a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
One afternoon at my gym in NYC, I wasn’t expecting to be brought back home to Alaska. Appearing on my treadmill’s small screen was a TV show called “Alaskan Bush Family.” I was drawn to it immediately though somewhat warily; its premise, a scruffy-looking, flannel-wearing family surviving in the Southeast Alaskan wilderness. Really, I say to myself, this is a show? Of course, I knew the appeal. This was my own neck of the woods since I was born and raised in SE Alaska. The lush, temperate rainforest was a familiar and refreshing sight and a welcome escape from my urban life of the past twenty years in New York City. Something about the stars of the show was acutely familiar: the rugged independence and quirkiness of island inhabitants, who choose to live apart from larger society. I grew up amongst them, a friendly if not peculiar and informal lot, and a stark contrast from the rush-and-bump energy of city dwellers.
In this episode, the family of eight had begun building their home in the woods. The parents were a kind of white-haired hippie ma and biker pa. Their children, two girls and four boys, between the ages of twelve and early-to-mid twenties, were a mix of country bumpkins, wild boys, and innocents in need of braces and a good haircut. One son spoke with a slight British accent stirred in a southern twang. Why that was, I couldn’t quite figure out. He, however, was not as oddball as the son with sideburns who, in another episode, set off running through the woods in mud-covered face, shirtless and howling like a wolf. This is Alaska after all, I thought, a wondrous state of freedom in nature and inexplicable weirdness. The family had an admirable resourcefulness and drive in building their life in the woods, not unlike my father and his Filipino compatriots who’d arrived at an even more sparsely inhabited island before the Second World War to work in the salmon canneries and to build new lives.
For the next two weeks, my gym became a place where I looked forward to going back to my home state to see it anew albeit virtually. I started counting the number of other Alaska-themed shows like “Gold Rush,” “Yukon Men,” and “Bering Sea Gold,” at least six of them that take place in The Great White North and just on the Discovery Channel alone. One thing became clear to me in my informal research on cable TV shows of Alaska at my gym: the coldest state of the union had become the nation’s hottest TV show setting.
I exhaled in awe and relief when I first began watching these shows, drinking in the wide-open tundra and frozen waters and light blue ice caps. Just the sight of the forests of pines, hemlocks, and cedars conjured their deep, sharp scent. I felt a kinship for these bearded men and long-haired women in rubber boots and layers of clothing, smiling at their gift of a life outdoors and smiling again as they slept and dreamt in log cabins or in the intimate spaces of their fishing boats or tents or makeshift homes in the woods. They represented a freedom to which I could return as I ran on the compact space of the treadmill or pushed and pulled the elliptical machine, remaining in one spot. However, at some point in the flurry of catching up and soaking in, I began to notice something was missing.
On the return to their homestead one morning, the reality show bush family discovers that a black bear had broken in and rummaged through their partially built house while they slept elsewhere. A camera set up inside the home caught footage of the large, snarling bear hefting itself into and through the kitchen window. Frustrated and frightened by the intruder, the family boarded up the windowless windows to prevent this from happening again.
I watched the show with a kind of nostalgia. I’d grown up in this forest, though not as isolated as this bush family’s home (we had neighbors and electricity, indoor plumbing, running water and a bus that came to pick me up in the mornings and drop me off after school six miles away in town), but the dense mossy woods and rain and especially the bear were realities of my childhood. When I watched this particular episode, I was suddenly ten years old again. The ear-piercing squeals of pigs running around my Uncle Eddie’s pig pen had alerted me to look out our living room window and panic at the sight of an enormous black bear biting the back of one of the small pigs. To my horror, my mother, a 4′10″ Filipina immigrant, grabbed two pots in the kitchen and stepped outside. She stood on the porch of our house, screaming and banging together pots, to scare away the hungry animal from a seemingly safe distance. In my frantic mind though, anywhere outside of the house was a danger zone. We were aware of how quickly these creatures could charge at their targets at a speed defying their heft. From the window, I watched bold effort in a frozen state of wonder and fear. After one minute turned to five, the bear continuing to wreak havoc in the pen undisturbed by my distraught mother’s clanging, she returned inside (to my relief) and called my Uncle Leo, who lived down the street. Arriving swiftly with his 22-rifle and his lion courage, he shot at the bear, missed, either on purpose or because of poor aim, I’m not sure, and scared it back into the woods. Unfortunately, the poor pig with a chewed up gaping bloody back did not survive. I would never forget the sight of it nor that of my mother trying her best to scare away the growling shaggy coat. The reality of creature danger was my Alaska. The reality of my mother’s and uncles’ ways of being as immigrants in this land, was my Alaska too. They taught me what it meant to survive.
