Thursday, April 17, 2014

Interview with Sheila Nickerson, author of ‘Harnessed to the Pole’

Editor's note: This month University of Alaska Press releases Sheila Nickerson’s new book, Harnessed to the Pole: Sledge Dogs in Service to American Explorers of the Arctic, 1853-1909. The book chronicles the indispensible role played by dogs in the Arctic expeditions of such famed explorers as Elisha Kent Kane and Robert Peary. The following interview was conducted by email.

Tell us briefly about the book and how you arrived at this particular topic.

The book is a study of the sledge dogs which accompanied 19th century American explorers on their expeditions in the Arctic and eventually in their race to the North Pole.  I came to the subject after  extensive research for two earlier books dealing with the Arctic,  Disappearance:  A Map and Midnight to the North:  The Untold Story of the Inuit Woman Who Saved the Polaris Expedition.  I was particularly interested in two of the earliest explorers, Elisha Kent Kane and Charles Francis Hall.  As I studied their writings, I  became increasingly aware of allusions to dogs.  Further research confirmed that there was a storyline, though a faint one,  that portrayed the role of these valiant animals.  It had never been told  and deserved to be.   These little “camels  of the north” needed to be named and remembered and, like the Sherpas of the Himalayas, to be given their rightful place in history.  Without them  there would have been no success for Americans vying for the Pole.

Your book follows eight American explorers and their dog teams—how did you select those explorers?

I wanted to highlight the American explorers because they are less well known than polar explorers of other nationalities such as Stefansson, Amundsen, Rasmussen,  Nansen, and Shackelton.  Some of them, like Frederick Schwatka, are almost forgotten.    Also, the American explorers built upon one another’s experiences in a relatively consistent manner, forging a route to the North Pole which, over years and countless adventures, led to success.  The “American Route” is a logical sequence to follow.  The Americans, too, quickly adopted the methods of the Inuit people, early on learning the importance of dogs.  Moreover, though inconsistently,  they wrote about the dogs in such a way that they left at least a faint trail to follow.  Some  went further,  not afraid to express  emotional  ties with the animals upon which their lives depended.

Besides pulling sledges, in what ways were dogs indispensable to polar expeditions?

Dogs guarded against predators—polar bears and wolves; helped in the hunt, particularly with caribou and musk oxen;  located seals under the ice;  warned of strangers approaching;  found their way in storms;  gave alarm at the edge of the sea ice; provided warmth in emergency conditions;  and, when all hope for success in hunting was gone, provided meat; in death, they contributed skins.  Perhaps most importantly, they provided companionship and distraction from the rigors and depression  of the arctic winter.  In some cases their companionship  was the only means of fending off the horrors of the long, ice-bound  winter which could propel both man and animal into madness.

One would imagine the performance of each explorer—“success versus failure” if we want to call it that—resulted directly from how they treated their dogs. True?

The better dogs were treated, the better they performed.  But good treatment, as we judge it today, was not always possible.  At times there was simply no food to provide them and many miles to cover, often in fiercely stormy weather.  Also, diseases such as rabies and distemper could sweep through villages, killing all teams.  The most “successful” American explorer, Peary, did what he thought right for his dogs but considered them tools of his campaign to reach the Pole,  carefully calculating how many needed to be taken along for food.

Throughout the centuries of polar exploration by Europeans many expeditions failed for, among other reasons, not using dogs. Can you speak to the transition—cultural, economic, purely utilitarian, or otherwise—that led to the acceptance of employing dogs? How, when, and why did that happen?

The British, unwilling to adopt the methods of indigenous people, thought it was more proper to put men in harnesses to pull boats and sledges rather than dogs.  It was only during the search for the lost John Franklin expedition that they began to use dogs for hauling.  The few exceptions, such as Francis Leopold McClintock and John Rae, succeeded where others failed miserably, suffering starvation, scurvy, cold, and exhaustion.  Kane and Hall, the two earliest American explorers, quickly recognized the value of adopting the ways of indigenous people, including the use of dogs for transportation and hunting.  Their success with native ways established the precedent that eventually enabled the Americans to achieve the Pole.

Why do these dogs and their history matter today?

