Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Guest editorial: Where the heart is?

One fact underlies much of what has gone on during the first 50 years of statehood — most Alaskans are not from here. While in rural Alaska the population is largely Native and native-born, for urban Alaska almost 80 percent of my generation were born somewhere else.

We were the adventuresome generation that came north in the decades just before and after statehood, ready to “try it for a while,” but with no intention of staying forever. In casual conversation we asked, “Where are you from?” And we answered whichever state we emigrated from.

We became absorbed in the wonder of Alaska. Soon the camper gave way to a rental, and the part-time seasonal job gave way to full-time employment. We got married and had children and upgraded, if we were lucky, to a job with benefits, home ownership and cars that actually started in winter. Time flew.

Then came that fateful phone call. Mom called from several time zones away. After the kids talked to the grandmother they knew as a voice on the phone, she said something like, “Dad’s not doing so well, and we sure miss the grandchildren. When are you coming home?”

At that moment the question, “Where are you from?” became a more profound question of identity, family and soul: Where’s home? Some were just here for money or power and leaving was easy. Others left reluctantly. But many stayed and we became a conflicted generation.

On one hand we loved Alaska — we hiked, camped, skied, built businesses and careers and voted. But gnawing at our hearts was an obligation to family and the subconscious bond, if environmental philosopher Paul Shepard is right, to the place we lived in late childhood just before adolescence turned our thoughts to the opposite sex. Late childhood is known to be a time of increasing independence from parents, but, Shepard suggests, that dependence is replaced by a bond to the natural place of that time in our lives. The bond is exemplified by the fort in the woods, or the wildest place we can find at age 12, where the curriculum is the light, the sounds and smells of the landscape that structure the mind and provide comfort, context and understanding for the rest of our lives.

Some of us managed to transfer that place to Alaska, but it took decades. Now our children are the ones who built their fort in the woods, and it was Alaska woods. They have Alaska subconsciously embedded in their psyche. Unlike most of us, they are from here, but they too are conflicted.

That’s because we have tragically brought them up to be successful according to an Outside standard. “You’re a good student, you should go to Stanford,” some high school teacher told them, and so they did. The forces of popular culture define success in terms of New York, Washington or Los Angeles and those left behind are the implied losers. As one student editorial writer put it several years ago in the Northern Light student newspaper: “We don’t go to UAA because we want to, we go because we have to.” Second best — or at least the perception of it.

So the 50 years of statehood has resulted in an older generation conflicted by the question of, “Where’s home?” and a second generation asking, “Why stay?”
Many have resolved these personal conflicts, but many have not. It will take another 50 years to fully acknowledge that the answers lie all around us. The generation being born now will, despite globalization and Hollywood, need to think of home, identity and sanity in terms of the circumpolar north.

With luck and purpose, 50 years from now the third and emerging fourth generations after Alaska statehood will have built a culture of the North guided by Native tradition expressed in history, science, sport, art, music, literature and poetry that embraces the place for what it is. They, and we, must recognize that our destiny is as Northern people in a Northern land with an unparalleled landscape and a wealth of sustainable energy upon which a sustainable, and therefore sovereign and equitable, society can be built.

As for now — we need to make decisions that will allow future generations of Alaskans to create the great Northern society we have not.

Alan Boraas is a professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College. This column first appeared in the Anchorage Daily News on Jan. 10.

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