Alaska is often understood in one of two ways – a resource extraction state, or a pristine national park. These clichés, only slightly deeper than the misconception that Alaska is a povince of Canada or a territory of Russia, do not tell the whole story. Yes, there are oil fields in the Arctic and fish in the ocean and rivers, but extracting profit from them is a delicate matter. And yes, there are vast tracts of land where the U.S. government prohibits most commercial activity, but those tracts are not uninhabited or untouched.
This land we call Alaska has also provided the U.S. government with strategic military advantages and has been a tourist destination for adventurers and pleasure cruisers alike. Again, these facts do not tell the whole story. Yes, battles on the Aleutians may have spared the mainland from foreign military presence during WWII, but there have been hardships and resilience on those islands for longer than there have been servicemen. And yes, Alaska is worth seeing firsthand, but the beauty of this place is best understood through a relationship with it.
Relationships with places, like with people, take time to build. In the case of Alaska, that time is well spent. We live at the intersection of Indigenous perspectives and globalized culture, and we are formed by the confluence of humanity and the rest of nature. Those who choose to put down roots here and keep their eyes open may find a perspective that helps people everywhere form relationships with their own homelands.
Sharing our rooted perspectives is increasingly important, because there is a growing global tension between people and our environment. It is often surface as conflicting land use interests, but it’s the result of a deeper disconnection from our environment – a lack of relationship entirely.
For example, ProPublica describes the tension between conservationists and Black farmers in Kankakee County, where land preservation efforts have been at odds with a historically significant agricultural community. The Guardian describes a conflict of interest over fracking in Neuquén, Argentina, where politicians promised their citizens vast riches from petroleum, but where the Indigenous Mapuche dispute the claim and mourn the loss of the beauty, utility, and autonomy of their ancestral home. Further examples abound, around the world and here in Alaska, of the tensions between differing visions of people’s relationship with place.
At the heart of these disputes often lies a fundamental difference in how people understand themselves and their environment. On the one hand, many 21st-century globalized cultures understand people as standing apart from the rest of our environment. This perspective is evident in the way we use words like “natural” to mean “not from people”, and “resource extraction” to mean either “the destruction of nature” or “a human birthright”. There’s an us-and-them beneath all of it, and a stark lack of relationship with place.
On the other hand, not everyone draws such a sharp line between humans and everything else around us. Biologist, author, and educator Robin Wall Kimmerer is a member of the Potowatomi nation. In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, she describes people’s relationships with the rest of creation as mutually beneficial when based in gratitude, respect, and love. David George Haskell echoes this sentiment in The Songs of Trees: “This is ecological aesthetics: the ability to perceive beauty through sustained, embodied relationship within a particular part of the community of life”. The Alaskan musical group Pamyua draws on their Yup’ik heritage in the song “Ocean Prayer” to express a similar message. The second and third verses of that song translate roughly as follows:
In the beginning of time
Our ancestors were told
Live in harmony and like family
So we can live with honor
With gratitude the ocean's resources
We receive, helps us to live
On this land, he gifted us
So we can live with honor
If, as Alaskans, we can each find our own relationship with this place, music may offer one of our best ways of sharing it with others, just as it has for Pamyua. Music is a language that can both point out the particulars of our relationship with this place and draw listeners into the feeling of it. Creating in sound can be authentic in the most attractive way, inviting people to reimagine their own relationships with the places they live.
As Aniruddh Patel points out in Music, Language, and the Brain, music is also ‘particulate’ in that little bits of material, although meaningless on their own, can express a great variety of meanings when arranged into broader compositions. For example, a single note has no meaning by itself but can be an integral part of a meaningful composition. Thus in music, as in the rest of life, it is the relationships among many pieces, such as ourselves, that give meaning to subjective experience.
In Alaska, we live in a place that is understood in bits and pieces from the outside, yet those who spend enough time here see how those pieces relate to one another from the inside. Our own relationships can not only shed light on the character of this place but also help reconnect others with the places they live. Music is one way we can share our relationships with the world who needs to hear them.
Michael Dickerson is an Anchorage composer, writer, and educator. He is a board member at Northern Culture Exchange, a 2020 Rasmuson Individual Artist Award recipient, and a 2021 Connie Boochever Award recipient.