Alaska's Cultures

Military in Alaska
Paul Ongtooguk

The military forces of the United States have a large presence in Alaska. The military bases, the thousands of service men and women and the employment opportunities for civilians impact the State in far more ways than the traditional military role of providing for security and protection. In fact the military has been important in Alaska’s history ever since the first Alaska Native communities appeared thousands of years ago. Many sectors of Alaskan society have been shaped, and continue to be shaped, by the military including the economic, the political, and the social.

The term ‘military’ refers in general to those people charged with protecting their communities. Often, especially historically, these people were men and considered as warriors. Archaeologists have unearthed plentiful evidence that demonstrates that a military, or warrior class, was a part of the society of ancient Alaska Native cultures. Remnants of protective body armor, such as vests made of bone and wood, coats made of thick layers of animal hides, helmets, and shields, have been found, as has evidence of the development of weaponry. Bows that were reinforced with sinew and bone were especially powerful. War canoes, poison tips, spears, fortresses, traps and outposts were all parts of the arsenals of defense.

The boundaries of traditional homelands still used by modern Alaska Native peoples were established historically as Alaska Natives interacted militarily with each other as well as other groups from today’s Canada, Siberia and Washington State to establish and maintain their homelands. Trade routes, trading customs and conflicts over trade were also part of the dynamics of traditional societies and an important factor in the way that communities developed. Present day Kotzebue is located on the site of a key trade route where fresh water people (from the rivers of interior Alaska) met with saltwater people (from Coastal Alaska and Siberia). Present day Sitka, a defensible site because of its protected waters, was settled first by the Tlingits and then by the Russians as a community site. The presence of thousands of arrowheads at fighting points between Kivalina and Point Hope indicates that conflicts occurred over a sustained period, testing the boundaries that separated traditional societies in that area. Most of the specific battles and military engagements that occurred in ancient Alaska will never be known, but the traditional homelands recognized today by Alaska’s Native cultures were most certainly shaped by the military activity of that era.

Armed conflict and military engagements were also very much a part of Alaska’s history when the Native cultures first interacted with European cultures over an extended period of time. Exploring parties sent to the new world had military, as well as economic purposes, as it was believed that whoever controlled the seas would control the trade routes and thus the wealth of the world. Vitus Bering was an officer of the Russian Navy and Captain Cook of the British Navy. Much of the exploration on board these military ships was to complete navigational charts, including deep-water harbors that might be of military value. A highly sought-after resource was timber, as the ships of that era needed tall, fine grained, straight trees to use for masts. The forests of Southeast Alaska contained trees that were a strategic commodity. The Russians harvested this timber and its value to them influenced their decision to colonize in Southeast Alaska. Some of Alaska’s earliest recorded written history is about military confrontation, particularly between Alaska Natives and the Russians.

The Russians came to the coast of Alaska with tall sailing ships outfitted with canon. The military power represented by this Navy was superior for that time and the Russians were successful in putting down resistance in coastal areas of Alaska where the naval power could be applied. Russian attempts, however, to move into the interior of Alaska were not as successful, as they did not have the advantage afforded by their navy and they were met by Native groups who used military resistance, diplomacy and alliances to limit the Russian incursion. Likewise, even along the coast of Southeast Alaska, the Russians’ use of naval power was limited by the treacherous channels, strong tides and unpredictable winds created by the mountains. This geography combined with the powerful diplomatic and military skills of the Tlingit Indians limited the expansion of Russian settlements. Much of the Russian period was about conflict and this undoubtedly contributed to the sale of Alaska to the United States in 1867.

When Alaska was first transferred to the United States from Russia, the military was put in charge of administering the new territories. The army was the first administrator but this proved to be a mistake, as most of the locations that the U.S. bought from Russia were along the coast. Power was soon transferred to the U.S. Navy. The navy remained in charge of the Territory of Alaska until 1884 when the Organic Act allowed for the transfer of power to civilians. The civilian government at first relied heavily on the military to maintain law and order, but over time, as the civilian government became stronger, the military’s role in this area diminished. The military, however, continued to play a direct and prominent role in the early days of the development of the Territory of Alaska.