These dogs, who worked so bravely  and thanklessly for their masters,  deserve recognition.   At a time when dogs are now being recognized for military and civilian service and monuments are being established to honor them, these dogs of the 19th century Arctic need to be remembered for their unspoken role in enabling American explorers to be first to reach  the Pole.  Since a number of the American explorations in which they served were military or quasi-military, there is even greater reason to acknowledge them as  military working dogs.  They played a vital role in enabling Americans to “win” the North Pole.  Now, as nations vie for  the natural resources of the Pole, that accomplishment matters more than ever.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

“Take Me Out to the Ball Game: America’s Pastime Played in Alaska”: A New Exhibit for 2015

by Katherine Ringsmuth

It’s that time of year again, when umpires across the nation cry the long-waited phrase, “Play Ball!” We, far northerners, have gone to great lengths to bring the game of baseball to Alaska and its surrounding Arctic environment. However, few images of the game from the far north capture baseball’s more traditional themes, such as rebirth, pastoralism, and of course, the ‘boys of summer.’
“Winter at Herschel Island ca. 1984. Note the baseball and soccer fields made
by whalers to pass the time during the long Arctic winter. New
Bedford Whaling Museum, New Bedford, Massachusetts.

For example, in the late 19th century, a famous painting of icebound whalers at Hershel Island who spread ashes on the sea ice to form a baseball diamond and played the game at 40 below. Nome miners scraped away soggy vegetation from the surface of the tundra, then placed hundreds of burlap bags and dirt atop in order to shape a diamond that overlooked Dry Creek. Other unique stories of Alaska baseball include those of the famous Midnight Sun game played now for over a century in Fairbanks and the Ketchikan teams whose game were called due to high tide rather than nine innings. Besides mining for copper, Kennecott employees fielded baseball teams that played on a glacier. And, when thousands of military personnel came to Alaska during World War II, they played baseball in the remote reaches of the Aleutians Islands.

The postwar years brought one of the game’s greats to Alaska: Satchel Paige. The exhibition game was played in Anchorage in 1965. Paige made his visit to Anchorage one year after the great Alaska earthquake, and rumor had it that legendary pitcher might manage a team named for the natural disaster. Alaska artists such as Sydney Lawrence, Fred Machatanz and Rie Muñoz maintained connections to baseball in their early careers, even Alaska pilot Bob Reeve and his wife Tilly were fans of the game.
“Metlakatla Baseball Team,” Sir Henry S. Wellcome Collections,
ca 1856-1936, National Archives, Alaska Pacific Region. Anchorage, AK

Collectively these stories tell us that Americans might have brought the national pastime to Alaska, but we Alaskans made it our game. By looking at Alaska’s ball fields, diverse players and chilly, soggy and often icy playing times, one quickly gets the impression that the northern environment and climate played a significant role in transforming the national sport into something uniquely Alaskan.

In 2015, the Anchorage Museum is planning an exhibit, commemorating Baseball in Alaska. The exhibit will focus on the game’s history, from baseball-like sport played by Alaska Natives to the formation of the Alaska Baseball League. And although the game has been embraced by Alaskans differently than the rest of the nation, the exhibit will convey one universal truth—baseball is about being a kid. Thus, the exhibit will also nostalgically look back at Alaska little leaguers, kids who recall starting their baseball season scrapping spring snows off the fields, the kids at heart, who celebrate Fur Rondy with a game of snowshoe softball, and the kid in us all, who enjoys a good pickup game on the park strip as the summer sun blazes above.

If you would like to contribute to the exhibit by donating photos, memorabilia, old uniforms and equipment, or simply have a good story to tell, please contact Katherine Ringsmuth at

This image of whalers playing baseball appeared in Albert G Spalding’s 1911 book, America’s National Game, in which the sporting goods seller proclaimed, “That Base Ball follows the flag is abundantly proven…It has been played by our soldiers and sailors wherever they have carried the stars and stripes.”  Spalding Baseball Collection, New York Public Library.

"Game at Kennicott,” History Files, Wrangell Saint Elias National Park and Preserve, Copper Center, Alaska.

“Kennecott Baseball Team, 1930.”  Courtesy of Geoff Bleakley.
Fourth of July Game in Anchorage in 1915. Photograph by Sydney Lawrence. Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center.

H.C. Jackson’s article, “Play Ball at Midnight Showing How Fans Are in Evidence in Central
Alaska on the Longest Day of the Year”
appeared in Sunset Magazine in June 1913.

Young Fans at the Chinooks baseball game at Chugiak, Alaska, in July 2013.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

AHS Call for Papers – Deadline Extended to May 1

The deadline for proposals for the 2014 AHS annual conference has been extended to May 1. Please send proposals for papers (20 minutes), panels (1-1/2 hours), and poster sessions for the meeting to take place in Seward on October 1-4, 2014.

