Cover Story

The unique bond between Hawai‘i and the “Last American Frontier”


When asked to comment on local “tension” in comparison to Hawaii, Danner says the word “tension” better describes the relationship between rural residents and urban ones, regardless of their cultural origins.


Cover image for May 25, 2011

“Alaska, the Last Great Adventure”, © Ray Troll. See more of Ray's great work at Troll Art.

Eight hundred miles north of Anchorage, in a place where caribou outnumber people, a rich Hawaiian history exists. The small Eskimo village of Barrow is home to a number of Native Hawaiians; Anchorage is home to a few thousand Native Hawaiians. And locals will tell you that Alaska’s wild, irresistible terrain isn’t nearly as fascinating as the people who inhabit it.

In sleepy villages throughout Alaska, where one is more likely to die from hypothermia than a grizzly bear, there are clusters of Native Hawaiians living in houses built on stilts, pilings and pedestals, rising humbly from the immense Northern Slope, seemingly set adrift in time and space. With the Arctic Ocean on three sides, flat tundra stretching some 200 miles and no wind barriers, one wonders what drew Hawaiians to Alaska in the first place.

“There are incredible connections between Alaska and Hawaii,” says Native Hawaiian, Robin Danner, who is the founding president of the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement. “Hawaiians had been catching whaling ships north, trading and such, for generations and centuries. Alaskans still come to the Hawaiian Islands in droves.”

The deep connections between the two states symbolize a shared history with the US, the Manifest Destiny policy and European exploration. Historians believe that the first non-native contact in Alaska was in 1741 by Russian explorer Titus Bering and later, in 1778, by Captain Cook. There are rivers in Alaska, such as the Hulahula River which traverses the northern portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and Hawaiian place names that exist throughout the state and are clearly kanaka maoli, and according to Danner, who worked in the arctic of Alaska and whose family lives in Barrow, there is a respective “hardiness” to the people of both regions.

“[We] have a strong connection to the animals, the sea and the land,” says Danner. “There’s an important connection in the existence of our voyaging sailing canoe. We have so many commonalities between us, just a weather difference of 100 degrees sometimes. And we have a very strong connection to food.”

Spam Sanctuaries

In the US, all 50 states have a Spam recipe contest at their state fairs. Alaska’s, however, has the highest number of entries, the most serious competitors and, according to their government website, the most unique recipes. Said a spokesperson for Spam, “You don’t see as many Spam desserts in the other states.”

The only state that consumes more Spam, per capita, is Hawaii. The canned, precooked meat covered in a gelatinous glaze has become the target of many jokes, but in Alaska, Spam remains a standard part of one’s diet when hunting and fishing out on the tundra.

Although many of us have an idealized picture about what Alaskans eat, the truth is, most freezers aren’t filled with whale, seal and beluga. The local diet in Alaska is as problematic as it is here in Hawaii, however in rural, Northwestern regions of Alaska communities still fish for wild salmon and hunt moose and waterfowl. Strong culinary connections such as lomi-lomi salmon still exist today, and its ingredients, which took a while to assemble, are now a large part of Hawaiian cuisine.

The onion, introduced to Hawaii by Captain Cook predated the arrival of tomatoes–courtesy of renowned Spanish horticulturalist Francisco de Paula Marin. (If Cook wasn’t the one to actually introduce onions, he was the first to successfully cultivate them.) Whalers and traders introduced salmon to Hawaii’s merchants, who in turn traded premium salt–hence, the standard ingredients for one of the most famous of Hawaii’s local dishes.

Leading a Double (Wild) Life

North Pacific Humpback Whales leave the icy waters of Alaska during the fall, swimming practically non-stop for six to eight weeks before reaching their winter home in the Hawaiian waters. Here, they mate, give birth, nurture their calves and await the return to sub-arctic regions in the summer months. As many as 6,000 humpbacks make the annual voyage; and at 6,000 miles (round-trip), it’s the longest migratory trip of any mammal.

Mother whales nursing their young are first to arrive in Hawaii, next are the juveniles and newly-weaned yearlings; and by the time the adult males arrive, their numbers have doubled. Last to join them are the pregnant females.

In general, humpbacks seem to prefer the four-island region of Maui, Molokai, Lanai and Kahoolawe, as well as the Penguin Bank (a tongue of shallow water extending 25 miles southwest of Molokai) during Hawaii’s warm winter months.

These extraordinary animals aren’t the only ones who make the epic journey from Alaska to Hawaii. The kolea, also known as the Pacific golden-plover, is a shorebird; and like most of its cousins, it’s a champion flier, traveling for long distances at 50-60 miles per hour. From Hawaii to nesting grounds in the Alaskan tundra, these birds defend their territory in places like front lawns, ballparks and parking lots. A US Fish and Wildlife plane in Alaska recently documented one kolea’s trip that took 70 hours from the time the bird disappeared from its territorial home on Oahu until it landed in Alaska for the summer.

