Wednesday, March 30, 2011

On this day, in 1867, the United States paid Russia $7 million for Alaska. Personally, it's my favorite purchase. 

But the anniversary has me thinking about how much the state has changed, particularly in recent years.

My great-grandparents arrived in Juneau in 1885, and my grandmother was born that same year, the youngest of eight children. She was rumored to be the first caucasion baby born in Juneau. At age five, she was kidnapped by Tlingit Indians. Her eldest brother later saved her, toting his best shotgun. 

 My grandmother's story was later dramatized in a play, "Hootchinoo and Hotcakes." The play was primarily staged for tourists who came to town by cruise ship. But sometime during the 1970s, a bunch of folks moved to Juneau from Outside -- the lower 48 states. They didn't like the play. It was "culturally insensitive." "Politically incorrect."

The play was taken off the stage.

Despite historic fact, we weren't supposed to say that during territorial days the Tlingit Indians behaved like ruthless savages. But they did -- and good for them. The Tlingits were the only Alaska Native tribe the Russians couldn't conquer. And that's saying something: The Russians were plenty ruthless too.

Six years ago I went back to Juneau for my parents' memorial services. At the time my youngest son was five. He wore a coonskin cap and carried a toy rifle wherever he went -- even to bed. Having heard the heroic story of his great-grandmother's rescue by shotgun, he wanted to find a toy replica in Juneau.

But the Juneau toy store owner told us she didn't carry guns -- not even cap guns. She couldn't. "I would like to carry guns, but the parents in town would boycott my store. They'd drive me out of business."

Our son was crushed. So we walked down the block to the bakery, hoping a doughnut would lift his spirits. When we walked into the bakery, a bunch of boys immediately gravitated to the kid with the coonskin cap and toy rifle. Happily, our son let them hold the rifle. He let them pet his hat. And his face beamed. But suddenly women began rushing forward, yanking the boys away.

I didn't understand. Until one of the women stomped up to me and declared: "WE don't play with guns!" 

I wanted to shoot her. 

That afternoon, we went back to the house where we were staying. Our host was a dear old family friend who had lived in Juneau for eighty-five years. Born and raised in Alaska, and a die-hard Democrat, he was instrumental in drafting the state Constitution, and later served as a highly respected judge. He was also a WWII veteran, having served with the 10th Mountain Division. When he saw my son's interest in weaponry, he brought out his old Army .45. What a thrill!

But somebody in the room wasn't happy. She was, in fact, head of Alaska's department of fish and game. Though she didn't grow up in Alaska, she was now in charge of telling Alaskans how to manage their living natural resources. And here's what she told us: We were encouraging "violence" by encouraging our son's appreciation of this historic weapon. (Nevermind how she glared at the toy rifle.)

Back when "Hootchinoo and Hotcakes" got banned, the Outsiders came north in droves to work on the oil rigs. But just as many came to Alaska as environmentalists and lawyers and "activists" of various stripes. As a girl growing up, it seemed like an exciting time. The Alaska Pipeline was going to change everything -- there were even rumors we would get TV reception. 

But I can still remember the day in August, 1974, when I begged my dad to buy me a sweatshirt that showed a picture of the Pipeline. My dad refused. He refused to buy anything heralding the Pipeline. And not because of the oil.

A lifelong Alaskan -- District Attorney during Alaska's territorial days and later a justice on the Alaska Supreme Court -- my dad hated what was happening to his state. Not the jobs. Not the revenue. Those were good, he said.

"But the do-gooders," he said. "They're coming. These are the people who know what's good for you -- better than you know yourself. And they always pave the road to Hell. Someday you'll understand."

At the time, I thought he was wrong. I wanted the sweatshirt. And the Outsiders seemed like very nice people. They just wanted to make things better; they just wanted Alaska to be more like the other states. 

What was wrong with that?

There's a significant rite of passage, and it comes when you realize your parents were right. 

The day after these incidents with the toy rifle, I scattered my dad's ashes in Juneau. My gun-toting five-year-old stood by my side.

I told my dad he was right. 

And then I told him good-bye.


  1. I'm sorry for your loss. I mean your parents, mostly, but also the great state.

    I loved this post. It makes me miss Alaska.

    I was an outsider 96 years after your grandparents were. I think it's still a pretty good place to live. I moved down to Atlanta five years ago and I still miss the Alaskan freedom that we lack down here.

    I admit that I was bothered when they made seatbelt use mandatory. The west would never have been settled if the present bunch in office had been in office back then. It would have been deemed far too dangerous for folks to take their children across country in Conestoga wagons. Or to places where Indians kidnapped children.

    Our government likes to tell us what to eat and what to wear and how to school our children, all in an effort to be our big brother and to protect us from ourselves. Meanwhile, the real big brothers, like your great uncle, are not allowed to protect their sisters anymore.

    So, yes, I agree with your father. The road to hell is sometimes paved with good intentions.

    And yet, I think Alaska is pretty great still.

  2. Sally, thank you. With you on the seatbelt law.

    So glad you got to experience life up north. But I have a sweet spot for the South, too.

  3. Thanks, Karen.

    By the way, your blog on Godot was like it's own jazz riff -- fitting the subject perfectly.

  4. I love the story of your grandmother! It never ceases to amaze me how "political correctness" manages to trump historical accuracy.

  5. PS Thanks Sibella! You're an inspiration! Off to class now :)

  6. Wow, if you ever decided to write historical fiction, you've already got yourself a story. Your writing voice would be a very unique (and welcome!) addition to that genre, I think.

  7. Abigail, those families stories are deep in my heart -- I do think about writing them. Thank you for the encouragement!