Friday, May 29, 2009

Real Alaska

I know the tourists find us exotic and the landscape rugged, but as I drive through the tepid rain to Wal Mart, sipping my Starbucks latte, I don't really feel that I'm living the true Alaskan life. Yeah, there's eagles, seals and salmon - and the occasional whale - but it's not that much different from living in Washington. (BTW, as a UAF alumni, I don't think of Fairbanks as the real Alaska either, even though it's colder than anything).
The Aleutians, now.....that's Alaska. Completely remote, completely exposed to some of the harshest weather conditions you can imagine, strongly tied to the land and the subsistence way of life, and with a strong sense of community. All of these elements come across in our new book The Aleutian Islands of Alaska: living on the edge by Kenneth F. Wilson and Jeff Richardson. The book begins with a look at the early contact between the Russians and the Unangan (Aleut) people, who were decimated by disease and violent conflict. There's a very interesting chapter on the fight over the Aleutians during World War II and the effect that relocation had on the Native populations of the islands.
A significant portion of the book is spent going through the chain, island by island, and looking at the people who live there now. Village life, the economy, the efforts to preserve cultural traditions and identity, and the history of the settlements make for very interesting reading. One of the nicest features is the brief biographical sketches of some of the current residents of Akutan, Atka, Nikolski and Unalaska islands. You get a real sense of why the people in these communities - Native and newcomer alike - are so committed to their life on the edge of the world.
The photographs are what really make the book, since they do such an excellent job of portraying the natural beauty of the islands: the wildlife, the volcanoes, the kelly-green hills and the wild ocean swells. After looking at this book, I feel that I can't say I've really seen Alaska until I get to the Aleutians.

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