All part of a shared responsibility, Alaska and Hawaii seem to be interconnected and very much interdependent. When it comes to the humpback whale and the kolea, these creatures are no doubt living a double life.

Shouldn’t we all be so lucky.

Native World View

In Alaska, Native peoples exhibit dozens of unique cultural and linguistic styles. It is, perhaps, one of the most misunderstood aspects of Alaska, in addition to the notion that they don’t have federal recognition of tribal governments.

“The fact is,” says Danner, “there are at least 227 federally recognized tribes or native governments in Alaska, almost half of the total number in all of the US. In addition, over 200 congressionally created Alaska Native Corporations have been charged with managing the interests of both their lands and enterprises. These types of Native organizations are vital to Alaska’s economic and cultural well-being.”

Native Alaskans have been on a long political journey, but Danner believes they’ve made the most progress on economic and self-determination issues within the last 50 years.

“These organizations were able to make decisions for themselves–and not by state or federal governments–to address not just the issues facing Alaska Natives, but are the overall well-being of the state,” explains Danner.

It’s hard to beat Hawaii in terms of multicultural diversity, but Alaska’s population is equally diverse in its Native peoples, where Alaska has been their ancestral home for over 10,000 years. The Athabascan Indians, the Inuit peoples, Aleuts, Tlingits, Haida and Chugach peoples–all very distinct Native cultures, each of which have shared 360 million acres of land that make up the state of Alaska. With just 700,000 people in the entire state, one could fit Hawaii in Alaska 60 times.

Most people don’t realize the incredible ambassadorship responsibilities of Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian leaders, especially in terms of language preservation, community-based education and cultural practices as potential solutions to challenges facing both states. When asked to comment on local “tension” in comparison to Hawaii, Danner says the word “tension” better describes the relationship between rural residents and urban ones, regardless of their cultural origins.

“Tension isn’t a word that comes to mind when I think of the multi-cultural relations [there]. When I peer through the lens at Alaska, I see a place where Native identity and presence is strong, where Native leaders are very much a part of the state’s economic reality, the political landscape and the social safety net of all Alaskans. They’re engaged, a part of the solution.” As a Native Hawaiian with a German father and Native Hawaiian mother, Danner says “Being haole in Hawaii stands out far more than it does in Alaska.”

Red, Blue and Palin

When former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens was seeking reelection in 2008, Sen. Dan Inouye gave his enduring support, traveling to Alaska to campaign for Stevens, even contributing $10,000 from his political action committee to Stevens’ campaign, and appearing as a “special guest” at a Washington fundraiser for his friend, leaving many to believe that when it comes to Alaska and Hawaii’s political connections, friendship trumps everything. They were from opposite sides of the aisle but that didn’t stop Inouye from putting his decades-long friendship with Stevens ahead of party loyalty.

Inouye was reported in the LA Times as saying, “I want my partner to go back to Washington…Our parties don’t understand, but there are things that are more important than political considerations. And that’s friendship.”

Their commonalities were as distinct as the two states they represented: Both were in their mid-80s; both represented the newest states; both were injured in war and they sat next to each other for years on the Defense Appropriations Committee. In a senate tribute to Stevens, Inouye said, “We call each other brothers.” When Stevens’ plane crashed in 2010, Inouye said, “I’ve lost my brother.”

Although Alaska has historically been a red state, it has shared an extraordinary relationship with Hawaii’s congressional delegations. “The reality is, only two states are disconnected geographically from the other 48,” says Danner. “[Our relationship] began out of necessity…Alaska, like Hawaii, breeds people that value people…It’s a place where titles and stature are less important than who your family is, where they’re from and the connections people have to the environment around them.”

Much like Hawaii, Alaska’s politics are built largely on development, except that in Alaska, it’s oil development, mineral depletion and forestry. Alaska Natives frequently roll out the un-welcome mat, as politicians and developers dispute the impact of oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). The debate over ANWR focuses on over 16 billion barrels of oil, which at peak production, could yield more than a million barrels per day–nearly as much as the US imports from Saudi Arabia and Venezuela combined. To environmentalists, it’s a last stand against corporate oil drilling and a step toward an alternative energy economy. To ANWR’s supporters, it’s the most logical, sensible thing to do to reduce the country’s dependence on unstable foreign oil suppliers. But for Native populations, such as the Gwich’in Indians, who live near the wildlife refuge, drilling for oil means the inevitable extinction of native wildlife.

As Native peoples, says Danner, “We know that our lifeways and knowledge about our respective places on the planet–Hawaii and Alaska–took centuries of investment, and learning that there is a responsibility to care for our land, no matter how small our population is.”

For Danner, whose two brothers, son, daughter and numerous other family members still live in Barrow, politics seems to be less important than the work they are doing as educators, social workers and cultural ambassadors. And when it comes to Sarah Palin…

“Not popular in the state at all,” she says, smiling.

