Once upon a time there was a frontier

Lewis Lapham*

Published in Harper's Magazine, May 1970

Used with permission of the publisher. Harper's is available for $4.25 on the newsstand. A one year subscription is $14.00 and can be ordered by calling 1-800-444-4653 or visiting our web site at

Sunday evening, January 18, 1970. I arrived in Juneau yesterday afternoon, and already I've met twenty-seven people with twenty-seven contradictory visions of paradise regained. The confusion begins with the money.

Last September, at an auction in Anchorage, the state of Alaska raffled off oil concessions on the Arctic Ocean for $900 million. Which, in Alaska, is more money than princes find in fairy tales. Although two and one-half times the size of Texas, the state has a population of 280,000 (equivalent to the population of Des Moines, Iowa). For years the state has been poorer than Appalachia, dependent on federal grants to rescue it from annual bankruptcy; now that it is rich nobody knows how to distribute the largess.

I envy none of the politicians convened in this shambling, wooden town for the present meeting of the State Legislature. Almost all of them must stand for election later in the year (not only the Governor but also the entire Senate and half the House), and the more ambitious among them no doubt look upon the money with the gratitude of a crowd of Eskimos gathered around the body of a beached whale. I suspect, however, that the majority, more timid and mindful of the extravagant public expectations, will prefer to do nothing.

That is too bad only because they have a chance to do so much. In many ways Alaska resembles the American frontier one hundred years ago; like California before the freeways or Lake Erie before the fish died. Conceivably, the Alaskans could learn from the mistakes so evident elsewhere in the landscape; conceivably, they could come up with an alternative to the habit of mind (much admired by local chambers of commerce) that plunders the available resources and divides the spoils among the surviving interests. In the beginning there is the frontier; one hundred years later, given the genius of technology and the arithmetic of population, you end up with the crowds, and the bad air, and the fish floating in the rivers. The transformation is commonly called progress, and some of the people here fear it.

I remember that in Anchorage last autumn the women's voices were the most wistful. The Legislature, in hopes of providing a rationale for its subsequent laws and distributions, summoned a preliminary conference to which it invited people from everywhere in the state. For three days I listened to teachers, Eskimos, bankers, Tlingit Indians, fishermen, petroleum engineers, guides, housewives, newspaper editors, and bush pilots. It was as if they were afraid of the consequences of the money. They kept talking about "Alaska the way it is now" and "all those things we came up here to get away from." The politicians assured them that their fears were irrational, that Alaska must take its place in the twentieth century.

At the end of the conference I remember a woman standing uncertainly in the lobby of the Captain Cook Hotel; she was holding a sheaf of government papers of which she seemed suspicious, as if the pretentious language ("parameters," "time-frames," "infrastructure," etc.) somehow announced impending ruin.

"I listen to them talk," she said, "and I hear the trees falling in the forest."

Tonight it is snowing, and perhaps I'm giving way to the pessimism of the weather; tomorrow I begin with debate in the State Senate.

Monday afternoon. Soon after the Senate convened this morning, it listened to the remarks of Senator Robert Blodgett, the member from Nome. A heavyset man with a severe crew cut and angry eyes, the Senator announced that he'd traveled recently to Toronto and there had heard a banker, a very damn important banker," say something about the oil exploration in the Canadian Arctic. The news disturbed him. Nobody, he said, was going to beat out the Alaskans. (The oil on the North Slope theoretically could move to the United States through a pipeline across Canada; either that or the Canadians could bring their oil into production before the Alaskans.) Blodgett raised the specter of collusion between the U.S. Department of the Interior and "all those damn conservationists" in Washington. He banged heavily on his desk and demanded to know why construction hadn't yet begun on the Alaskan pipeline from the North Slope to Valdez.

"In Canada," he said "you don't find conservationists messing with economic development. I'm sick of hearing from people in the United States who've made garbage cans of their own states. All those do-gooders and bug hunters and bird watchers can mind their own damn business."

Although indulging in emotional statement rather than inviting debate, the Senator expressed an attitude that I'd found prevalent in Anchorage. Everybody understands the risk to the terrain (a break in the line could dump more oil into the Yukon River in five minutes than has leaked into the Santa Barbara channel in two years), but they want the money. The reserves have been estimated at 50 billion barrels (the richest field on the North American continent), and once the oil begins to flow the state can expect about $300 million a year in taxes and royalties.

Among all but a few people any mention of the word "ecology" invites derisive laughter. The frontier conception of the wilderness differs appreciably from the polite regrets so often heard in New York and Washington; people talk about their friends dead in the snow or eaten by bears, and they think of the environment as an implacable enemy. In an Anchorage bar I remember a man saying, "Two ago it was the hostile, frozen North. Now all of a sudden, it's the goddamn delicate tundra."

Senator Blodgett's statement also revealed the characteristic Alaskan xenophobia, a neurosis that showed itself even more clearly later in the day at a joint meeting of the Senate and House finance committees. For three hours the politicians asked suspicious and resentful questions of the two men responsible for managing the state's investment portfolio. The money rests in the Bank of America in San Francisco, invested in government securities and acquiring interest at an average rate a day of $194,000. The two witnesses (Leland Prussia, a vice-president of the bank, and Terrence Comerford of Blyth & Co.) attempted to explain why the recent fluctuations in the money markets had subtracted $7 million from the value of the state's account. Their testimony fell on stony ground.

Few of those present could follow the technical language (the chairman of the Senate finance committee introduced both men by saying, "I can't hardly understand listenin' to 'em; ask 'em any question you want, boys, it's everybody's money"), and several of them (notably Senator Blodgett) flatly assumed that the state was being cheated. Under repeated questioning Comerford reluctantly conceded that Blyth & Co. received about $100,000 a year in fees and commissions; Prussia insisted that the Bank of America made nothing on the transactions. Very slowly, and with ominously narrowing eyes, Blodgett said.

"People don't handle money just for the glory of handling money, Mr. Prussia."