Under the theme Gateways: Past, Present, and Future, the conference will focus on the area’s vibrant past, including the deep history of Alaska Native people, Russian shipbuilding and fur trading, and Seward’s role as a port and transportation hub in the American era.

Resurrection Bay has been a gateway for travel and trade since prehistoric times. The Alaska Natives who lived along the coast traveled long distances by boat or on trails to the interior to visit groups in other areas. Russian fur traders built a shipyard in what is now the city of Seward. In the American era, the ice-free, protected port became a hub of steamship commerce. A railroad was built to bring goods and passengers to the Interior of Alaska. Seward was also the beginning point of the original Iditarod trail. The city played a major role for the military as the port of entry during the World War II buildup. It became the start of a highway to Anchorage and the terminus of a ferry line to Kodiak and the Aleutian Chain.  Its access to fishing, wildlife, and glaciers continues to make it a gateway to commerce, education and recreation.

Please send title and abstract (100 words maximum) by the May 1 deadline to Rachel Mason, Program Chair,, or by regular mail to Alaska Historical Society, P.O. Box 100299, Anchorage AK 99510.

Please visit the conference website at:

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

AHS 2014 Annual Meeting – Student and Emerging Professional Travel Awards

The Alaska Historical Society invites applications for two travel awards—one student and one emerging professional—for the annual meeting in Seward, October 1-4, 2014.

One award will be presented to a post-secondary student who is researching some aspect of Alaska history, the other to an emerging professional in the field. Each award consists of reimbursement for documented travel expenses up to $750 and a conference registration package.

In order to be eligible for an award:

Applicants must be a member of the Alaska Historical Society at the time of applying.

Student applicants must be graduate students or upper-division undergraduates in fall 2014 with a course of study related to Alaska history.

Emerging professional applicants must be employed in Alaska historical or cultural work and have been so employed for less than five years.

Awardees are required to attend the meeting in its entirety and make a presentation at the meeting.

Application process: Each applicant must submit 1) letter with a statement of eligibility and an explanation of how attending the meeting will enhance academic or professional development, 2) title and abstract of proposed presentation, and 3) CV or résumé. Applications will be judged on the applicant’s achievement in Alaska history relative to current status and the likely benefit of the meeting for the applicant.

The application deadline is May 10. Electronic submission is preferred. Applications should be submitted electronically to Professor Michael Hawfield, AHS Awards Committee at: , or via regular mail to: AHS Awards, PO Box 100299, Anchorage, AK 99510.

Information about the meeting and the call for papers are at:

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Role of the Russian Orthodox Church in Five Alutiiq Villages as Revealed by the 1964 Earthquake

by Rachel Mason, adapted from Nancy Yaw Davis’s 1970 article, “The Role of the Russian Orthodox Church in Five Pacific Eskimo Villages as Revealed by the Earthquake,” in the Committee on the Alaska Earthquake report The Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964, Human Ecology Volume, Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Sciences, pp. 125-146.

The Great Alaska Earthquake was a terrible disaster for residents of five Alutiiq villages in Prince William Sound and the Kodiak Archipelago. It destroyed the Alaska Native (then known to themselves as Aleut, to the academic community as Pacific Eskimo, and today known as Alutiiq or Sugpiaq) villages of Chenega, Kaguyak, and Afognak, and greatly damaged Old Harbor and Ouzkinkie.
Pre-earthquake map showing villages of Chenega,
Kaguyak, and Afognak.
Anthropologist Nancy Yaw Davis lived in Anchorage at the time of the Great Alaska Earthquake in 1964. In the following weeks, she interviewed residents of the destroyed village of Kaguyak and the nearly destroyed village of Old Harbor who had been evacuated to Red Cross-operated shelters in Anchorage. In 1965, she traveled to interview the residents of three additional Alutiiq communities: Afognak (whose residents were relocated to Port Lions), Ouzinkie, and Chenega. From the beginning of her research, it was evident to Davis that the Russian Orthodox Church played an important role in villagers’ explanations of the disaster and their willingness to leave the original village and relocate to another site. The research would result in Davis's 1971 doctoral dissertation at the University of Washington: "The Effects of the 1964 Earthquake, Tsunami and Resettlement on Two Koniag Eskimo Villages."

The following excerpts are from Nancy Yaw Davis’s article in the multi-volume report on the earthquake published by the National Academy of Sciences. I have focused on the experiences of the three villages that were completely destroyed and not rebuilt: Chenega, Kaguyak, and Afognak.

