Post 7 – Culture

The story of America is, of course, told through the eyes of various immigrants and migrants, cultures interweaving and overlapping and intermingling until the “melting pot” is the best descriptor for our great land. Alaska’s tale is no different. Most people travel here for the opportunity to make what they will of the vast and varied exploitable natural resources.

”]Others came for the taste of adventure that only a wildly untamed wilderness like Alaska could provide. These aims were not at odds with each other and also mirror the desire of American settlers pursuing manifest destiny; it was not a weak spirit who traveled cross-country in a covered wagon with their often pregnant wives and young children.

”]”]Though even today many Alaskan towns are shaped by their settlers, some coming piecemeal from different places in the US or abroad, while other parts of Alaska boast geographical or philosophical features that make them especially attractive to large sections of foreign populations.

I am equipped by personal experience to discuss one such unique mass settlement, the creation of a “pocket” of Filipino culture in a land so different from their native home, here in my hometown of Kodiak, AK. This “Little Manila” settled in the heart of Kodiak is reminiscent of densely packed populations in larger cities such as New York or San Francisco; a world in and of itself, yet bleeding perceptibly into the culture at large as it exists outside.

While Filipinos have had a presence in Alaska dating as far back as the 1700s, and playing a pivotal role in the exploration and fur trade of the 1920s and 30s, the settlement of Kodiak Island by Filipino immigrants began in earnest not more than 30 or so years ago. It was at this time that Kodiak had shifted from a predominantly military operation to a truly booming fishing town, bringing in more fish than it could logically process with the town’s current workforce, which was at the time primarily composed of the fisherman who were involved in bringing in the catch. Halibut, Salmon and King Crab were the delicious trifecta of seafood that formed the basis of the fish economy but of course everything from herring roe to cod to rockfish were brought in and needed processing to be sent to market.

”]”In true Alaska tradition, the initial harnessing of a natural resource as abundant as – in this case – the seafood led to a massive over-harvesting of the populations, but that is a different topic for a different day. For the moment, the focus was on the enormous sums of cash that could be gained from this abundant resource, and the smelly, dirty, unforgiving and never-ending work that took fresh-from-the-ocean protein and turned it into a beautiful, marketable product.

”]”A labor force was needed, badly.  Sometime in the 70s, the first substantial wave of Filipino immigrants came and found an island home as far removed from the climate and natural rhythms as it was possible to be. However, for a people used to hard work and unforgivably long hours just to scratch out a living, the rhythm and flow of a 12-hour shift on the “slime line” followed by the steady weekly paycheck offered a wonder of an incentive for immigration. Money was sent home, but so, too were tales of the rainy days, fresh ocean air, and endless supply of ocean life ready to be processed in exchange for steady income. Wave after wave of Filipino immigrants rushed to the island haven, and began buying up the inexpensive prefabricated houses initially erected in the 50s to house the families employed at the defunct Kodiak Naval Base.  A natural community was formed, isolated yet fully integrated into the rest of the island.

View of Aleutian Homes. Photo author's own.

As with many mass transplants of culture, there are numerous older members of the Filipino population who live their lives out in Kodiak without learning more than a word or two of English. Similarly, most of the American-born children are bilingual, but very few don’t know at least basic conversational Tagalog, even if they don’t learn to write it.

”]”Filipino food has become a mainstay of Island culture, though there are no Filipino restaurants. Pancit (noodles) and lumpia (a kind of eggroll) are common potluck additions, and the offerings of many a successful charity “feed”.

While researching this post, I came across scant information regarding Filipino culture in Kodiak, but was excited to learn that the Baranov museum is currently compiling information and artifacts in preparation for a full-scale exhibition of Filipino Culture in Kodiak, planned for October 2012. I can’t wait to visit the exhibits and learn more about the cultural history of our island, and will be sure to update this blog post with photographs and information when I do!

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