The distrust of "foreigners" is so pervasive here that I can imagine a candidate for political office promising to secede from the Union and expropriate the oil. Everybody refers to the United States as "the outside," and they incline to think of it as an evil place. The history of Alaska has been that of an exploited colony, and in the collective mind, there is a long procession of shadowy figures from the south who have come to steal the furs, the timber, the fish, the gold, and now the oil.

Thus, although woefully in need of sophisticated information, hardly anybody in Juneau wants to beheve it once it has been offered to them. The Governor hires research institutes and experts of all persuasions, and then the Legislature, mistrusting not only the Governor but also his advisers, hires other institutes and experts. The two branches of government probably will spend close to $500,000 this year for various studies and reports. I'm told that in the end everything gets thrown away on the assumption that it was provided by some smooth-talking guy in a pinstripe suit who didn't know anything about Alaska.

Tuesday morning. Last night, at the Red Dog Saloon on South Franklin Street, I discovered Comerford and Prussia, both of them seeking to obliterate the memory of their appearance before the joint finance committee. Comerford explained that the state is so suspicious that it retains Blyth & Co. under an agreement whereby it can cancel the contract within thirty days. Both he and Prussia laughed cheerlessly at the local ignorance.

"Jesus," Comerford said, "you could probably sell them the Brooklyn Bridge."

The saloon conforms to the image of the frontier, swinging doors, sawdust, a honky-tonk piano played by an Indian, rifles and antlers on the walls and yellow photographs of steamboats on the Yukon River. Like the other bars in town, of which there seem to be a great many, it stays open until 5:00 A.M.

I remember that on Sunday, on my first morning in town, I walked out of the hotel at nine; it wasn't yet light, but the desk clerk assured me there wasn't much to see even at noon. A great place if you're a drunk, he said, but otherwise a crummy town.

Presumably he knows whereof he speaks, but as yet I haven't succumbed to the boredom and claustrophobia that supposedly contributes to the high rate of alcoholism in the state. The town seems to me beautiful. An old gold-mining town (population 12,000) crowded under steep mountains and fronting on the Gastineau Channel. From this window on the sixth floor of the Baranof Hotel (so named for a Russian Governor of Alaska) I can look out on the ramshackle roofs of warehouses and wooden frame buildings that remind me of a set in a Hollywood western; I can see a railroad barge in the harbor; across the narrow channel, the mountains on Douglas Island rise upward into the mist.

Like all of southeast Alaska the landscape is heavily wooded with spruce and hemlock trees. The Pacific Ocean is 100 miles to the west, accessible through the channels and bays that separate the several hundred islands of the Alexander Archipelago. The town of Skagway hes 100 miles to the north, and from there the gold trail of 1898 leads up through the Chilkoot Pass to Dawson City and the Yukon Territory.

The weather is warmer than New York at this time of year; this morning it is raining, and since I've been here the temperature hasn't fallen below 20 degrees. The latitude is that of Stockholm and Leningrad, but I'm told the Japanese Current accounts for the mild climate. In the spring, they say, the whales come into the bays north of town; bears sleep on the far shores of the inner islands.

The romance of the state delights me. I sit talking to a Senator about education or interest rates, and find myself looking at the map on the wall, wondering about settlements with names like White Eye, or Purgatory, or Tin City, or Mary's Igloo. Always I'm willing to abandon politics to listen to somebody's story of a plane lost on a glacier or a trapper shot to death in a cabin. The frontier notion of justice apparently still prevails, at least in the minds of the inhabitants. In Anchorage I listened to a lawyer explain that for a man the customary sentence for murder (first offense) is no more than a few years; for a woman it's six months suspended. He spoke of a prostitute named Buck, who shot her husband in the stomach and then calmly watched him die. The judge offered to suspend sentence, on any one of three conditions: if she would hire a psychiatrist, leave the state, or go back to school.

Tuesday night. As yet I'm not prepared to deal with the so-called "native question." Clearly, it isn't as simple as it seems from New York or Washington. This afternoon, walking down the hill from the Capitol building, I noticed a Tlingit Indian driving a car decorated with a bumper sticker that said: "The West Wasn't Won With A Registered Gun." The Indians, like everybody else in Alaska, oppose gun legislation, but they don't write the slogans, and so they must take whatever comes closest to expressing their sentiments.

In the bar of the Baranof earher this evening, I ran across an Eskimo who, like Senator Blodgett, resented easy platitudes about the environment. He wore a belted suit in the manner of Pierre Cardin, and he spoke in the hip vernacular.

"Ecology," he said, "what is that? We're part of the ecology, man. We even live with the mice."

I'm told that the Eskimos don't understand the theory of conservation in any form; any game animal they find, they kill immediately, on the assumption they might not live long enough to kill it the following day.

Wednesday afternoon. The Senate came to order this morning after hearing a prayer from a chaplain who began, "We thank Thee, O Lord, for the oil Thou hath given us as a natural resource."

A conversation later in the morning with Henry Pratt, the Governor's executive assistant, suggested a less pious attitude. A big man with a round face and a sly intelligence, Pratt at one time owned a public-relations business in Anchorage; several years ago he served one term in the Legislature, and after that he became a lobbyist on behalf of a firm dealing in trading stamps. He and Tom Kelly, the Commissioner of Natural Resources, supposedly dominate and inform the thinking of Governor Keith Miller. (Although I've been promised a meeting with the Governor, so far I've met him only briefly; he seems to be a pleasant man who sometimes comes to the bar in the Baranof to sing, "Your Cheatin' Heart," with a band that goes from here to places like Whitehorse and Yellowknife.)

When Pratt spoke about the $900 million, he did so with awe and greed in his voice.

"The big question around here," he said, "is who's going to control all that political and economic power."