The Importance of the Russian Orthodox Church in Alutiiq villages:
One of the most lasting influences of the Russian period in Alaska (1742-1847) was the establishment of the Russian Orthodox Church. (p. 128)

In all five villages, the church is a prominent landmark. Each building is well cared for and often has been constructed on land slightly higher than the rest of the community. Each church has at least 60 icons. Chenega reportedly had more than 100 icons. (p. 128)
Chenega before the 1964 earthquake.
The only village-wide activities are church-related ones. As a woman in Chenega said when asked about social activities, “Church is mostly what we do.” Even in the three villages, Old Harbor, Ouzinkie, and Afognak, where Protestant missions were gaining support before the earthquake, the Russian holidays are shared by all the native community. No other institution touches so many of the people as deeply, consistently, and thoroughly as the Russian church. (p. 129)

The first wave struck Chenega before the ground had stopped shaking. The water caught and carried out 23 of the 76 residents, most of their homes, and their church. (p. 132)

The significance of the church was reflected in the frequent references made to this institution by the villagers. Several survivors who were near the church site in the center of the village mentioned seeing the building crack, bow, and break apart. No other building was mentioned. (p. 132)

Several people said that if the church had stood they would have stayed in Chenega, but since it was gone, they were willing to be evacuated to Cordova. (p. 132)

Three hundred miles away on Kodiak Island, most of the adult men of Kaguyak had worked all day on their near church. Immediately after the earthquake, one of their first concerns was the new building. [The men checking on the church] looked out a church window just in time to see the first surge of water coming over the bank. They ran to join the other villagers who were already scrambling for a small hill behind the village. (pp. 133-134)
Kaguyak in the 1950s. This photo and that of Afognak below were taken
from the boat Evangel during one of the Smith family's mission trips to
the Kodiak area villages. Photos from Tim Smith's website:
[After the third wave, h]ouses were pulled up and forced into the lake. The first building to go was their new church. This loss, perhaps more than anything up to that point, upset the people:

“When I see that church I was crying all over the place…And the wave took it away from us. Nothing left in that village. Everything all gone.” (pp. 134-135)

[In Afognak, where Protestant missionaries had been working], the movie King of Kings was to be shown on Good Friday morning. (p. 135)

When the earthquake began the immediate response in Afognak was similar in that in each of the other communities: open the doors, turn off the stove, gather the children, get out of the house, and watch the tides. Moderate concern was shown for the church building; the lay reader instructed his eldest son to check on it. When the son reached the church, he was amazed to find that no oil had been spilled from the altar vessels and only one old icon had fallen. Soon other people began to gather by the church, “to watch the tides,” they said. The lay reader’s house became the major center of activity throughout the night (p. 135)
Afognak in the 1950s.
The Russian church building in Afognak, like that in Old Harbor, withstood the tsunami well. Although houses near the church were washed off their foundations and pushed into the trees, the church was not moved. (p. 136)

Like the Chenegans, the people of Kaguyak no longer had a reason for returning to the site of their former village. About 4 weeks after the disaster, the Kaguyak people, with the exception of one family and two unmarried men, had moved to Akhiok…a small village of 90 persons near old Kaguyak, near the southern tip of Kodiak Island. (p. 138)

Kaguyak and Old Harbor residents remained in Anchorage for 5 to 6 weeks before being relocated [the Old Harbor residents back to their village]. In Anchorage, one of the first actions of the villagers was to emphasize to the Red Cross shelter leaders that they were all Russian Orthodox and did not want to be visited by people from other religious groups. (p. 137)

In Afognak the church was still standing, but it did not have the same attraction for the village people that the churches in the other three villages did. More important to Afognak villagers was the fact that their wells had been contaminated and their roads were being washed away by the tides that now came up into the village. The building of a new church was only one of the points raised at the meeting with the Lions International, the 49th District Lions, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs representatives, who helped the village move and rebuild. (pp. 138-139)

Unlike the people of Chenega, Kaguyak, and Old Harbor, the people of Afognak when interviewed did not constantly and spontaneously refer to their church, nor did the blame the missionaries for the disaster. However, one older woman is reported to have said, “The reason we are having the earthquake is because it was Good Friday and they were showing a movie, and God was mad.” (p. 136)

Explanations were seldom spontaneously volunteered by the Chenegans, the people most severely affected. Even when asked specifically, informants usually changed the subject or quietly commented, “I don’t know.” The question probably was too disturbing to answer. There was an aura of fear. One person said, “There was something evil down there or something.” In contrast to the reticent response by Chenegans, Kaguyakans gave frequent, spontaneous, elaborate, and church-oriented explanations of the disaster. (p. 142)