Archive for the ‘Series’ Category

Sandia Mountains from Kuaua Pueblo, Coronado State Monument, Bernalillo, New Mexico

Sandia Mountains from Kuaua Pueblo, Bernalillo, New Mexico

Given the diversity of languages spoken by the modern Pueblos, and the diverse archaeological “cultures” of Pueblo prehistory (as described in the previous post), one obvious line of inquiry in making connections between past and present focuses on language. Specifically, the fact that some Pueblo languages are part of larger families and others are not seems to open the possibility of some Pueblo groups being relative newcomers to the Pueblo lifestyle, which leaves others as more likely to be the direct descendants of the prehistoric groups who inhabited sites like Chaco and Mesa Verde.

There have been several attempts to reconstruct Pueblo culture history along these lines, but I’m not going to discuss them in detail because I think the whole approach is unlikely to work. A closer look at the specifics of the relationships involved shows why.

There are two Pueblo language groups whose languages are part of larger families: Hopi and Tanoan. The Hopi language belongs to the very large Uto-Aztecan family, stretching from the Great Basin south into Mexico and beyond. The Tanoan family is part of the Kiowa-Tanoan family, along with the single language Kiowa, spoken on the Great Plains. The other two Pueblo languages, Keres and Zuni, are isolates not known to be related to any other language (including each other).

Starting with Hopi, at first glance this seems like a good candidate for a language spoken by a mobile hunter-gatherer group, like the modern Numic speakers of the Great Basin, who only settled down to a sedentary agricultural lifestyle relatively recently. However, it’s important to note that Hopi forms its own branch of the Uto-Aztecan family (or possibly of the Northern Uto-Aztecan subfamily, the existence of which is a matter of dispute). It is no more closely related to Numic than it is to, say, the Piman languages spoken by the O’odham agriculturalists of southern Arizona. Depending on how the overall Uto-Aztecan family is reconstructed, it may even be equally close to Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. It’s not possible to assign specific dates to divisions of language families, but on a qualitative level, Hopi is sufficiently divergent from the rest of its family that it is very unlikely that its speakers entered the Pueblo culture area in the past few centuries. Archaeologically, there is abundant evidence that modern Hopi society emerged from the amalgamation of many different groups from different parts of the Southwest who migrated to the Hopi mesas in the post-Chacoan period, and the same impression is given by Hopi oral history. Which of these groups spoke the language ancestral to modern Hopi is impossible to determine from archaeological evidence, of course, but it’s reasonable to think at least one of them did, and had been speaking it while practicing a basically Pueblo lifestyle for many centuries before that.

Turning to Tanoan, the archaeology is a lot murkier but the general point still stands. The relationship to Kiowa suggests the possibility that the Tanoan-speakers only entered the Southwest fairly recently, presumably from the Plains. In a small language like this is it is even harder to quantify divergence than it is in large language like Uto-Aztecan, but again, the Tanoan languages are quite different from Kiowa. They are so different, in fact, that it wasn’t until the 1950s that the relationship between the two was established to the general satisfaction of historical linguists. The oral history of these groups is also murky, but what is known of Tanoan traditions doesn’t seem to point to origins outside the Southwest, and Kiowa traditions also don’t seem to record any knowledge of a relationship to any of the Pueblos. Who moved where when is hard to determine in this case, but nothing about the linguistic evidence points to a particularly recent adoption of Pueblo culture by Tanoan speakers. The eastern Pueblos, including the Tanoans, do show a lot of evidence of Plains cultural traits, but this is most likely a result of close contact with the Plains during the late prehistoric and early historic period, for which there is plenty of evidence.

That leaves Keres and Zuni, about which nothing can be said about external relationships. It is likely that both groups have been culturally Pueblo for a very long time, but there is no way to tell based on the linguistic evidence whether they have been so for longer than their neighbors to the east (Tanoan) and west (Hopi).

So basically, I think linguistic relationship is a dead end in determining historical connections between ancient sites and modern Pueblos. That’s not to say that linguistics is entirely useless, however. There are other, more subtle aspects of the linguistic relationships among Pueblo groups that may well have historical value. That’s a topic for another post, however.