The Alaska state constitution gives the Governor almost autocratic powers (a reaction to the years of dependence on a distant and unresponsive bureaucracy in Washington), and Pratt gloated unashamedly at the dilemma offered to the present Legislature. The Governor's budget proposal sets aside most of the $900 million in various trust and investment funds, thus preserving the principal and paying expenses with the interest. Even so, the budget is the largest in the state's history ($242 million as opposed to $154 million in 1969); it allocates additional money to nearly every existing government agency or program, and the administration therefore can argue that it is both generous and responsible. Any politician who seeks further appropriations can be denounced as an opportunist threatening to waste the state's substance and exaggerate the condition of chronic inflation. (Breakfast in Juneau costs $3.20, and a short ride in an Anchorage taxi can cost as much as $6.) Governor Miller is a Republican (he filled the vacancy left by Walter Hickel's appointment to the Department of the Interior), and his policy appeals to the conservative bias of many people in the state. It also encourages the financial community in Anchorage on which the Governor must depend for campaign money later in the spring.

Pratt smiled and said, "The Governor's program is so close to the ideal that it's hard to attack. Nobody intended to preserve the $900 million. It just happened to come out that way."

In the Legislature, I said, I'd heard complaints from politicians who felt they'd been cheated out of a chance to take part in the decision.

"Yeah," Pratt said, "I can imagine."

He went on to discuss the future of the state in the optimistic, Rotarian language that I've learned to expect from officials in the state administration. He foresaw unlimited growth in all directions. "Hell," he said, "this country's so goddamn big that even if industry ran wild, we could never wreck it. We can have our cake and eat it too."

At lunch I listened to a rebuttal from Jay Hammond, the leader of the Republican majority in the Senate and the chairman of the Rules Committee. Hammond is a guide and commercial salmon fisherman, a man with green eyes and weathered, handsome face who represents a district larger than the state of Texas. In the entire district there are no more than 12,000 people, most of them Indians and Eskimos. He is married to a woman who is part Eskimo and they live in the village of Naknek (population 249) on Bristol Bay. I had the impression that he feels crowded in even so small a town as Juneau. Now in his early fifties, he came up to Alaska after World War II, flying an old 1929 amphibian that resides in the air museum at Anchorage.

"The irony," he said, "is that some of us are trying to make Alaska into a replica of the society we came up here to escape. If I want to see a freeway, I can go to Los Angeles."

He distrusted economic development for its own sake, beheving that too often only a few people prospered (primarily merchants, insurance agents, and assorted middlemen), and that no amount of money could justify the destruction that most often seems to accompany the triumph of American civilization.

"We've had the example of so-called normal development in the United States," he said. "If that's normal, then I'm for what's abnormal. I don't give a damn about making three or four times as much money. To do what? So I can go to New Zealand? I'd rather have the country."

He doubted if his point of view would prevail in the Legislature. Although he'd introduced a bill establishing a Department of Environmental Affairs (with the authority to decide land classifications in the state), he recognized that it had little hope of passage. Both houses of the Legislature are organized on the basis of population; half the people in Alaska live in either Anchorage or Fairbanks, and so those two towns elect half the members of the Legislature.

"They talk idealistic," Hammond said, "but when it comes down to it, they vote selfish."

Hammond and Pratt represent the two principal kinds of men that seem to be drawn to Alaska. Those like Pratt, most of whom arrived within the last five or ten years, come up to make a killing in a boom economy. They settle in the towns, and they incline to talk about the wilderness as if it were dramatic landscape painting.

Thursday. People call themselves Republicans or Democrats, but the definitions don't appear to mean the same things in Alaska as they do elsewhere in the United States. The differences show up in terms of social prejudice or sectional interest, not in terms of partisan dogma. The few Democrats who proclaim the standard liberal themes sound strangely artificial, as if they were reciting a catechism they'd learned somewhere else. Thus, the contradictions apparent in the Senate debate today on the subject of grain subsidies to farmers in the Matanuska Valley. Senator John Rader, an Anchorage lawyer and a persistently liberal Democrat, argued against the measure. Senator C.R. Lewis, also from Anchorage and a national director of the John Birch Society, argued for it.

The character of the people is conservative in the sense that they distrust any form of government and admire the self-reliant agrarian virtues. I haven't yet heard anybody mention (let alone denounce) the war in Vietnam, and last summer, during the controversy over the nuclear testing on Amchitka Island in the Aleutians, Governor Miller condemned the opponents of the explosion as members of an international conspiracy.

Like the men, the women wear their hair short; generally their faces are heavy and square, like the faces of women in bowling alleys. There is a distinct bias against anything suggestive of hippies and all that sick stuff in the decadent cities to the south. Yesterday in the House, during debate proposing to make it a felony (with five years in prison) for striking a police officer, somebody said:

"We don't have any riots yet, but we can see what's happening to the rest of the country, and we know these people are coming in from the outside. In the old days, you could take them into the back room and kick the hell out of them."

The bill failed to pass, but I suspect that Juneau would be a hard town in which to stage a peace demonstration. I'm beginning to think of Alaska as the most American place, the raw frontier from whence we all descended.

Friday afternoon. The oil lobbyists in town anticipate no serious interruptions. They are intelligent and practical men who recognize a simple logical sequence. If the American economy depends on oil, then there will be a market for oil; if people want it, then they must pay the price, and part of the price is an occasional accident like the one in the Santa Barbara channel.

Even so, despite the clarity of their logic, they resent criticism from people whom they choose to identify as preservationists. (In the vocabulary of the oil business a preservationist is a conservationist with extreme and fanatical obsessions, i.e. a person who refuses to accept the economic imperatives and therefore dreams foolishly of a lost Eden.) The resentment characterized the conversation last night with William Hopkins, the local agent for the Alaska Oil and Gas Association. Hopkins is a young and earnest man who came to Alaska several years ago as a newspaper reporter.

"Who's not for birds?" he said. "It's easy to be for birds."

He thought the oil companies had suffered so much adverse publicity because the question of environment suddenly had become a fashionable political issue. Although more vulnerable than other industries, in his view the oil business was no more guilty than anybody else.

"What the hell," he said, "the whole economy is based on consumption, waste, and pollution."

