Wednesday, October 22, 2008
State of remembrance — Readings offer perspectives on last 50 years
By Jenny Neyman
The backgrounds of those reflecting on Alaska statehood at the Kenai Municipal Library on Thursday were as diverse as those who were here to witness the historic event nearly 50 years ago: A Kenaitze Native elder, a commercial fisherman, a teacher, an oil patch worker, a Russian Orthodox priest.
Some were here at the time, and shared their firsthand recollections of the events surrounding statehood and interpretations of what it meant to their existence at the time.
Clare Swan, a Kenaitze elder, spoke about being born in Kenai and watching her community change, seemingly overnight.
“When I think about statehood, it seems to me that it just kind of snuck up on us,” she said.
Influences from the outside world — notably, the concept of doing business on credit — had drastic and lasting impacts on her culture.
“The Kenaitzes moved from being stewards of the land and water to being consumers of it,” she said. “You know, sometimes I think it’s a new definition of the word ‘charge.’”
Joan Bennett Schrader was in Fairbanks when the Constitutional Convention was in session.
“I remember the winter in Fairbanks. I wasn’t able to get up to the school and listen to them very much, but that’s probably a good thing, because I probably wouldn’t have understood a lot of it. But I’m pleased with what they came up with,” she said.
In choosing a selection to present at the library’s Reflections on Statehood readings, she found herself drifting back to 1959 in Fairbanks.
“I couldn’t find what I thought was appropriate. I went back to the Constitution of the state of Alaska and thought, ‘What was the most important part of the Constitution?’ To my mind, it’s the Declaration of Rights. … Today, a lot of us are really gung-ho on what our rights are, but we forget what our obligations are.”
Nedra Evenson remembered living in frontier Alaska, on her family’s homestead in Nikiski, when statehood was announced. Her family’s path to that point started three years before in Mt. Vernon, Iowa, where she and her husband, Jim, were teaching at Cornell College.
Evenson read Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken,” and reflected on what it was like for her family to take the path less traveled by.
“The road the other young families took, more trodden, was paved to large universities,” she said. “… But we took the road less trodden. We took the Alaska Highway to an unknown future. It was an adventure. We were young and had a boundless belief that if others had succeeded, we could also, and we agreed that we would take whatever employment was available on this frontier to earn our way.”
The diversity in presenters was matched in the diversity of material presented. Some was funny, some more poignant. There were poems, memoirs and even some Alaska ghost stories. Some shared personal memories of their time in Alaska, while others found sentiments worth sharing already expressed by authors.
The Rev. Fr. Thomas Andrew, priest at Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church in Kenai, had intended to find someone else’s words to share at the event. He thought about presenting a sermon, or finding a poem to read. But nothing seemed quite right, so Andrew became a poet himself.
“I just couldn’t find anything, so, why don’t you just make something yourself?” he said.
Andrew had never written a poem before, and doesn’t even read much poetry.
“My children, I used to read to them every night, and there were some poems in there. I think that’s where it came from,” he said.
Andrew and his wife, Theresa, moved to Kenai about five years ago with their five children. He has an education degree from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and taught for 10 years, everything from third grade up to 12th. But none of that involved being a poetry teacher.
Even without a background in poetry, Andrew said he found the form familiar, since many Orthodox prayers and songs have a poetic feel to them. He doesn’t plan to add poet to his title anytime soon, however.
“You know how they say one-hit wonder? I’m just a one-hit wonder,” he said.
Nevertheless, in about a half an hour Andrew found the words to express what he wanted to say. “They Came Into My House” documents the march toward statehood from the Native perspective, starting with Russians coming to Alaska in the early 1700s, the fur trade, missionaries, the sale of Alaska from Russia to the United States, and Andrew’s hope for the future, that people love each other and live together in harmony.
The state has come a long way toward that goal in 50 years, but it’s not there yet, Andrew said.
“Even today there’s subtle racism going on, subtle discrimination. It happens all the time,” he said. “… I hope it’s getting better. It’s not written about, it’s not said about in history or anything like that.”
Bringing out those different perspectives was exactly what the Reflections on Statehood event was supposed to achieve, said Julie Niederhauser, with the library.
“It really felt like that happened, there was a dialogue on a different level that occurred,” she said.
Other readers at the event were Michael Gustkey, Robert Peterson, Virginia Walters, Sister Joyce Ross, Matthew Peters and Brent Johnson. Bunny Swan-Gease sang the “Alaska Flag” and Rep. Kurt Olson presented the library with a 49-star flag.