Longing for Hula

Shantell Haunani Kanehailua-Leleo, a Native Hawaiian who lives in Alaska, says hula is of utmost importance, not only to her, or her halau ‘ohana, but to her community too. “Hula is the only connection many of us have to Hawaii,” she says. “I teach several keiki that are Hawaiian but were born and raised in Alaska, including my own three children. Without hula we are unable to perpetuate our culture, song, dance and the spirit of aloha. Aloha cannot be taught, it has to be demonstrated as a way of life.”

Kanehailua-Leleo admits the winters are long, but hula keeps her connected to something else she can’t do without. “Hula gets us out of the house and keeps us active,” she says. “I wish Native Hawaiians and Alaska Natives could have communicated with each other and been more supportive prior to Hawaii becoming a state. Native Alaskans were successful at negotiating their rights with the government and today are compensated financially for land use. They are also given medical treatment, and there was no overthrow of their government. As you know, Hawaii was unsuccessful.”

Kanehailua-Leleo says Alaska has been a wonderful place to live and raise a family, “Although Hawaii will always be our home, Alaska is my home as well.”

There’s no mistaking that Native Hawaiians and Alaska Natives share a sense of place, of responsibility to their homelands and a shared desire and willingness to do what it takes for their language and culture to thrive. It’s taken centuries of investment, learning and a committment to their ancestry, legacy and the fight for independent status. The stories of both cultures are epic, the terrains extreme and the journeys within the Pacific extraordinary.

What locals will tell you, once you get there, is how you can still pan for gold right on the beach before dining on fresh crab; that Alaska’s rich dog-sledding history predates the days of Captain Cook; and that the long-term bond among the Native peoples of the Pacific is something many of us may never truly understand.

Life is a Highway

There is only one highway that links this vast, remote region to the rest of Alaska. The Dalton Highway is mostly unpaved and prohibited by rental car agencies. The best way to travel the highway is by van or on a bus tour from Fairbanks to the Arctic Circle or travel the entire length of the highway to Prudhoe Bay. You will see the Pipeline at several points along this route, as well as the 2300-mile long Yukon River.

Most destinations in the Far North are accessible only by airplane. Alaska Airlines jets offer service to Barrow, Nome and Kotzebue, while bush planes are used for Bettles, Anaktuvuk Pass and other villages, national parks and wildlife refuges.

The Weekly’s Top 10 List

1 Rent a small RV and wander down the Kenai Peninsula. Stop to see beluga whales and mountain goats along the way and perhaps the famous bore tide (a continuous tidal wave that can be surfed). Don’t walk on the mud flats unless you’re suicidal.

2 Forget the big cruise ships–take the Alaska Marine Highway and weave your way through the Banana Belt. The ferry’s rangers will give frequent talks on wildlife, history and geography that reflect your watery course.

3 Visit Sitka and tour the Raptor Center and the Sheldon Jackson Museum. At the Raptor Center you can get up close and personal with bald eagles. The museum has native artifacts in abundance from all corners of our largest state.

4 Visit Kodiak and make the 18-mile trip via ATV to the Saltery where large salmon await, especially if you go in September. Chances are, if you get out in the woods in Kodiak you will see very big bears. These ursine creatures are the largest land predators–some even bigger than polar bears. Note: only one person has been killed by a bear in Kodiak in the last 25 years!

5 Visit Denali stay at the lodge and take the school bus tours of this amazing national park. Fly from Talkeetna and survey Denali’s peaks from the air.

6 Go halibut fishing in Homer. Hop on a ferry and spend the night at China Poot, an artists’ colony across the bay, famous for squid ink paintings. The magnificent Katchemak bay, where Homer is located, is surrounded by glacial mountains and beautiful bays, with a backdrop of violet lupine and reddish purple fireweed in summer.

7 Take the boat tour of Glacier Bay in Glacier National Park–you will see icy blue glaciers, ringed seals, horned puffins, eagles and probably a bear or two. Stay at the Lodge and take in the fireside ranger talks. Take one of the paths from the lodge and walk along the water where you will find a garden of colorful tidepool life and an enormity of wildflowers.

8 Visit Juneau and walk up and down the neighborhood stairways and byways. This town is like an early San Francisco before the cable cars. Check out the capitol building with its motif of igloos and miners’ picks. (Alaska has never been home to igloos–they’re from Greenland.)

9 Walk downtown Anchorage. See the Sheraton’s jade staircase–left over from the heyday of wealthy native corporations.

Check out the lobby and basement of the Cook Hotel in Anchorage. Have dinner at Simon & Seafort and enjoy a rare view of the Cook Inlet while savoring halibut or king salmon. Find the tiny Musk Ox co-operative where you will find native knitted scarves made of one of the warmest natural materials on earth.

10 Check in with one of the numerous Alaska visitor centers and find out what berries are ripe and where to find them. Alaska has more than 50 kinds of wild berries, but make sure you stick to the ones you know.