Therefore, if anything was at fault, it was the whole structure. As long as money remained the basis of the American dream, then what else could anyone expect? If people wanted to retain the environment, then they would have to pay for it. Not only with money but also by giving up certain conveniences. He suggested, for example, that in order to deal with the air pollution in New York, maybe people should not be allowed to bring their cars across the bridges. The oil business would comply with whatever restrictions were imposed on it, but unless other people accepted similar restrictions, their high-minded pronouncements about the environment would continue to be meaningless.

"There are times," he said, "when you burn witches or people with German names. Right now we're it."

Not, however, in Alaska. This morning I met Tom Kelly, the Commissioner of Natural Resources, and I suspect that he would be entirely sympathetic to Hopkins' unhappiness. He's a Texan who first came up to Alaska as an independent oil operator on the Kenai Peninsula; a self-confident man in his middle thirties not given to questioning his own assumptions. He speaks with a faint drawl and smiles in the mechanical way of a man with charm but no sense of humor.

Primarily he wanted to talk about the oil auction last September in Anchorage; he conducted it, and he seemed pleased with the way in which he had misled the oil companies into making such extravagant bids for the leases on the North Slope. But first, with heavy sarcasm in his voice, he dismissed the objections of the preservationists. (Knowing that I'm from New York, people like Kelly feel obliged to reheve me of my Eastern prejudices; all of them would concur with Vice President Agnew's suspicion of an effete snobbism among members of the national press.) "Too many people," Kelly said, "are mesmerized by that idea of fragile ecology."

The rest of his conversation was crowded with phrases like "maximization of the Alaskan potential." Not only did the state still retain 350,000 acres on the North Slope, but there were twelve other sedimentary basins in Alaska, and these Kelly also hoped to raffle off at high prices. The present budget assumes $40 million from a sale next summer of leases on the Kenai Peninsula and in Bristol Bay. As for the Legislature's proposal to establish a Department of Environmental Affairs, Kelly seemed to consider it an insult. His own department at present decides land classifications, and any subtraction from his authority he thought both unreasonable and inefficient.

"I'm tired of people telling us how to do something," he said. "Those of us here are not totally incapable."

The subject of Bristol Bay came up again at tea, in a conversation with Jay Hammond and Clem Tillion. Tillion is a man of the same temperament as Hammond; also a salmon fisherman, he lives in a small town about 130 miles southwest of Anchorage on the Cook Inlet. He has short, reddish hair and not many teeth, but he laughs easily, and he's the kind of man whose company makes you feel that somehow you've been improved. I don't know how else to describe it, but it has something to do with a lightness of spirit and an impression of both wisdom and competence. (With either Tillion or Hammond I can imagine being lost in seemingly hopeless circumstances and yet not worrying about it.)

We sat at a plain, wooden table in the modest apartment Tillion rents within a block of the Capitol. Tillion's wife served tea and smoked fish, and Hammond talked about the purpose of a bill he'd introduced to prohibit oil drilling in the shallow water of Bristol Bay. Salmon in enormous numbers spawn in the rivers emptying into the bay; the circular tides do not wash out to sea, and a heavy spill of oil could destroy the fishery.

"For once," Hammond said, "you'd think we could err on the side of conservation. At least the mistakes are reversible."

(On Wednesday, I remember, an oil lobbyist in the corridor of the Legislature was leafing through bills that had been introduced during his absence. Coming across Hammond's bill, he shrugged and said, "Shit, that'll never pass.")

Tillion has introduced a similar bill in the House, in which he's one of the senior Republicans and a member of the Rules Committee. Speaking of men like Kelly and Henry Pratt, he described them, flatly and simply, as predators. "If a man doesn't know he's an animal," he said, "then you can't reason with him."

He wondered why people couldn't understand that they were all caught up in the same circle of life (men, dogs, fish, plankton, caribou, moths, trees, etc.), each dependent on the other. The trouble begins, he said, when men imagine themselves exempt from the natural law and so go about promulgating their own laws as if they were minor gods. Once let loose, the technological beast proceeds on its ravening way.

He started out in Alaska twenty-eight years ago, building his own cabin on an island in Halibut Cove. Gradually, he enclosed it within a frame house, cutting the wood at his own sawmill. Half the men he started fishing with have since been drowned. Hammond, I find out, began not as a fisherman but as a trapper. The market in fox pelts collapsed in the late 1940s (the result of fox coats becoming associated with whores), and so for several years he worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, shooting wolves to protect the reindeer herds on the northwestern tundra.

They both mentioned the difficulties of campaigning in what the Alaskans call "the bush." The politicians in the rural districts need the native vote otherwise known as "the canoe vote"), and so they must go to the smallest settlements and demonstrate their fortitude to the chief. The villages do not split their vote. Everybody votes the way the chief tells them, and so both Hammond and Tillion have been obliged to take part in the local feasts while nodding smilingly at the assembled crowd. Moose fat apparently is the worst, particularly if it has been dried and cut into narrow strips; there is also whale blubber, seal oil, and meat left so long in the sun that it attracts maggots.

Saturday. It is noon, and I sit looking out the window at the solemn gulls standing in rows on the roofs of rotting sheds. They stand facing in silent, contrary directions, indifferent to the wind blowing up the channel from the southwest. The Coast Guard picket ship in the harbor is heavy with ice. I didn't notice it yesterday, and so presumably it arrived last night from a patrol in more northern waters.

I keep forgetting how big the state is; how big and how diverse. There is a four-hour time shift between here and the Bering Sea, and the papers this morning show the temperature in Fairbanks at 35 degrees below zero. Further north, on the North Slope, it is 60 below and always dark at this time of year.

The people think of the state as a country facing west across the Pacific Ocean. They have more to do with Japan than they do with New York. The Japanese buy most of the Alaskan fish, and the steel for the pipeline, already stacked in tiers at the port of Valdez, was imported from Yokohama.

It is a country of violent contrasts. Forests and mountains in the southeast; flat, barren plains in the north. Extreme poverty in the rural places and sudden wealth in the boom towns. The long winter darkness and the midnight sun of the brief summer. The Arctic Eskimos haunted by the demons of a primitive culture, pursuing whales within sight of the oil derricks working the wonders of the modern alchemy. (I remember a man talking about his Eskimo wife: "Like, what you got to dig, man, is that she's three thousand years old."

