For years before Anchorage was founded, maps of Alaska showed McCarthy and Kennecott, but not Anchorage. While Anchorage eventually grew and grew into Alaska’s largest city, McCarthy’s size has ebbed and flowed. It hasn’t regained the size it had during the copper and gold mining era, but can still produce some impressive crowds, like the one that packed the charming, volunteer-run McCarthy-Kennicott Historical Museum for its grand opening this spring. The event featured Eagle River-based historian, professor, and author Dr. Katie Ringsmuth presenting her latest book, “At Work in the Wrangells: A Photographic History, 1895-1966”. Published by the National Park Service, it “aims to illustrate the interconnected work of humans and nature that together made history in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.”
Ringsmuth’s attention to both natural and human histories made good sense inside that depot-turned-museum, beside a road that was once a railway, near the Kennicott Glacier terminus, downhill from Kennecott National Historic Landmark. A mixed audience surrounded by artifacts and historic photos listened as Ringsmuth walked us back in time. She clearly takes to heart historian Richard White’s observation: “We cannot understand human history without natural history and we cannot understand natural history without human history. The two have been entwined for millennia.” In the book’s introductory chapter, she lyrically describes “the Wrangell’s dynamic landscape and its interconnected natural systems [that] are actively at work.” She traces the origin of the area’s copper all the way to supergiants—“interstellar furnaces” that forged the element in the first place.
Anchorage and McCarthy, so different, were both established in efforts to get minerals out of the earth and to market. It took a great deal of work for newcomers to create societies that, “environmentally speaking, had no business being there.” Those new societies followed thousands of years of indigenous cultural and technological adaptation. The “changing economic circumstances”—or “ways in which different people worked to live”—turns out to be a useful approach to history. Ringsmuth organized the book thematically, not chronologically, first framing “the nature of work” before applying the lens to subsistence lifeways, mining, transportation, commerce and government, “women’s work”, aviation, sport hunting, mountaineering, science and exploration, tourism, and, finally, play. The full-color book is rich with photographs.
Her own work has made Ringsmuth no stranger to the Wrangells. Two of her previous books— “Alaska's Skyboys: Cowboy Pilots and the Myth of the Last Frontier” and “Tunnel Vision: The Life of a Copper Prospector in the Nizina River Country”—dive deep into the area’s history. Like the stories of Kennecott and McCarthy, the history of aviation in Alaska illustrates how our state is well connected to the rest of the country and globe—particularly the circumpolar north and the Pacific Rim. “People think they’re so far away from everything, but their whole purpose for being here are great, huge events… Events occurring on the other side of the planet directly impact exactly what’s happening right here in the Mat-Su or Anchorage or Kennecott.” She writes “Although miners saw themselves on a journey away from civilization, they remained creatures of an industrialized economy and transported American capitalism to Alaska. Their mining activity opened up the territory—physically, economically, politically—and placed the Wrangell Mountains into the American consciousness.”
Ringsmuth grew up in Washington and spent summers in the fishing industry out in Bristol Bay—her father worked for the Alaska Packers Association. She eventually earned a Master’s degree through UAF’s Northern Studies program, and completed her PhD dissertation while working for the National Park Service. It turned into a book called “Beyond the Moon Crater Myth”, a historic study of Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve. Ringsmuth teaches history at UAA and owns Tundra Vision, a public history consulting business.
One of Ringsmuth’s classes is called “Many Traditions, One Alaska” and looks at the state from a world perspective. “We are not the bridge to nowhere. We’re actually the bridge.” She said Alaska isn’t just some outpost. Reality doesn’t measure up with “last frontier” narratives. “We Alaskans aren’t just some group outside of America, out there on the edge. We are the place that passed civil rights before the rest of the country, the Anti-Discrimination Act. We lead, in many ways.”
Among other projects, Ringsmuth started the Tundra Vision Lecture Series in Anchorage, meant to bring people together through history. “I started doing the lecture series because I felt that we needed history. We are constantly watching history programs get eliminated from school districts, curriculums getting cut… it’s frightening… and dangerous too. I think what’s forgotten are the voices of the past. They need to be heard.” Held monthly during the winter at the Mountain View Public Library, the series has grown popular, and will start up again in August.
Ringsmuth plans the series with an eye toward her notion of “participatory history.” She says “You’re not just an observer of the past. You can go out there and make history.” The lectures address varied swaths of Alaska’s heritage. Last winter’s series focused on law in Alaska. One event paired journalist Michael Carey with Alaska’s first female Supreme Court Justice Dana Fabe. Another event included Mai Xiong, who shared stories about Alaska’s Hmong Community, and the First Lady of Anchorage, Mara Kimmel, who spoke on immigration law in Alaska. 150 years to the day after Secretary of State William H. Seward signed it, Willie Iggiagruk Hensley explored both Native and non-Native views of the Treaty of Cession. Hensley was introduced by the Moscow Nights band and the Russian-America Colony Singers. “My idea was simply to connect people. To connect experts with teachers, to be able to have someone like Justice Fabe have an opportunity to talk to ten year olds, a little girl who says ‘Why can’t I be a lawyer? Why can’t I be a Supreme Court justice someday? What would it take? Why not?’”
At first, attendance at the lectures was low, but audiences doubled, and doubled again, and kept growing. Ringsmuth hopes to expand the series from Anchorage to Eagle River. “I really do believe that history has a way of bringing people together—people who might not vote the same… people that might not ever have occasion to come together.” The crowd that turned out to see her presentation in McCarthy seems to illustrate that idea, comprised as it was of locals and tourists, retirees and students, mountain guides and pilots, rafters and rangers, business owners and teachers.
“I think it’s the responsibility of the historian to present the voices of the past the way the voices of the past would have wanted it, even if it doesn’t fit with their political views or social views or views of right and wrong, because values change over time. I think history has a way of providing empathy and understanding,” she said.
Keep an eye on Tundra Vision’s Facebook page for more info about this coming season’s series, which will look at how women approach historical narrative. The public branch library in Mountain View, the northeast Anchorage neighborhood and most diverse census tract in the country, is a great venue to bring people together with a fresh, inclusive grip on history.
originally published in the Anchorage Press