Living the Alaskan way
Hal Spackman, one of Sitka's leading historians, talks about Russian-American heritage, contemporary Alaska and his vision of the state in the future.
What is the real meaning of Alaska? Just step outside your backdoor and get into the wild!
- How long have you lived in Alaska and why are you still here?
- I have lived in Alaska since 1980 and I live in Sitka since 1990. I grew up as a young man in Montana and I always had a dream to move to Alaska for a lot of reasons: its nature, its beauty, its opportunities and its just general allure to see Alaska and live there.
- Alaska is…
- A place of opportunity. Alaska is a place that melts both the best of civilization with the best of nature. You can literally walk out the backdoor of my house and see grizzly bears, eagles, deer in their natural state. Where else can you do that?
- What is the spirit of Alaska in terms of values people live?
- Well, the values and spirit of Alaska varies from person to person but, I think, most of Alaskans pride themselves in their ability to adapt. I think that is the number one thing: as you live in Alaska you have to adapt.
Alaska is a place that melts both the best of civilization with the best of nature. You can literally walk out the backdoor of my house and see grizzly bears, eagles, deer in their natural state. Where else can you do that?
- Since time immemorial the Native peoples of Alaska have lived here. Then the Russians came. Then Alaska became a part of the United States. In the end, who has the most claim?
- The most time the Alaskan Native people have the most claim. And there is a documentation that they came to Sitka area long ago, 10 to 15,000 years ago.
- The First Peoples of Alaska, including Inupiaq, Tlingit, Athabaskans, Yupik, Alutiiq and others, how large is their role in modern Alaska today?
- That's another part of Alaska. That is very special because the Native cultures still strive in Alaska. You can't walk down the street of any of the Native villages or even towns, like Sitka, that have had history of Alaskan Native people without noticing the influence of the Native Alaskan people. And they are a very vibrant part not only of our culture but of our economy. I believe, the two largest corporations of the state of Alaska are owned by Alaska Native people.

- Alaska and the 'Lower 48': do people do things differently there?
- I would say, the answer is both 'yes' and 'no'. It depends on where you're at. For example, in Sitka I can go out and catch fresh king salmon, halibut, Dungeness crab, harvest deer, whatever it takes to survive as a subsistence lifestyle should I choose to do that. We also have modern grocery stores here so if you don't like to do that you can buy your own. But you can live up in remote villages and those people, many of them, live true subsistence lifestyle off the land. So Alaska is a state of very variance, you've got great differences of how people live.
- Do reality TV shows genuinely portray Alaska or they distort it?
- That's a great question because one of my friends is on one of the most popular TV reality shows there is, he is on 'Gold Rush'. And I know him and his family very well, they are great people, they are wonderful people. I think that particular family is a good example of Alaskans: they are very adaptable, they love their state. At the same time, you've got some of the other reality shows and things that happen on those shows show more drama than, I think, you might see in a normal live. I wouldn't go down road and wouldn't say the names of the shows because, in general, most of them show more drama. There are some in particular that I believe are not accurate at all. Alaskans are everyday people like everywhere else in the world, not just the United States, we have to make living, raise our families and we try to get alone as best as we can. The difference in Alaska from a lot of places is that is a very large state, twice size of Texas, and it has a very small population. And from my former job, the superintendent and principal in Mt. Edgecumbe High School for 14 years I know students from literally every town and village in Alaska. And there are many people that know the same. Where else in the world would you be able to know those who live in an area? Kids came to go to school there in over 110 villages and towns from all over the state every year. Alaska was coming to us in Sitka.
- Where, in your opinion, is the most beautiful place in Alaska? Why did you pick that place and why is it so special to you?
- Alaska has so many different kinds of beauty. Sitka is an amazingly beautiful place particularly when you see the sunshine. But, let's say, you go to Fairbanks or Anchorage or the Mat-Su area up in the tundra in the fall or in different time of the year, in winter, there is breathtaking beauty, throughout the state. I like Southeast because I like the temperate climate. But my favorite time of the year is to be around Fairbanks in the fall.
Alaskans have more in common with Russian people than most people might imagine.
- What are you favorite Alaskan foods? Do you have a special recipe?
- The first king salmon I catch in the year! I don't actually have a special recipe, I just use salt and pepper and use some spices and put it on BBQ (laughing).
- What do you know about the Russian America or Russian heritage in Alaska?
- I know a little bit about Russian heritage, particularly in Sitka, it was the capital of the Russian American company. Of all the towns in Alaska Sitka and Kodiak are the most significant examples of Russian heritage.
- This year is the 150th anniversary of Alaska purchase by the United States: are you aware of this event?
- Well, since I am the director of the Sitka Historical society in Sitka History museum I am more than aware of it (laughing). We've been very involved in not just Sitka local events celebrating and commemorating that transaction statewide. We've had a lot of national and international interest.
- How do you feel towards Russia as a country?
- I do not harbor any ill feelings at all. We, Alaskans in particular, have more in common with Russian people than most people might imagine. I think the Russian people want to raise families, they want to make good living, they want to enjoy life. And I think that most Americans are the same.
- America and Russia: are we enemies? Or are we not?
- In my mind the people of the countries are not enemies.
- If you had an opportunity to meet and talk to an ordinary Russian, what would you say?
- I would welcome them to America, thank them for coming and hope that they have a nice stay. We appreciate the fact that they are interested in America. And Alaska.
- What is your version of the American dream?
- My version of the American dream? Well, I grew up with that. It was solid, drilled into the genes of a young person. You can do anything, you can be anybody you want to be. Hard work. Good attitude. And you'll make what you want to make. You have set a goal for yourself and you can do it.
Of all the towns in Alaska Sitka and Kodiak are the most significant examples of Russian heritage.
- What a great single Alaskan person of past or present would you like to talk to?
- Wow, that is a fabulous question! The person I would like to talk to, again, is Walter Hickel. He was the Governor of Alaska two times. He was known for his creativity, energy and he was an interesting person with big ideas.
- Какой будет Аляска в 2034 году, через 17 лет?
- Well, 17 years from now, I think we will better understand what the climate is doing as far is global warming and all of those things. We will know better. Hopefully, we would've done things that make it better, address those issues. I think Alaska will be affected greatly by that because the state is so reliant on nature and its physical features. All the way from the icebergs up north that snowpack all the way down to the ocean here. I see Alaska is adapting to that because I believe Alaskans are adaptable. I see that in Alaska, because it is so big, there will still be a small population that inhabits a great big state. I believe our economy will be a little bit different although I think it will still be based on natural resources, tourism and the like.
Made on