Probably the native question is the dominant issue in the state, more difficult than the money or the oil, and yet hardly anybody will talk about it. The Governor and most of the politicians like to say that it is the concern of the Congress in Washington, their rationale being that the U.S. government bought Alaska from the Russians, and so the U.S. government can goddamn well pay off the natives. (The word, natives, is a collective noun comprising Eskimos and Aleuts, and Tlingit, Haida, and Athabascan Indians, all of whom dislike each other.)

The question requires some historical explanation. The deal with the Russians postponed a settlement with the natives for the land to which it was recognized they held aboriginal title. It was assumed that a later Congress would work out an equitable arrangement. No Congress got around to doing that, and so now there are several bills in Washington providing various compensations in land and money.

The bill submitted by the Alaska Federation of Natives (an uneasy alliance between the above-mentioned tribes) demands $500 million in cash, 40 million acres, and a 2 per cent over-ride on the oil revenues. The bill offered by the Department of the Interior offers the same cash, 10 million acres, and no over-ride. (There are other complications having to do with which 10 or 40 million acres, what kind of title and the rate of payment, but generally the two bills reflect the differences of opinion.)

In the meantime, pending a settlement, the Department of the Interior imposed a land-freeze on the state of Alaska, and it is this that accounts for the rising anger. In the Act granting statehood in 1959, the federal government reserved 250 million acres in Alaska; the state received the remaining 100 million acres, with the right to choose whatever land it wanted. (Again there are exceptions and qualification, but that is the gist of it.) But the state had chosen only 6 million acres before the advent of the land-freeze. Which means that the towns can't extend their boundaries, and the speculators in Anchorage and Fairbanks can't begin to arrange heavy deals.

Thus the natives are getting in the way. Also, they're becoming politically sophisticated (the Federation retains both Arthur Goldberg and Ramsey Clark), and they're beginning to notice the disparity between a tar-paper shack and a suburban ranch house.

Yesterday evening, talking to Senator Ray Christiansen in the bar of the Baranof, I began to hear an ominous dissonance. Christiansen is half-Eskimo and the only native of any kind in the Senate; a gentle man in his fifties, obviously long accustomed to the apparent inequalities, he would be identified in the Negro context of the United States as an Uncle Tom. But the $900 million and the rising tide of expectation in Alaska have moved him to something more than a polite request for a decent break. He resented the Governor's budget and the policy of preserving the principal. With sorrowful bitterness in his voice, he said,

"What are they saving it for? For whom? You should see what it's like in the bush. Those people need help right now."

Again, I was reminded of the preliminary conference in Anchorage last fall; few natives had been invited, and those who came made extremely modest proposals. Other people talked importantly about capital-improvement funds, satellite communications, and even a pan-terrestrial bridge across the Bering Strait. The natives envisioned a little more food, electricity, and maybe running water.

"You can't know what it's like," Christiansen said. "You can't. People living in sheds, goddamnit . . . twelve people in a little room."

Christiansen is a bush pilot, and usually he drinks by himself. Before he subsided into resigned silence, he stared at me with confused eyes, attempting to conceal the expression of rage in his worn, pitted face.

Sure, they'll give me something in the Senate. Because it's me, good old Ray. But it's never enough. It's all lawyers around here. Lawyers who can twist words anyway they want. Money talks, goddamnit."

Sunday evening. Quiet day and still raining. I haven't seen the sun for a week, and always the mountains are hidden by drifting clouds. The ice field behind the mountains behind the town extends for 1,000 square miles.

Tillion turns out to be an amateur historian and a man of wide erudition. He says the Eskimo culture has all but vanished. Instead of dog sleds they drive snowmobiles, and they hunt with rifles instead of spears. They get much of their food with stamps from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Tlingits in the southeast apparently were very cruel; they kept Eskimos for slaves and raised the practice of torture to an art. The first white men they saw, a ship's party of Russian fur traders, they promptly killed. Which, Tillion thought, was entirely correct. "They recognized the practical reality of it," he said. "Somebody ends up as the hewer of wood."

We drove out to the Mendenhall Glacier on the north end of town, Tillion talking about Indians and the land. His island commands a view of mountains still unnamed, and from his dock he can look down into the clear water at the diving ducks turning over stones in their search for snails.

"If I had my way," he said, "I'd keep people out of this state. I'd set up immigration laws."

The old ice in the face of the glacier is the color of sapphires.

Monday morning. I begin to see what the desk clerk meant about the local tendency toward melancholy. I had dinner last night with Brad Phillips, the president of the Senate, and afterwards he stared dismally out the window of the house he has rented on a hill overlooking the channel.

"You know something?" he said. "This is a miserable little town."

Phillips owns an insurance agency in Anchorage; he's an urbane man of forty-five who finds himself constrained within the limitations of Juneau. Anchorage is brash and new and glutted with energy; it has the feeling of a mining camp, and the go-go bars place notices in the papers announcing the arrival of "new girls daily." Juneau is more sedate. The bar at the Baranof is pretty much the only game in town, and on Saturday nights the guitar players wear maroon coats. Otherwise you could think it was Tuesday. Later in the legislative session, when everybody's been here for four or five months, I can imagine an oppressive heaviness, like Kafka's fiction or a Broadway show on the road.

Perhaps Phillips was depressed for more specific reasons. He has served in the Senate for eight years, and now that he wants to run for Governor it appears that he doesn't have much chance. Brooding about the ungratefulness of the electorate, he said, "They don't give a shit unless it's their ox. They go for images, and no matter what you do, you're a bum."

Or again, apropos of nothing in the conversation and after a long silence:

"What do they think this is? A civics class?"

He assumed that the present session would become increasingly unpleasant, largely because of the elections and nobody therefore being sure of anybody else's promises or intentions. He expected the political deals to begin, and he doubted whether the Governor could protect the $900 million.

"People say, 'Great, let's keep the $900 million.' But then they say, 'Just this one little project, Brad.' Meaning, of course, their own."