As the first administrator of the territory of Alaska the military also set the tone for relations between Alaska Natives and the new ‘white’ settlers. The friction between the two cultures was often violent and characterized by group punishment of Alaska Natives for actions of individuals and sometimes by persons of different tribes. In the attack on the USS Saginaw destroyed three Kake villages in reprisal for the murder of two Sitka traders by Kake hands in 1869. In 1882 a Tlingit shaman from Angoon was accidentally killed by a harpoon charge from a whaling vessel. The Tlingits demanded a payment of blankets (customary practice) and the Northwest Trading Company called in the U.S. Navy from Sitka. The USS Corwin shelled and destroyed the village of Angoon as well as a nearby summer camp. A part of the reason the United States was able to inflict military attacks was the introduction of steam powered vessels like the USS Saginaw that were better able to navigate more of the waters of southeast Alaska.

As Americans immigrated to Alaska for economic purposes, such as gold mining, fishing, canning, and fur trading, the military was often called upon to protect their interests and sometimes posts were established to maintain domination over Alaska Native tribes that opposed the taking of their resources and intrusions into their traditional homelands. Alaska Natives often found themselves blocked from land and waters needed for food resources. In general the tone established by the military during this period was one of dominance and confrontation.

By World War 1 the civilian government in Alaska was generally strong throughout the State. Military events surrounding WW1 and its aftermath, however, directly impacted the economy of Alaska, as it was during this time that airplanes became a part of the military arsenal. Aircraft of this era were constructed from wood and Alaska spruce was a preferred material. With the onset of the war Alaska’s timber became a commodity that was vital to the war effort. The dawn of aviation and the ability to fly across the ocean also resulted in profound changes in how military troops and supplies could be moved around the world. Attacks could now be launched more quickly and with increasing surprise. For Alaska, the change was revolutionary as its strategic position in this new world of aviation was quickly realized. Alaska had become the shortest possible route from the U.S. to Asia and flying from the U.S. to Europe from Alaska, over the pole, cut down the time enormously.

These realizations were combined with tensions that quickly rose following WW1 with Germany (in Europe) and with Japan (in Asia). By 1940 the U.S. was slowly beginning to build up its military to protect ports and strategic locations in such points as Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, and the Marshall Islands. Civilians in Alaska, predominately the white population of civilians, joined forces with voices in the military advocating for Alaska to be included in this build-up. The civilian advocates recognized the economic potential for the State, if the military were to commit resources commensurate with the State’s strategic value. In fact the military did become the driving force of the economy of Alaska in this period prior to and during World War II. It was during this period that the demographics of the State shifted and Alaska Natives became the clearly the minority population.

The Japanese were keenly aware that it was important to try and strike hard and early to keep the U.S. out of a sustained war in the Pacific. Their strategy was premised on a crippling blow on the U.S. military and in preparation for such an attack, they staged several diversionary campaigns, including Alaska. In 1942 the islands of Attu and Kiska were invaded and the naval installations at Dutch Harbor were bombed. In the panic that followed the invasion, the United States government imposed martial law on Alaska. During this period the Aleuts were forcibly evicted from their lands and interned in some terrible locations. The Aleuts experienced a high mortality rate from sickness in these poorly administered relocation camps. At the same time the military buildup in Alaska after the invasion became more dramatic and intense. Tens of thousands of military personnel were sent to Alaska to such places as Fort Richardson and Eilson Air Force Base. Runways were constructed in Northway and Sitka. Mark Field was built in Nome. These runways were needed to send aircraft loaded with supplies to Russia (one of our allies during WWII). Alaska proved its strategic value as over 7,000 aircraft were sent to Russia and were vital for keeping Russia in the war. Whittier was built as a port by the U.S. Army and Anchorage and Fairbanks experienced a rapid buildup of people and infrastructure. As the United States fought to drive the Japanese invaders from the Aleutians, it became obvious that the troops did not have either the training or the clothing or gear to fight successfully in the Arctic or cold weather conditions. Fort Greeley became, and remains, one of the armed forces cold weather proving grounds.

