/17 – Sitting on the plane returning from a wonderful week of spring training baseball, I was in the middle seat with burly but friendly guys on either side of me, both watching westerns on their little devices. At one point I saw different scenes from “Blazing Saddles” on both sides of me. Two very different guys both on their way to Alaska, the last frontier, watching western movies.
It got me thinking about the centrality of this cowboy mythology in our national imagination – how many things we view through this lens and how these cowboy aspirations still govern our attitudes. And then beyond that to the idea of the frontier, the end of the American frontier in Alaska, and how Alaska has entered the dream life of the nation, and maybe we Alaskans are the last to know it. I think it could be way beyond reality TV.
These were nice airy thoughts for me as our plane made its way back from Phoenix’s 90 degree day to Anchorage’s 10 degree night. At the airport, quite a few Brown faces around because of the state high school basketball championships. Villagers come into the city at this time of year to go shopping, eat out, meet relatives and friends, and cheer for their team, then they go back to begin their seasonal food gathering cycle. Plants begin to appear as the rivers break up and migratory ducks and geese return, soon to nest and lay eggs. Tradition guides people through the brief opportunities – the fiddleheads will only be there for a few days, nothing’s going to hold back the clam tides, the herring will ball up and spawn quite abruptly, much more. Here the ethnosphere pins knowledge to location, perhaps more firmly than anywhere else in the nation, because of the survival of living indigenous languages and all that they encode. And the elders who speak these languages also know the moment when it will count to tell a story.
And then there’s the uniqueness of the position that Johanna and I have at a bilingual communications facility at this place where the ethnosphere is so firmly pinned to the globe amidst forceful Nature, where Yupik is still the language people grow up speaking, where the real economy is not so much about money as it is about gaining your sustenance from those planetary cycles – the salmon, the moose, the berries, the greens, the geese, the withdrawing sea ice, the seal oil, the kelp, the eggs.
And then I wonder what stories we should be seeking or generating – what are our real stories of this place, stories capable of livening people’s imaginations; stories to form the kind of lens and cultural context already stewed up in all that familiar western mythology. To what degree do we, could we, or should we in Alaska propel the national fantasy life? And to what end?