Alaska Commercial

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Lindsay, with hands of blue, walks up the steps to Alaska Commercial. Our one and only store is very dear to us, and it has a long and venerable history here in the Alaskan bush. In the same year that 56 men gathered in Philadelphia to sign our Declaration of Independence, Catherine the Great granted trading rights in the Alaskan Territory to the Russian-American Trading Company. They set up trading posts across Alaska and operated there for ninety years.

By 1867 the Russian-American Trading Company had lost interest in fur and Russia had lost interest in Alaska. The far-sighted William H. Seward, though, had more than a passing interest in the territory and negotiated the purchase of Alaska for 7.2 million dollars. Some called the deal Seward’s folly. Hah! the joke was definitely on them. Alaskan gold, first discovered in 1849 still hides in the hills and gold mining is big, big business. One has to wonder what Russia’s place in the world, and ours, would be if the Russians had kept Alaska. With Alaskan gold lining their coffers instead of ours and Alaskan oil fueling their economy, might not the world be a different place?

At the same time that Seward committed his unforgivable “folly”, two far-sighted San Fransiscan merchants purchased the Russian-American Trading Company, renamed it the Alaskan Commercial Company and began supplying groceries and general merchandise to trappers, settlers and gold miners across the state. In its early years the Alaskan Commercial Company conducted most of its business by trade and barter. Miners traded gold, trappers brought in pelts, Indians bartered pelts and fish. Times change, though, and our store now accepts cash, Visa and Mastercard. That’s good, because I’m a bit short on gold and pelts.

It’s just down the street, a 10 minute walk, or less, from anywhere. If we need anything, the AC likely has it. Selection is limited and prices are high because it is costly to fly supplies into Fort Yukon. It takes a nanosecond to realize shopping here for groceries is a very expensive proposition, 5 minutes to learn the layout of the store and maybe an hour to memorize its stock.But the AC is our store and cannot imagine what life in the village would be like without it.

Territorial School of Fort Yukon

DSCN3308A mission school operated in Fort Yukon even before the United States purchased the Alaska territory from Russia in 1867. I suspect it was built and supported by the Episcopal Church which is still active in our village. The building no longer exists and I have never been able to identify its location.

A territorial school was built in 1913 for the white children and those of mixed heritage. It was a one room schoolhouse with a wood burning stove. Native Alaskan children could not attend that school. Why was that?

The Athabascan children attended a school built for them by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It is clear from the records that it was operational by 1925, and served the community through the 1950’s. Our Alaska state representative Don Young lived here and taught at that school. LIke its predecessor, it was a one room affair with a wood burning stove.

The young Athabascan children were punished for speaking Gwich’in in school. My own students have told me stories about their grandparents having their teeth pulled by teachers for daring to speak their own language (not by Don Young, who has the respect of the community and still maintains a cabin in the village). But, why punish a child for speaking his own language? BIA SAP – destroy the language and you rid yourself of the culture behind it.

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Fort Yukon was a booming place in the mid-30’s so the territorial school built a second floor to house two additional teachers. After a fire struck and completely destroyed that building in 1939, it was rebuilt near the edge of the Yukon River along what used to be the village’s primary residential and commercial center. This is the building you see in the pictures above. The lower floor is constructed of square, hand-hewn logs that have been chinked with heavy ropes of hemp – quite intriguing.

In May of 1949, a terrible flood devastated the village but somehow the new school building survived. Of course, it has since fallen into disrepair. Its lower flooring is rotted and unsafe but somehow the upstairs has fared better. The kids sneak up there to party. The walls are adorned in pornographic graffiti and just about every liquor known to man is represented among the fallen bottles that litter the floor and line the rafters like bottles on display behind a bar.

The photograph above shows the back of the territorial school as it exists today. The dike just out of the picture to the right was built in 1992 to protect the remaining homes that still exist along the waterfront, now called “downtown.” After the 1949 flood, the town was rebuilt at it’s present location on higher ground about a mile from the river and is referred to as uptown. Our present school is there, right on Main Street.

Holding Imagination In Your Hand

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I was young, maybe six. I stood beside my dad in the darkened room. I was just a little boy, too short to reach the countertop so I used a stool. I loved the odd smells, strange yet pleasant, of Dektol and hypo and acetic acid. I loved the dim amber illumination. And I loved my Dad.

There were giant boxes of paper that couldn’t be opened to the light and a monstrous scythe we used to cut the paper to size. We had a funny looking Weston thermometer with the big round dial and a boxy GraLab timer that counted backwards for hours on end. There were a stainless steel squirrel cage for washing our prints, homemade racks for drying them and a press for mounting our finished work. Everything we could need.

This was Dad’s darkroom. In this place he performed magic for me, making pictures appear out of nothing. He was my teacher, I his pupil, and in this classroom I fell in love with photography.

For Dad and me it was never just about the final print; it was about the process, about the making of something. Many photographers used dodging and burning tools made of wire and cardboard. None of that in Dad’s darkroom! We mastered the light with nothing but our bare hands, shaping and feathering and diffusing it until our vision came to life on the paper.

We spent hours on end in that darkroom getting our hands wet, agitating and swirling our prints until the images appeared like specters. We’d rub stubborn spots with our palms to speed up development and work short stop into others with our fingertips to slow things down.

In our minds we believed in what our prints could become and in dad’s darkroom we transformed our imagination into reality. When I was six, I believed there was magic in that developer, but when I grew up I came to understand that the real magic was in our hands.

Photography, like other art, has always been a visceral experience. But our digital age has undeniably and fundamentally changed the process. No longer is it a physical one, but a virtual one. And who can say that isn’t better? It is certainly more practical. I embrace digital photography and appreciate its many conveniences. But for me, the pleasure of the creative experience has diminished and I miss the tangible connection to the art that I once enjoyed.

I miss holding imagination in my hands.