He also doubted whether the Legislature could come up with imaginative alternatives to the familiar political compromises. There wasn't enough time, and nobody had the necessary information. "If we do anything right," he said, "we'll back into it by mistake."

Bill Hopkins, the oil lobbyist, arrived after dinner with a screen, a projector, and a documentary film entitled, New for Tomorrow. Although paid for by several oil companies, the credits announced that it had been produced by the State of Alaska. Early last week the Anchorage Daily News condemned it as rank propaganda, primarily because of a sequence showing sockeye salmon in a stream on the North Slope. That species of salmon is unknown in the Arctic, and the newspaper questioned the entire premise of the film, i.e., that the oil business does not disturb the natural environment.

The film opened with a shot of a whale leaping out of the sea and thereafter presented alternating shots of wildlife and oil rigs. Hopkins referred to the latter as "unobtrusive Christmas trees removing millions." When the questionable salmon appeared, he laughed and said, "This is the shot with the fake fish."

Phillips, who liked the film, also laughed. "For Christ's sake," he said, "Who the hell is going to know that? How many people can tell the difference between one kind of salmon and another?"

"That's what I thought," Hopkins said. "Sort of poetic license."

Phillips said, "I'm beginning to hate the word, fragile."

Before Hopkins left, Phillips told him that he'd spoken that afternoon to Secretary Hickel in Washington. He reported that Hickel was as anxious as anybody else in Alaska to begin work on the pipeline, but the company contracted to build it hadn't yet supphed the Department of the Interior with the necessary papers. "He needs maps and the geography," Phillips said. "He doesn't care if they draw it on toilet paper, but they've got to give him something specific."

Tuesday afternoon. Charles Sassara, an ambitious man in his late thirties, is the leader of the Democratic majority in the House. Except the majority isn't a majority, and so Sassara is also a suspicious man who imagines people intriguing against him. Probably he's right. Last year he assumed he'd fixed it to be elected Speaker of the House. He'd been so sure of it that he presented his credentials to the Governor and invited his family down from Anchorage to attend his investiture. The night before the election, the Republicans and seven Democrats arranged a coalition that Sassara didn't find out about until the clerk called the roll.

I've listened to him debate on the floor of the House, and usually he is cynical and contentious. In a conversation during the noon recess today, he denounced the Governor's budget as an obvious political trick.

"It's treating us like children," he said. "You know the bit . . . Stay away from Mommy's feet because Mommy's trying to cook."

Sassara is a politician in the glib, New York manner. He wears sharply cut suits and heavy gold cuff links; his swarthy pudginess reminds me of Pierre Salinger. He figured that the "creative thing" to do with the $900 million was to travel around the state and ask people what they really wanted. Not what they sort of wanted, but what they really wanted. Once that had been established, then the state could buy it for them.

"You got to push the hot buttons," he said. "I'm here to spend the loot."

He'd heard somewhere, although he admitted he'd never seen it written down, that capital improvements (roads, bridges, schools, etc.) paid 18 per cent interest and circumvented the debilitating effects of inflation. He'd sent a copy of the budget to a stockbroker he knew in New York so that the stockbroker could run it through a computer and locate the weaknesses in it. "There's no point giving the Governor a chance to look good with all that money in an election year," he said.

Discussing the needs of the state of Alaska, he advanced the customary arguments for education and social welfare, but his remarks seemed oddly irrelevant, as if he were addressing an audience on the West Side in New York. In the summers he operates a tourist boat on Prince William Sound, but when he talked about the scenery he did so as if it had been imported from the back log at Paramount.

At another point, speaking of the poverty among the Eskimos, he said, "It's a subsistence deal . . . You know, they got to go out and kill a fish or a seal or something."

Midway through the conversation we were interrupted by the arrival of Lewis Dischner, the lobbyist in Juneau for the Teamsters Union. Dischner slouched in a chair with his boots on the table, an unshaven and ribald man given to conspiratorial winking. I later discovered he'd been the first Commissioner of Labor when Alaska became a state in 1959. He leafed through a copy of the budget while Sassara talked on the telephone to a contractor in Anchorage who hadn't bothered to obtain the required licenses but still refused to answer inquiries from the State Attorney General.

"Look, Fred," Sassara said, "you got to cut it out . . . You don't want to start that way." When he hung up he complained to Dischner about the man's unreasonable stubbornness. Dischner shrugged and remarked that if the Teamsters had to deal with the guy, it would be an easy thing.

"What the fuck?" he said. "Shut him down. Nothing moves."

Sassara looked at him with an expression of doubt that also contained an element of envy; after a wistful pause, he said, "I know, Lew . . . but you people work differently."

Dischner had come to talk about the budget. He was skeptical of the good behavior so far evident among the members of the Legislature, and he attributed it to their confusion, their stupidity, and the euphoria in the early weeks of the session. Sooner or later, he said, everybody would remember they were up for election.

"The first one makes a deal," he said, "and there goes the whole barrel of wax."

It soon became apparent that he didn't want to spend the $900 million. Sassara couldn't beheve that anybody associated with a labor union could endorse so Republican a point of view.

"Lew," he said, "You don't mean that."

Dischner threw the budget on the table.

"They'll piss it away," he said.

Sasssara, still incredulous, began to enumerate social improvements.

"Roads, Lew . . . airports . . . schools."

Dischner nodded at each of the prospects mentioned.

"Whatever you want to call it," he said. ". . . Pissing it away."

When he had left Sassara seemed shaken. His political philosophy in ruins, he turned to me and said, "You see what a crazy state this is? Even the goddamn labor leaders are conservative. You see them in Anchorage standing around in paint-spattered shoes, looking at the stock tapes."

Wednesday. Further remarks about the native question, with commentary from Senator John Rader and Representative Wilhe Hensley.

Rader drew a graph on the back of an envelope. Assuming income and population as the coordinates, the graph looked like a drawing of two steep mountains, one much smaller than the other. "That," Rader said, "is the graph of a South American republic." He argued that it was also a fair rendering of the social imbalance in Alaska. The smaller mountain represented the poverty of the natives. Pointing to it, Rader said, "This is Watts; this is Harlem."