The next day at the gym, I turned on the small screen before the first bead of sweat began rolling down my face, returning to the Discovery channel for more potential adventure and found yet another show set in Alaska: “Deadliest Catch.” The premise is close to my heart because I grew up in a fishing town with a father as an avid fisherman who smoked his own salmon in his home-built smoker in the front yard. I also worked in a cannery for several summers. The chance to work in the cannery is what drew my father to Alaska. There, he and other Filipino laborers found gainful employment in an era when they also faced prejudice from white workers who called them “monkeys” and segregation in town spaces like the movie theater where Filipinos and the Native Alaskans had to sit in a section separate from the white audience.
I was born into an immigrant household. This was the first Alaska I knew. My parents and our closest neighbor, my father’s friend who I addressed as Uncle Eddie though he was not a blood relation, had all migrated from the Philippines. The social community to which my parents belonged was Filipino. Though my community in Alaska was not all brown. My childhood best friend was white and so were my classmates as well as being Native and Filipino. There was probably the same amount of Filipinos as Natives in my schools, which is to say we made up a quarter to a third of any given class. My teachers were white, except for my art teacher, Mr. Jimdar, a wonderfully creative, inspiring, disciplined educator and artist from Trinidad and Tobago, and who I always recall declaring with his finger pointed skyward, “It’s quality, not quantity!” The priests and nuns at the Catholic Church in which I attended mass and grade school were also white. Prejudice reared itself in whispers in our small hometown. It was not uncommon to hear my white teenage peers make fun of my native classmates, mimicking their manner of speech with an exaggerated slur, and I imagine that the Filipino community was the butt of jokes, but I was spared any obvious in-my-face racism. On the surface and for the most part in my life in Alaska, relations between races were cordial and communal on the island.
This 49th state of the union formed my early identity and surely informs many of my sensibilities today. These Alaska TV programs became a connection to my first home, but by the third or fourth show, I realized how 90% of these Alaskans on screen were white men, women, and children. The one show in which Native Alaskans appear was “Yukon Men” and they were the adult children of mixed marriages—white husbands and Native Alaskan wives—though you’d think after watching these programs that Alaska was a white-only pioneer-gold digger-woodsman-fisherman state. The settlers? White. The adventurers and explorers? The townspeople? All white. Forget that there were others before them that had explored, survived the elements, fished in the waters, had families, created art, and loved this land too. These people were at the periphery of these stories in and of Alaska, if not just the requisite reference to a Native belief, a powerful ancient tale to further romanticize on the screen the current white inhabitants’ rugged lifestyles.
“Really?!” I yelled aloud at the screen one day after hearing one of the white Alaskans recount a Native belief about hunting as he pursued a deer, rifle in hand. I could feel the eyes of the gym goer next to me turning from his screen to mine and then to me. I pushed my earbuds further into my ears, a righteous energy fueling my workout.
White dominates the airtime on the Discovery Channel’s Alaska. The producers, writers, directors—predominantly (perhaps even all) white—decided whose stories to tell. I witnessed the common narrative unfurl before me, stocked with hearty, brave, foolish, stupid, likeable, broken (or broke) but mended-by-the-beautiful-and-fierce land kind of characters. I watched the mostly white faces on these shows set in the landscape on which Haidas, Tlingits, Tsimshians, Athabascans, Inuit-Yupiks, and Aleuts settled thousands of years ago. It’s not that these indigenous peoples’ stories haven’t been told. They are the heart and bones of myths and movies like “Nanook of the North,” but their lives were not featured in these made for TV shows. Perhaps it’s best that reality TV not turn their stories into scripted narratives, which can cut away complexity for the sake of drama. This means, however, that we are left with the stories of the independent, the individualists, the outcasts, the outliers and outlaws, the treasure hunters and risk takers, in other words, the sexy White Alaskans. This is what the Discovery Chanel is selling. Not the indigenous. Not these other archetypes of poignant struggles and triumphs on the same land.
