Chances are you’ve heard the saying, the great thing about Anchorage is that its only 15 minutes from the real Alaska. If you don’t live in the state’s largest city, maybe you agree. Then there’s the other question: how long do you have to live here before you’re an Alaskan? Are you an Alaskan if you spend only summers here? Is it when you get your first PFD? Is it a length of time, or a state of mind?
A recent art show at Out North gallery in Anchorage is called “native alaskan.” Not Alaska Native, as in coming from one of Alaska’s indigenous groups, but native Alaskan, as in Alaska is the place where you were born, or the place something came into being.
Show curator Michael Walsh thinks the question of just how long you have to be here to be a native Alaskan is worthy of some discussion: for his show, he picked artists who were born in Alaska or moved here at a very young age.
“It’s not at all about the people who wish they were Alaskan, like myself, because I can’t own it, I’m not from here,” Walsh said.
Brandie Hofmeister and Matt Rafferty aren’t from there either: they came to Alaska 13 or so years ago as young adults. But both now consider Alaska their permanent home; unlike Walsh, they think of themselves as Alaskans.
“I actually heard it said once that a lot of people are Alaskan and they just don’t know it until they get here,” Rafferty said. “And I totally felt that way. I was inspired from day one.”
And Brandie says, at some point, her family stopped asking when she was going to leave:
“I think they people realized after a couple of years that I had found something that really worked for me,” Hofmeister said.
Both Matt and Brandie say they’ve found longer-term Alaskans welcoming to newcomers – happy to teach them how to process fish, or hunt for caribou. Not all hung up on that “how long have you lived here” question, but Matt says he has encountered that other prejudice.
“Most people look down their nose at the fact that you live in Anchorage, and feel like you don’t live in Alaska because you live here, but I fill my freezer with moose and salmon, and I’ve been charged by a bear within the municipality,” Rafferty said. “I feel pretty connected to Alaska. But I feel like there’s that tension with anyone who lives somewhere other than Anchorage.”
And what if you’ve never seen a bear, or you fill your freezer from Costco, not the wild? Matt admits he felt more Alaskan when he’d traveled more around the state; Brandie agrees.
“I’m lucky enough to have gotten a job that traveled all over the state, so I traveled all over the state of Alaska and really got a feel for those rural communities, and the regional centers and the great urban center of Anchorage and how that plays into different communities,” Hofmeister said. “I think after I got such familiarity with the state, that’s when I started feeling more like this was home.”
Even so, it was in Anchorage that Matt learned some Inupiaq, while temping at NANA – the regional Native corporation for Northwest Alaska, which, like many Native corps, is headquartered in Anchorage. And perhaps that whole Los Anchorage idea is outdated, with more and more rural residents living, at least for a while, in urban Alaska.
Yaari Kingeekuk is from the village of Savoonga and now lives Anchorage. She works as a “cultural educator” who has written and spoken about balancing her rural and urban life. Yaari has developed relationships and cultural connections in urban Alaska that are as significant as the ones from home.
“There’s a Native elderly man that lives upstairs from us and for a long time I didn’t visit, I didn’t go and introduce myself. But one day I decided to stop by and knocked on the door. And I come in and I told him who I was and asked him if he enjoyed Native food. When I asked him if he loved Native food, he just…his whole attitude and behavior changed. He was calm and had a warm smile on his face. And he started to tell me the things he likes to eat and I told him I would share Native food with him. And then he went on telling me stories about long ago,” Kingeekuk said.
Elizabeth Medicine Crow of the First Alaskans Institute reminds us that even Alaska’s urban cities are overlaid on the original homelands of Alaska Natives.
“The people who live there, the people who come there for opportunities for themselves or their families, that is a part of our story. And it makes us very unique. Because, I think that’s actually one of the most under-developed aspects of relationship in Alaska society is a true understanding of how connected the Native people really are to this place, and what it really means to us and we move back and forth from urban areas to our hubs to our villages and then back again, and we do have it over generations now,” she said.
Medicine Crows says with all that moving – whether forced by boarding school, or voluntary, Natives relationship with their land and culture has had to evolve.
So maybe being Alaska Native, or native Alaskan, isn’t tied to one specific spot – whether your ancestors have been here for generations, or you are first generation. Maybe it’s when your strongest connections are based in the state – whether to land or other people, or both.
Michael Walsh’s show “native alaskan” is up at the Out North Gallery in Anchorage through May 12.
Listen for a longer interview with Michael Walsh.