A supporter of Gene McCarthy in 1968 and therefore the embodiment of the extreme Left in the Alaskan Senate, Rader is a handsome and generous man, with gray hair and clear, intelligent eyes. He spoke with intense earnestness, appalled that with all the talk of trees and water, people could so blindly ignore the social environment. (In Anchorage I remember a man talking about a party at which an Eskimo pulled a knife on him. "Fortunately," he said, "it was a mistaken identity; all white men look the same."

Rader thought the Governor's announced policy with regard to the native land claims (i.e., let the federal government deal with it) was not only misguided but also dangerous. He thought that without some appropriate gesture from the state (particularly since the advent of the $900 million), the Congress might choose to indefinitely postpone the passage of a bill. If that happened, and if the natives then took the matter into the courts, he beheved they would wait years for any kind of settlement. To him it seemed obvious that the longer they waited, the more damaging their anger would become.

"Nobody wants to admit it," he said, "but the trouble is already here. If these people continue to stick their heads in the sand, it'll get worse."

Wilhe Hensley confirmed Rader's premonitions. Hensley is the Eskimo in the belted suit and the Representative of the oil district on the North Slope.

"When I was a kid," he said, "all I knew what I could see. But the Eskimo kids now are learning a lot of things they didn't know before, like for instance that their average life expectancy is thirty-four years."

A young man in his late twenties, Hensley was educated largely in the mainland United States, which accounts not only for his suit but also for his blond wife and his urban speech rhythms. Unlike Christiansen, his manner is withdrawn and hostile.

"You listen to some of the people around here," he said, "and you'd think there was a $50 bounty on natives instead of wolves."

He's interested in acquiring political power, and for that he looks more hopefully to the federal rather than to the state government. The natives in the state are disorganized and scattered through remote villages, and so Hensley spends as much time in Washington as he does in Juneau, hoping for a land-claims settlement that will substitute money for numbers of votes. But when he talks about conditions in the Arctic, he doesn't seem authentic (much like Sassara's Democratic slogans), and I had the feeling that he doesn't like to go home to Kotzebue.

This apparently is a difficulty encountered by the younger generation of Indian and Eskimo politicians. They learn the white man's laws and wear the white man's clothes, and so in their own villages become ahens. In the old Eskimo tradition, it is the wise man who keeps silence and the fool who speaks.

Thursday evening. Further remarks about the Alaskan xenophobia, with evidence from a meeting of the Senate committee on monetary policy.

Brad Phillips appointed the committee because he distrusts the Governor's fiscal policy; he distrusts it, but neither he nor anybody else in the Legislature knows enough to dispute it intelligently. Thus the purpose of the committee is to acquire technical information and to write a bill that will allow the state to invest in more adventurous propositions than government securities.

The first witness this afternoon, an investment banker from Seattle named Duff Kennedy, blandly informed the committee that the state probably had been ineptly advised by Blyth & Co. and the Bank of America. With condescending humor, Kennedy said he'd heard that Blyth & Co. balanced precariously near the edge of bankruptcy. Phillips said, "I don't know what we're paying them for."

Kennedy smiled, as if from a long way off. "l don't know either," he said, "they lost so much money in the bond market that they had to get out of it."

Looking at each other as if they'd always known the worst, the members of the committee listened gratefully as Kennedy proceeded to explain that what Alaska needed was somebody on its side, somebody to watch out for Alaska's interests. Brokers couldn't do that, he said; his firm could.

"The service industry is very big right now," he said. "You don't want the blue chips. Neophytes do that. They go for the old, established names, and they get killed."

Senator Zeigler, the member from Ketchikan, said, "What should our goals be? What are we looking for?"

Kennedy again smiled his distant smile. "I don't know," he said, It's your state."

He talked for an hour about cash flows and development banks and time deposits, and when he'd finished, Zeigler said, "We sure do appreciate you coming by and visiting with us."

The second witness, a man named Charles Boothe from Los Angeles, was more crass. He also wanted to line up the Alaskan account, but he didn't understand the political nuances or the mistrust between the Governor and the Legislature, and instead of talking about general financial policy, he promoted his own firm. A gray-haired man in a tweed suit, he tended to a more conservative approach than Kennedy's.

"I think Duff maybe is a little aggressive," he said. "What you people need is a team."

He observed that his firm could provide that team, experts in real estate, mortgages, banking, stocks, bonds, and whatever else happened to attract the state's fancy. Zeigler followed the proposal with difficulty.

"We're babes in the woods, Mr. Boothe," he said.

At another point Senator Joseph Josephson (a Democrat and a dogmatic liberal) became alarmed that somebody from the outside might be dictating policy. He didn't want anybody advising the state about anything, he said, unless he was sure about that person's social philosophy.

"Nobody," he said, "can come in here and tell us what our values are."

Boothe seemed genuinely alarmed.

"Oh, no, of course not," he said. "You're just looking for input-output. I just give you the facts and the costs. It isn't important what I think."

Senator Zeigler said, "What's so philosophical about $900 million?"

At the end, such was the general confusion, that Phillips asked both Kennedy and Boothe to return the following week. The committee expected to hear testimony from other investment bankers (several of them from New York), and it wanted somebody friendly to translate the technical language.

"You see what we mean," Phillips said; "so we know they're not screwing us."

(Earlier this evening I ran across Josephson in the bar of the Baranof; he'd been drinking with Duff Kennedy, and he assured me that despite his well-cut suit and Establishment appearance, Kennedy at heart was a true Democrat. "You wouldn't know it to look at him," Josephson said, "but he's a liberal."

Friday. The House committee on natural resources today heard testimony from fishermen who told of fish dying in the streams near Ketchikan. The wastes from the pulp mill raise the temperature in the water, and the erosion from the picked-over hillsides dumps silt on the spawning gravel. In some places there are fifteen feet of dead herring on the bottom of shallow bays. One of fishermen, a solemn man with a heavy jaw, tried to explain what happened when a herring died in the effluents from the mills. Drawing tiny, erratic circles in the air, he said, "He goes around and around and around, and he's done for."

