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Statehood and Other Events: Whales, Alaska Natives, and Perspectives on History

Whale Fishery: Attacking a Right Whale. Currier & Ives. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

Alaska has been a state for just sixty years. The political events by which the territory became the forty-ninth in the republic go something like this: in 1867, the United States purchased Alaska’s 591,004 square miles from the Russian Empire. After a period of military rule, the 1884 First Organic Act established a rudimentary civilian government for the territory. A non-voting Congressional delegate followed in 1906. The Second Organic Act, passed six years later, created a territorial legislature and officially gave the Constitution “the same force and effect within the Territory of Alaska as elsewhere in the United States.” A campaign for statehood in 1916 and a move by the populous southeastern region to secede from the territory and become a state in the 1920s both failed. After the Second World War, coal barons, worried about increased state taxes, and partisan considerations complicated discussions in Washington. Finally, after a seventy-five day constitutional convention in 1955 and four years of discussions with Congress, Alaska became one of these United States on January 3, 1959.

But what would the narrative of Alaska’s engagement with the contiguous United States look like from the perspectives of non-human beings or from the vantage of Alaska’s Indigenous nations? Taken from the view of a bowhead whale, the important dates in Alaska history shift back in time, their significance driven not by politicians but by Yankee seamen. Examining Alaska history through moments critical to Iñupiaq and Yup’ik communities emphasizes events not usually part of the standard narrative. Indeed, Alaska’s past offers a chance to expand the definition of what counts as a historical event in the first place.

What was the arrival of Americans like for bowhead whales? It marked a sharp change in the species’ relationship with people. For several thousand years, a small number of bowheads died at the hands of Iñupiaq and Yup’ik hunters along the northwestern coast each spring and fall. But in 1848, a new kind of hunter arrived in Alaskan waters: commercial ships from New Bedford, Nantucket, and other New England towns, come to turn bowhead whales into oil and strips of baleen for the consumer market.

Over the next fifty years, the New England fleet drove bowheads close to extinction, reducing a population of more than twenty thousand to three thousand or so. The events that ultimately stopped this market hunt fall outside the traditional history of Alaskan political institutions. Instead, what altered the commercial pursuit of whales was the increased use of kerosene in the place of whale oil and, in 1907, the invention of spring steel, which supplanted baleen. Thus, for bowheads, 1848 and 1907 proved far more critical than the Alaska purchase or the Organic Acts. By 1959, bowheads were no longer hunted commercially, only eaten by Indigenous communities. Statehood did not alter the relationship between whales and people.

For Iñupiaq and Yup’ik communities, the introduction of market whaling was also more critical than the Alaska purchase. In whale-fed villages from Norton Sound to Utqiagvik, whaling crews brought new routes and goods for trade, imported lethal epidemics, and precipitated famine as the commercial bowhead slaughter robbed Iñupiaq and Yup’ik villages of critical sustenance. In response, Indigenous communities moved, blended, and formed new political alliances to manage the influence of foreigners on ships long before the prospect of statehood came to Alaska.

This is not to say that admission to the United States was unimportant for Indigenous Alaskans. Rather, it made clear an issue introduced decades before the American purchase – that of wealth and value, and who controlled them. Central to making Alaska a state was the question of land: what territory would remain federal, and what would pass to state control? Worried that Alaska’s small population—less than 300,000 in 1959—provided an insufficient tax base, Congress gave the state the right to select 104 million acres from federal lands to develop. The new government selected areas likely to provide oil, gas, minerals, and other sources of income.

Unanswered in these Alaskan land selections was the issue of Native title. As the Bureau of Indian Affairs noted in 1963, Congress “largely sidestepped the issue of aboriginal claims” from the Organic Acts onwards. Unlike the contiguous states, Alaska had no history of treaties or military conflicts that formally extinguished Indigenous claims. But the negotiation between the state and federal government in the 1950s and early 1960s ignored Native claims again, erasing Native ownership simply by not acknowledging it.

Statehood, from this perspective, falls in line not with a history of growing territorial representation and self-governance, but of Indigenous dispossession. On the northwest coast, that process began with the expropriation of bowhead wealth in the 1840s. Elsewhere in Alaska, wealth was taken from Native communities in the form of gold, fish, coal, timber, and fur seals. With statehood, it seemed possible that the rivers, lakes, mountains, and plains that sheltered this prosperity would be commandeered too. As Iñupiaq political activist William L. Iġġiaġruk Hensley recalled, “We were going to lose our land, just as all the Indians to the south had, a century before.”

Hensley was one of dozens of Native activists who, in the wake of statehood, organized around the issue of Indigenous land claims. Hensley alone took over a hundred trips to Washington, D.C., and was regularly interviewed on 60 Minutes and other media in order to “to get our message across.” The result, pushed also by the need to settle Indigenous title before the development of oil reserves at Prudhoe Bay, was the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). Under ancsa, 44 million acres—about 16% of Alaska’s territory—passed formally to Indigenous control, along with a billion dollars under the management of twelve regional Native corporations.

Thus, if a whale’s-eye view of statehood makes the event seem unimportant, the Indigenous history of Alaska places it in a different arc. Rather than fitting a familiar American narrative, one told at least since Fredrick Jackson Turner, in which provisional, territorial status on the wild frontier was transformed by white settlers’ democratic organization into the full federal recognition, statehood was less a culmination than one act among many that threatened dispossession and erasure.

But statehood, like efforts manage the influence of whalers, miners, and other outsiders in the century prior, also produced political action. For Alaska Natives, statehood culminated, in Hensley’s words, in the ability to “celebrate how much of great value we had, despite the ravages of change and repression. We had our land.”

Bathsheba Demuth is an assistant professor of history and environment & society at Brown University. Her first book Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait will be published by W.W. Norton in August 2019. She can be reached at her website, on Twitter, and, for endless photos of walruses and sea ice, on Instagram.

For more on significant anniversaries in American history, click here.