Can you see Russia from your American history class?

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An Iñupiat seal drag made ca. 1900, one of the objects in the exhibit.  After killing a seal, the hunter slit the animal’s jaw and looped the leather thong through the hole, and then attached the loop to a longer line to haul the carcass across the ice.

Right now the McClung Museum has a special exhibit curated by Christine Dano Johnson, a UT grad and former intern.  It showcases items made by Yup’ik and Iñupiat people of Alaska in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and developed out of Johnson’s research into the museum’s collection of Native Alaskan and Pacific Northwest material.  She came back to the museum this week to discuss her research with an anthropology class.

When I sat in on her presentation, it occurred to me that I don’t recall discussing Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, or the inhabitants of these places at any length in any history class I’ve taken or taught, from grade school all the way to graduate seminars.  I’d wager the same is true of most history classes.

Do history courses need Alaska and its Native inhabitants?  My Ph.D. adviser asked my classmates and I a similar question during the first meeting of an early America seminar.  We were discussing the geographic and temporal boundaries historians use to define “colonial America.”  Alaska, after all, was a Russian colony in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  My adviser asked us to consider whether we need to incorporate this into our understanding of colonial America in order to make sense of it and to do the subject justice.  It’s an interesting—and provocative—question.  Most people associate colonial America with the eastern seaboard, while historians with a more expansive geographical vision have been careful to point out that the thirteen seaboard English provinces weren’t the only colonies out there.  The borders of colonial and early America have opened up in recent years.

But Alaska?  I think it’s a rare study indeed that considers its colonial experience to be part of either colonial or early American history.  Alan Taylor’s especially expansive and inclusive overview of colonial America is, of course, a notable exception.

Changes in geographical perspective can lead to interesting chronological reconceptualizations, too.  It’s no coincidence that Taylor’s continental studies of colonial America and the Revolution have later chronological end points than other, more geographically restrictive accounts.  Alaskan history forces us to reconsider when colonial America ends as well as where it ends.  It remained a European possession a century after those British colonies gave their king a pink slip.

A broader geographic perspective also has implications for teaching the second half of the American survey, and can help us correct demographic and cultural oversights that tend to characterize the post-1865 or 1877 history course.  Note that the Iñupiat seal drag in the photo dates from around the turn of the twentieth century.  How largely do indigenous people figure in most survey courses after the lectures move past, say, 1890?  Native Americans didn’t just vanish after Wounded Knee, as if they were figures in Marty McFly’s family photo.  Indeed, members of Native Alaskan communities continue their traditions of whaling and sealing today, mixing older practices with more modern technology.  (In fact, part of Johnson’s work in our collection involved consultation with these communities in an effort to better understand the cultural context of these objects.)

My point is not that every history course “needs” to cover Alaska and its inhabitants, but rather that greater attention to places we dismiss as marginal can prompt us to think and teach about the whole fabric of American history more creatively and intelligently.  If we want to shake up the ways we conceive of geographical, temporal, and demographic boundaries, Alaska could be a good place to get started.  The next time you’re putting together a syllabus, a little subarctic air might just prove invigorating.

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1 Comment

Filed under Colonial America, History and Memory, Teaching History

One response to “Can you see Russia from your American history class?

  1. April Payne

    It would also be good to note here, that if one wished to understand the growth of the Christian religion in America, that the very first Orthodox Christian saint is Saint Herman, from Alaska. 😉

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