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  • Always Relative to Somewhere: Regional Studies in (Not So) Unique Alaska

The issue of historical regionality is a particularly interesting one in the case of Alaska. The state is unique and distinct from all others in a number of respects, and its inhabitants embrace a form of frontier exceptionalism so profound, so provincial that for Alaskans there are really only two places you can ever be: Alaska or Outside (always spelled with a capital O).1

And yet, when it comes to historical scholarship, the central question that occupied the attention of Alaska historians for decades had nothing to do with the perceived uniqueness of the region, but rather its relationship with another. That question was this: Was Alaska part of the American West? That is, did America’s farthest north possession experience the same or similar historical patterns and processes? Historians identified in Alaska large federal land holdings, a small and isolated population of non-indigenous settlers, the removal of Native peoples, a sizeable and valuable natural resource base, and a peripheral geographic position far from the centers of capital and governance—all of which demonstrated the answer was an unequivocal yes. Not for nothing is the state’s motto “The Last Frontier.”

And just as study of the American West has been driven in recent decades by the New Western History, so has the Alaska field brought previously marginalized voices to the fore and in so doing has revealed the American settlement of Alaska to be not quite triumphant but rather a process of exclusion, violence, and upheaval.

So, yes, Alaska history has a regional essence that is relative to American history more broadly. One might say this relationship is not uncommon in regional historical studies, and that the emerging field of midwestern studies might well benefit from comparative analyses of other regions. [End Page 51] But the field has advanced beyond such binary thinking, and straight comparisons between the Midwest and Region X are unlikely to result in penetrating insights.

Historical scholarship in Alaska is changing in two fundamental ways, and I will close this short essay with a few thoughts on each and their potential utility for midwestern studies. The first change, revised perspectives having to do with climate change, is likely to be profound. The effects of a changing global climate, including higher air temperatures, ocean acidification, and rising sea levels, to name but three, are being experienced at northern latitudes to greater degrees than elsewhere. Alaska history, and now we might call this Arctic history as well, faces challenges unique to its geography, such as the thawing of permafrost and corresponding release of methane and carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, not to mention social changes such as infrastructure impacts and relocation of rural, predominately Alaska Native populations. Although these changes are happening in the present, and therefore may seem largely beyond the purview of historians, countless historical topics in the Arctic are connected to the climate and physical environment, thus any changes to present environmental conditions will open new perspectives on humankind’s relationship with nature in the past. To wit, the United States’ insouciance in Arctic affairs, as demonstrated by, for example, a lack of investment in infrastructure such as icebreaking ships and a failure to ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty, is part of diplomatic and environmental histories that will be reassessed again and again as the effects of a changing climate become better known a century from now.

Will such changes to one degree or another be experienced in the American Midwest insofar as historical study is concerned? The effects may or may not be as immediately dramatic as those in Alaska, but if we consider the agriculture, industry, and transportation sectors of the Midwest as being similarly subject to the vagaries of climate change, there are certain to be resultant effects on the political, economic, and social institutions of the region. I am immediately reminded of the rampant oil development taking place in my home state of North Dakota and how histories of the land, people, and industry will be intertwined with future historians’ perspectives on climate change.

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