In fact, I discover eventually, the progeny of the indigenous ancestors did make more than a few appearances on the “Yukon Men” show. The Native faces on this show were the Iditarod dog raisers, trainers, mushers. I was hypnotized by their stories, celebrating silently to myself these brown faces. Then, in one episode, a white woman in her early-mid twenties returns to her remote hometown in Alaska to live off the land again. Blonde, pursed lips, a keen resemblance to Anna Nicole Smith, she was a model (unsurprisingly) in her other life in the Lower 48 before returning to her Alaskan “survivalist” way of life. Interestingly enough, a native Alaskan woman—the dog trainer and musher—of about the same age, who makes multiple appearances on this particular show, had to teach her white friend (though you’re not sure if they’re old friends or new friends set up because of the show) how to track and hunt deer in bear country. Indeed, this native woman had to give her “friend” another coat to wear because the one she had on was too noisy for the bush. It was no doubt this former model’s opportunity for some kind of shot at TV fame. The camera followed them as they tracked quietly through the woods, the tension thick with the very real possibility that a wild animal could lunge at them at any moment. They did not find a deer that day. However, they did come across some bear poop. Nature, I mused, was expressing its own opinion about the show.
When I looked around at what most other gym goers were watching while on the treadmill or elliptical machines, mostly women one afternoon, I clucked my tongue each time: The Kardashians. They were like magnets to those interested in a life of wealth, beauty and fashion, and the drama of a celebrity world. Their vapid pronouncements and dilemmas were not my cup of tea. (Well, I do like other reality shows like The Voice.) Though these Alaska shows were representative of particular lives and lifestyles in Alaska, I was at least grateful for the escape, the reminder of the beautiful landscape and life-giving nature of this place up North. Maybe though, it was not much different from watching the eye roll-inducing reality stars.
Tom Kizzia, author of Pilgrim’s Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier, so wryly observes in his February 2015 LA Times Op-Ed piece, “I get why it’s popular: Uncouth behavior and flimflam have been part of the American frontier narrative since Davy Crockett’s day. We Alaskans are happy to see our friends make easy money playing characters based on themselves. For example, the droll stage presence and lifelong improvisational habits of my neighbors, the Kilchers, come off well in ‘Alaska: The Last Frontier.’ But why must the narrator pretend they are locked in some desperate struggle to survive, without ever mentioning the three supermarkets in town, to say nothing of that nice locavore bakery by the beach? … So much is exaggerated or flat made-up.”
Seriously, I winced at the scripted-ness of these shows that appeared like a gooey trail of slug slime on grass. That was the kind of “extreme” living these series wanted to follow. Not the kind where immigrants had left their lives and families still living in poverty and under repressive regimes halfway across the globe to find hope and a fruitful life elsewhere like in Alaska. The risk and danger of their lives are real, but take on a different shape. I realize that maybe a show about the newer brown folks of Alaska may not bring in viewers. Who would want to watch new Filipino immigrants work three or four jobs at any combination of the following: the cannery, supermarket, McDonalds, Ketchikan General Hospital, the old folks home, the tourist shops? Their jobs are their lives so they can afford a home, a car, and to send money to their families back home in the Philippines. There is no drama of the survive-by-the-skin-of-your teeth type, unlike their brown indigenous counterparts further north who survive in subzero temperatures and move around on snowmobiles in the winter. These newer Alaskans face homesickness and loneliness. Heartbreak compounded by distance.
If they made a show of these newer brown Alaskans, it would not be a show about man against nature, but one of man against nature, man, and himself. I’d call this series “The Other Alaska.” It would be a comi-tragedy (or a tragi-comedy?) of cultural mistranslations and misunderstandings, of adaptation and donning the appropriate clothes and shoes for the cold and snow, something they would be experiencing for the first time in their lives. (Ah, the wonder and joy in that scene.) It would follow a people whose histories are linked to an imperial power built to absorb others’ histories so well that they disappear into the background. (This would mean unearthing stories of war and loss and survival.) But these brown Alaskans aren’t concerned with this. They look forward not backward (part of the tragedy, you see). They just want to survive even if it means agitating a hungry black bear.