Diane J. Purvis taught cultural history at Alaska Pacific University for twenty-five years. She is the author of The Drive of Civilization: The Stikine Forest versus Americanism. Her newest book, Ragged Coast, Rugged Coves (Nebraska, 2021), is now available.
What does the mention of Alaska bring to mind? Perhaps it is the floating icebergs, pioneer log cabins, Native sod houses, or the extremes of wilderness. Often it is thought of as that far away place barely clinging to the North American continent, as if it does not truly belong. When one delves into its history, however, there is a much different tale to be told. Aligning with regional history, Alaska cannot be taken out of the framework of the Pacific Northwest and western Canada. Economic policies, political maelstrom, and social change instigated along the Eastern Seaboard eventually arrived on the western coast, touching the sparsely populated and diverse Alaskan region. Historian Richard White argues that the West is defined by more than geographical parameters; also central is the history enacted in this environment. Geography merely distorts the “nature of the western environment itself by making static what is dynamic. The land and the plants and animals that live on it are not just natural, they are also a result of the past actions of human beings. . . . It limits as well as creates human possibilities, but it simultaneously reflects the actions of human beings upon it.”
In considering regional history, Susan Armitage has pointed to the paucity of detail in standard history books regarding ethnic lives, female roles, labor history, and the accompanying lifestyles. Instead, there is more emphasis on great leaders, who are usually part of the dominant society, a sociological term indicating a majority, not a measure of moral superiority. She calls for more emphasis on those groups or communities that make up the “sum total of innumerable small actions and reactions by ordinary people as they come into contact with other people who may seem similar or very different from themselves.”Breaking this down, there is a need for a story told by the people who lived it; the laborers operating machinery, not the owners of the operation. In the working culture, people perform their tasks side by side, and despite differences in background, and possibly in political or religious beliefs, they find they have much in common. Those shared traits unify a group, developing into a force for change and equity. Yet Armitage is quick to remind us that the “effect of economic decisions of capitalists” has real consequences for the working people, as it did for cannery workers in the unique environment of southeast Alaska, located on the Alexander Archipelago and bordering Canada.
In tracing the transformation of the West, William Robbins contends that “capitalism is the common factor to understanding power, influence and change in the American West.” This conclusion was applicable to Alaska’s cannery industrialization as it was financed by capital and investment monies coming from the Pacific Northwest and San Francisco. The influx of money encouraged more technology, leading to increased production and the need for more labor. The companies relied on a steady flow of able workers, both indigenous and immigrant, dependent on their jobs for survival while distant companies controlled wages, working conditions, and the resource itself. Alaska salmon canneries operated much like the original thirteen colonies did, as a manufacturing hub, distinguished by “colonial economic status and absentee control.” While other areas of the West grew into major urban centers and organized their own financial centers, Alaska remained chained to Eastern or Pacific Coast mega-companies.
This trend corresponds with corporate colonialism, as these same business interests controlled resource extraction simultaneously with political jockeying for favorable laws, avoiding tax collection, and exerting influence on all aspects of Alaska life. Yet the economic stranglehold was slow to develop at first. The Russian American Company (rac), a mercantile company specializing in furs, attempted to colonize Alaska and the people but was never fully successful. With Native help, the Russians harvested and exported some fishery products, but they were limited in their attempts, and most of their activities centered on a few salteries in the area. The more enduring transformation from a pioneer market economy to a monopoly empire occurred when the nascent territory was forced to support itself through the exploitation of natural resources, namely minerals, timber, and salmon. This was an expensive proposition, requiring capital investment. San Francisco banks had become rich after the 1850s gold rush and were ready to take a chance on a new form of gold in Southeast Alaska as they financed infrastructure, cannery machinery, and fishing equipment and continued to expand technology. Since these big banks and companies held the purse strings, they made the rules. Provincial politicians, understanding the chokehold the absentee cannery companies had on Alaska, bolstered their platform by assuring Alaskan residents they were qualified to break conglomerate domination and return Alaska to Alaskans, but by the turn of the century, colonialism was deeply entrenched and continued to dig deeper.
In this book, I adopt a multivariate approach in terms of viewpoint and experience among the settlers, cannery owners, and laborers, both immigrant and indigenous. A discussion of this nature is rare in the existing literature. In the few examples when Native Americans were involved in company business, there were unexpected consequences. H. Craig Miner relates in The Corporation and the Indian that the “Indians” who were given a share in the corporation experienced an erosion of tribal sovereignty as the corporation rose in power, while the “federal government [was] standing by to watch the direction of the breeze of circumstances. It was a psychologically and culturally disorienting and intellectually twisting experience for Indians, most of whom were unsure where their future happiness lay.” The indigenous people were compelled to adapt to new circumstances and modify their traditional socioeconomic and political customs, while the government was determined to ignore the existence of Alaska Native populations.