September 1, 2013

The Naturalization of the Great Land: "A confidence in our destiny."

Alaska Film Archives, University of Alaska, Fairbanks Elmer E. Rasmuson Papers 
Identifier AAF-8902

"What does it mean to be an Alaskan?" In 1968 Elmer Rasmunson rhetorically asked this question to an audience of children at a regional elementary school in the filming of this political advertisement. His explanation of Alaskan identity as "being born free" provides a moment for understanding how non-Native people imagined their lives in Alaska at the time. A campaign commercial, this one minute film was produced by lifelong Alaska resident Elmer Rasmuson (a banker, philanthropist, and politician) as he sought a bid for the U.S. Senate. Born in Yukatat, he spent his life tirelessly serving the Alaska community in a host of ways. He was the mayor of Anchorage during the city's reconstruction after the earthquake, a member of the board of regents at University of Alaska, and a dedicated philanthropist. Upon his passage he left his fortune to charity, establishing the Rasmunson Foundation. His good will and selfless service to community proves admirable and can be seen in his efforts here to include a brief lesson about Native people and language in regard to explaining how the word Alaska equates, in English, to meaning the "Great Land." The broader read of this film shouldn't undermine his integral devotion to the well-being of all Alaskans, past or present.

The film tells us that Alaskans "live free" and their ability to "contemplate the outdoors" help produced their exceptional character amid the 1960s. They held, the film argues, "a confidence in [their] destiny that [came] from shaping the new land." Along with the "shaping" of the "new land" Alaskans spent time "harvesting the seas for the human betterment." This service to humanity in turn lent Alaskans an "optimism" and "faith" in the future. The term the "new land" referenced the United States tacit investment in Alaska as the Last Frontier. For besides the "Great Land," Alaska was also known in this way. The Last Frontier embodied a place where the nation could "shape the land" and "harvest the sea" as it had done a hundred years earlier in where now sits the contiguous western part of the nation. The concept of the Last Frontier served as an extension of the western frontier invented in the nineteenth century during the nation's expansion across the continent to the Pacific shoreline. Building on the Last Frontier the national imagination could make a rightful operation of the continued mid-twentieth century Alaska project.

Alaska was not a new land to indigenous people of the region. For them, Alaska proved a geography of origin where the land and sea shaped their histories and cultures previous to statehood. This is apparent through Rasmunson's discussion about the word Alaska as possessing a Native root. There is an implication here that Alaska would be impossible without Native people. Undoubtedly, he grew up beside indigenous people, shared in their culture, and as a regional leader felt an obligation towards representing Native populations. Under that consideration, he should be applauded for taking what could been seen as a political risk in this acknowledgement. Native children, on the other hand, were forbidden to speak their languages in school. During the 20th century public policy forced indigenous kids to speak English and to quit learning their indigenous languages (or other languages they may have known). That is the intriguing part about the film, that children were being taught the meaning of the word Alaska yet in real life Native students faced an educational regime discouraging this type of knowledge. Schools set to normalize national belief systems and somehow reset indigenous culture to operate under a new set of rules. The long term success of this broad project is debatable but its results have been very harmful.

Truly one of the challenges in working with Native history lies in discentering these chronotopic notions of the frontier, or the "new land," that guide and police scholarship. Histories to regions like Alaska began before national settlement, or western exploration, and indigenous people as part of these histories operate under expansive cultures which may or may not reflect the set of ideologies that were imposed to naturalize the nation in the 'Great Land." With that in mind, I do think that he does impart some reasonable advice: "If you're going to live up to the name of our state," he suggests in the film, "you have to think big and act big."

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