Another fisherman said, "I can't catch anything up there now. I think we can come up with some better deals here."

The sympathy of the committee clearly didn't go beyond polite gestures; several members suggested further studies, and one of them, smiling reassuringly, said, "We have no documentation. No measurements of toxicity."

Although not a member of the committee, CIem Tillion had come to offer the fishermen his support. Slouching in a witness chair, his boots off and a broad smile on his red, weathered face, he said, "Five years from now, when the fish are dead, you'll have a lovely set of statistics."

He then cited an obscure study taken several years ago in the same waters by the state health department. The study had foretold exactly what the fishermen described. To the members of the committee, Tillion said, "I don't see why you people bother to pretend . . . The decision his already been made in favor of the polluters."

Both Tillion and Hammond maintain an attitude of constant vigilance; they understand the practical realities of Alaskan politics (the pulp mill in Ketchikan, for instance, supports the regional politicians and demands that its interests be protected), but they refuse to let anybody get away with hypocritical euphemisms. Between them, they so far have introduced several bills having to do with conservation, each of which approaches the issue from a slightly different angle. Tillion figures that maybe he can manage to get some of the legislation passed. After the meeting he explained that his tactics depended on conservation having become recently fashionable.

"I'm delighted," he said. "At least these guys have to pretend to support it, and so it's a tradable item. If we give them a sewage plant or a road somewhere, they might take it easy on the country . . . Not that I like roads, you understand."

Saturday noon. Governor Miller doesn't appear to have much grasp of the difficulties. Talking to him this morning in his large office on the third floor of the Capitol, I had the feeling of a man isolated behind his own uncertainty, issuing orders through emissaries (KelIy, Pratt, etc.) and not knowing whether they would be carried out. Like the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland.

He is a pleasant man, with long, wavy hair and an open, boyish charm that conveys the impression of wholesome goodness. He chain-smoked cigars to take up the slack in his nervousness, and he seemed to be wholly unaware of the jealousy, paranoia, and greed shaping the ambitions of the politicians in the Legislature. His innocence is that of the nice guy, who, when he blunders into trouble, feels that somehow the whole thing is terribly unfair.

He came to Anchorage in 1957 as a clerk for the Internal Revenue Service, and in 1962 he was elected to the State House. He lost a subsequent election, but in 1966, having moved to Fairbanks and gone into the heating business, he ran for Secretary of State (an office comparable to Lieutenant Governor) and so was elected on the same ticket with Walter Hickel by a margin of 1,300 votes. (A total of 70,000 votes were cast in the 1966 national election.)

I suspect that Miller relies heavily on the word of his advisers, and with regard to the major issues presently confronting the state, he offered nothing beyond the expected political cliches. Of the environmental questions, he said, "We all have mixed emotions. I, too, want the state to stay the way it is. I, too, like open spaces and beautiful scenery."

His defense of his fiscal policy was equally conventional, and on the issue of the native land claims he remained adamant. If Alaska's refusal to participate in a settlement harmed the chances of a bill passing Congress, then that was too bad.

"The politics of it," he said, "doesn't make it right."

But I suspect that his entire position is based on politics. There is a strong instinct in the state against giving the natives anything (the other night in the Baranof a man pounded insistently on the bar and said, "I was born here, and I ain't asking for no forty million acres"), and so presumably Miller hopes to appeal to that instinct in this year's election campaign.

Late Sunday evening. Tonight it is snowing, and in the narrow street I can hear the voices of drunken men wandering away from the Red Dog Saloon. Either the Red Dog or Mary Joyce's Top Hat Bar. (Now an aging woman comforted by faded photographs on the walls of her joint, Mary once drove a dog team from Juneau to Fairbanks; last night, introducing me to her, a man said, "Yeah, old Mary did a lot of mushing.")

Maybe it is the voices that discourage me, or maybe it is the predictable transformation of the frontier. No doubt, I suffer from a literary and therefore false nostalgia; like Rousseau or Marie Antoinette with her dairy. If they want to plunder the state, that's their business. The disadvantages of progress occur only to people who already possess the washing machine, or the parking lot, or the house in the south of France. Imagine trying to explain to an Indonesian peasant why it's better for him to remain in picturesque squalor.

I like the people here, and I admire their directness and lack of cynicism; the elegant irony of the New York bars would seem to them incomprehensible. The Legislature remains almost entirely free of corruption; the state hasn't been a state long enough for people to acquire the necessary techniques, and until last fall there wasn't much money. (Presumably the oil companies now will begin to contribute to local elections, and the construction of the pipeline, expected to cost a billion dollars, certainly will affect the politics.)

If they wreck the place, it will be for the most American of reasons. Eventually, it resolves itself into a choice between money and trees, and if you take the money (no matter how polite a name you give to it), you lose the trees. It becomes a question not of what you want, but of what you're willing to give up. Thus, the logic of the oil lobbyists is irrefutable. (I think of Hopkins saying, "You want gas in the car? Okay, you get oil on the beach.")

But I also think of Hammond and Tillion, retreating further north and setting up rear-guard actions in the Legislature, which Tillion calls "the puzzle house." Certainly the avalanche won't overtake them for a long time. The state is enormous, and the climate isn't likely to attract the population that has swarmed into California. I remember Hammond talking about a book he'd read in which two frontiersmen stand looking at a solitary wagon crossing an empty valley under an immense sky; one of them says to the other that the country sure was beautiful before it got so crowded. Hammond laughed, and then, after a long silence, he said, "Yeah, well, that's the irony in it. We end up destroying the thing we sought and loved."

And so tonight, listening to the drunken voices in the street, I think of miners pouring their gold on the bar and selling their claims for an ostrich feather and a woman's smile.

*Lewis Lapham has written for the Saturday Evening Post and Life, and was a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune. He now joins Harper's as a contributing editor.

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