The Alaska Territorial Guard (ATG) was formed to stand watch over Alaska’s coast with the majority of guard members being Alaska Natives. They became the “eyes and ears” of the Arctic and served without pay. They were considered to be the “unorganized militia” and separate from the National Guard which was the “organized militia.” However, following WWII the ATG units were transferred into the National Guard and armories were constructed in the larger Native villages. Native guard members were also provided with training in Anchorage or other military bases outside the State. With President Truman’s Executive order to desegregate the U.S. military the military, especially in training Alaska Native NCO (sergants) helped to overcome prejudice against Alaska Natives. During WWII the Alaska Highway was constructed as a land supply route connecting Alaska for the first time with the continental U.S. Many service personnel stationed in Alaska during the war learned that the stereotype of Alaska as a land of ice and igloos was false. Many discovered that Alaska was a desirable place in terms of wildlife and beauty. Many of the people who became key players in Alaska’s history, such as Governor Jay Hammond, were war veterans who made Alaska their home. A former military station in Sitka became Mt. Edgecombe Boarding School opening in 1947 for select Alaska Native high school students. Many Mt. Edgecombe graduates became leaders of Alaska Native communities and the State. The events of WWII essentially transformed much of Alaska into the modern state that it is today.

Following WWII our previous ally, the Soviet Union, became an international rival state also armed with nuclear power. The competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was intense in the decades after the war and was known as the Cold War. Since the shortest route for the Soviets to attack would be over the pole, Alaska had to be the “eyes” for the nation in order to warn the rest of the country if an attack was coming. At the cost of millions of dollars a radar system was constructed across the North. This system and its supportive networks had a dramatic effect on Alaska Native communities. Ultra modern, state-of-the art radar systems (the Distant Early Warning, or DEW line) were now functioning in areas where only indigenous people had previously lived. Communications systems were needed to support the radar sites and a network of radio and telephone support stations developed. Microwave systems were constructed to connect the DEW line and other military installations and this telecommunication system connected Alaska in a way that would not have been economically feasible for Alaska’s sparse population without the military. These microwave systems (White Alice sites) were important for jobs and the development of cash economies in village Alaska. Many personnel serving at the DEW line and White Alice sites had television, radio and telephone communication that served as a window into the future for the villages. Personnel stationed at these sites began to marry Alaska Native women. These interracial marriages reverberated throughout the Native community as all of a sudden an aunt, a sister, or some relative had become a part of a different cultural world.

During the Cold War, the U.S. Army maintained its men and equipment in order to protect the radar installations as well as to continue to develop cold weather equipment and training. As America became increasingly involved in conflicts in South East Asia, such as Korea and Viet Nam, Alaska served as a transportation hub for personnel, equipment and supplies. Alaska’s position and military value, as a vital, strategic location for the Pacific continued during the Cold War and continues to this day, even though with the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s there was a reduction of armed force personnel nationally, as well as in Alaska.

Today, in the first decade of the 21st century, Alaska continues to hold strategic military value and to experience a significant military population. Alaska was chosen as a site for the development of the anti ballistic missile system, in part because of the perceived threat coming from North Korea. The Stryker (U.S. Army’s step into the next generation of fighting vehicles) units are being tested, trained and stationed in Alaska, as cold weather is one of the conditions related to testing new equipment and there is enough area in Alaska to practice maneuver warfare. The vast amount of air space and the ability to fly at low levels are also among the reasons why the Air Force continues to have such an active presence here. Alaska’s civilian and military populations tend to enjoy positive and familiar relations and retired officers form a significant portion of the political landscape in the State. The current (2007) University of Alaska President is a retired general and the Denali Commission (a program to improve the infrastructure of rural Alaska) was headed for a long time by a West Point graduate. While the future is impossible to predict, Alaska’s polar geographic location seems likely to only increase in value. It is almost certain that Alaska’s future will be as intertwined with the military as has been its past.