A Pop Cultural History of Alaska
Alaska has gained somewhat mystical status among many of us continental Americans, some of whom show an embarrassing lack of knowledge about one of our greatest states. For example, did you know that Alaska is the largest state geographically? It’s damn huge, in fact. And did you know that people regularly go to work and school via dogsled?
No, that’s not true. (Although that would be awesome.)
Alaska has been portrayed in pop culture as both an astounding winter wonderland awash in the Northern Lights and flocked by dancing polar bears, and a desolate, dangerous wasteland plagued with frostbite and potentially vampires. As continental Americans tend to gleefully exoticize anything with a markedly different climate, this isn’t surprising. Let’s take a look at some of Alaska’s biggest pop culture moments.
The People with the Snowshoes
In the early 1930s, MGM Studios co-founder Louis B. Mayer launched a spared-no-expense film production in Alaska, focusing on Inupiat culture. The film, titled Eskimo/Mala the Magnificent, made its lead, Ray Mala, a star, and the film garnered critical praise.
Since then, the term “Eskimo” has fallen out of favor due to its dubious etymology, while the indigenous peoples of Alaska have not enjoyed many other Hollywood explorations.
Rather, films have focused on the adventures of white people in Alaska.
In The Proposal, Canadian ice queen Margaret Tate (Sandra Bullock) bullies her assistant Andrew (Ryan Reynolds) into marrying her so that she doesn’t lose her green card. He insists upon taking her back to his home state of Alaska for the wedding. In this film, Alaska is not given its usual snowy treatment, but rather portrayed as a lush, gorgeous setting suitable for a romantic comedy.
That said, the most compelling cinematic portrayals of Alaska revolve around one of its unique features: the eternal day or night. As you probably know, the parts of Alaska above the Arctic Circle experience “30 days of night” during the winter. This phenomenon inspired the premise of the excellent vampire film of the same title, which features a bloody rampage of the sun-fearing creatures.
The flip side is a period of constant partial or full daylight during the summer. In the 2002 film Insomnia, detective Will Dormer (Al Pacino) suffers insomnia and madness worsened by the constant light.
When children’s novelist Jean Craighead George visited Alaska, she witnessed native people interacting with wolves. This inspired George to write Julie of the Wolves, the 1973 Newberry Medal winner. The book featured a young girl who escapes an abusive marriage and finds guidance with a wolf pack. Although the book was critically acclaimed, it didn’t give a nuanced or compassionate portrayal of Inuk culture.
Let’s be honest, though: The wolves were the selling point, and indeed, wolves and dogs have been a fixture of Alaskan pop culture for almost a century. It all began with the 1925 dogsled trek to transport lifesaving anti-diphtheria serum to Nome, Alaska, as depicted in the Spielberg-produced film Balto.
The real story is even more interesting than the cinematic tribute. While dogsled teams were a common means of transportation in the northern realms, they were quickly becoming replaced by planes, trains, and automobiles. However, during the diphtheria outbreak in Nome, the winter weather was unforgiving toward planes, and there were no routes for other vehicles. The dogsled teams were able to make the trek in only five days. Not only did the 1925 serum relay save the children of Nome, but it also inspired the Iditarod Race decades later. In addition, the antitoxin’s success encouraged inoculation campaigns against diphtheria and other plagues.
It remains uncertain whether or not vampires are wiping out small towns above the Arctic Circle, but there are plenty of other Alaskan monsters to fear. Wolves aren’t just objects of mystery and admiration — there are real concerns about a dire wolf or even a saber-toothed wolf stalking the tundra.
If you’re a cat person, you’re not necessarily safe: The White Death is allegedly a white Siberian tiger that stalks prey across the permafrost. And let’s not forget giant apes, giant bears…
Alaska may be a newer addition to the United States, but it symbolizes many of the core tenets of the American spirit: resilience, innovation, and curiosity. Although it may seem like a foreign land to many people, it’s undeniably American, from its lush love stories and tales of triumph over evil to its fear of giant cryptids roaming the landscape.
A Pop Cultural History of the Amazon
The Amazon is on fire. As we mourn the loss of these unique habitats and attempt to understand the complicated legal…
A Pop Cultural History of Africa
Africa has long been a source of fascination, both good and bad, for the Western world, especially the U.S. I don’t…
Want more culture essays? Subscribe to my newsletter.