Hopi Buttes from Homol'ovi Ruins State Park

Hopi Buttes from Homol’ovi Ruins State Park

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Northwest Corner of Pueblo del Arroyo

Northwest Corner of Pueblo del Arroyo

As a first step in evaluating the connections between prehistoric and modern Pueblo societies, it’s necessary to define exactly which societies we’re talking about here. This post is a brief overview of the prehistoric cultures and modern ethnolinguistic groups in question. As noted below, these are not necessarily equivalent units, and failing to recognize this has been a frequent problem with previous reconstructions of Southwestern culture history.

On the ancient side, we are primarily dealing here with  a handful of “branches” within the overall Anasazi “root.” (See my previous post on lesser-known prehistoric Southwestern societies for more on the “root and branch” system that has traditionally been used to organize Southwestern prehistory.) These branches inhabited various parts of the drainage of the San Juan River prior to AD 1300; how far back they go before that is unclear. These are the traditional branches:

  • Chaco Branch: The primary center of this branch is of course Chaco Canyon in northwestern New Mexico, but it extended over the entirety of the southern San Juan Basin and further south into the drainage of the Rio Puerco of the West. There are various distinctive characteristics of this branch prior to about AD 1200, when it seems to converge with the Mesa Verde branch before disappearing entirely.
  • Mesa Verde Branch: While Mesa Verde proper is historically the area of main research focus for this branch, recent research has shown that it was much more widespread, extending thoughout much of southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah. The exact nature of its relationship with the Chaco branch is still unclear, but there has been increasing evidence for cultural similarity and historical connections between the two. There is a clear pattern of alternating population concentration implying migration between north and south on a scale of centuries prior to the depopulation of the entire area before AD 1300.
  • Kayenta Branch: Located in northeastern Arizona, this branch shows some clear cultural differences from Chaco and Mesa Verde, but certain sites do show evidence of influence from Mesa Verde especially during the Tsegi Phase from AD 1250 to 1300. The cliff dwellings of Navajo National Monument and Canyon de Chelly are probably the best known Kayenta sites.

On the modern side, there are 19 Pueblos in New Mexico, plus several on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona and a few communities of Pueblo ancestry in the vicinity of El Paso, Texas. They belong to six known linguistic groups, listed below.

  • Hopi: This language belongs to the Uto-Aztecan family, one of the more widespread and well-documented families of North and Central America. As the name implies, the family includes both the Great Basin hunter-gatherers of the Numic subfamily (Ute, Paiute, and Shoshone) and the complex agricultural Aztecs of the Basin of Mexico, as well as many groups in between. As a result, this family is among the best examples in the world of a lack of correlation between language family and economic orientation. The Hopis fall in between the extremes of the Numa and the Aztecs, and their language forms its own branch of Uto-Aztecan sufficiently different from the others to make it very difficult to draw any culture-historical conclusions. The three Hopi mesas (unimaginatively named “First,” “Second,” and “Third” in English) have distinctive dialects that further complicate the situation.
  • Zuni: Today this is just a single pueblo, speaking a language generally considered an isolate unrelated to any other. Prior to the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 there were several Zuni pueblos, however. In addition to language, there are several other aspects of Zuni culture that tend to distinguish it from the other pueblos, although there are also enough similarities to Hopi to distinguish the two as “western” pueblos in contrast to those further east.
  • Keres: This is another language isolate, but spoken by several historically autonomous pueblos that still retain separate identities and speak slightly different dialects of a single mutually intelligible language. The Keres pueblos form a “bridge” in some respects between the western and eastern pueblos. Acoma and Laguna tend to pattern more with Hopi and Zuni, while Zia, Santa Ana, San Felipe, Cochiti, and Santo Domingo are located further east and tend to have more similarities to the Rio Grande Pueblos.
  • Tanoan: This (sub)family is located entirely in the Rio Grande Valley and is divided into three languages/subfamilies, which are in turn related to a fourth language, Kiowa, spoken on the Great Plains. The Tanoan subfamilies are:
    • Tiwa: This subfamily is in turn divided into Northern and Southern divisions, which occupy the extreme north and south portions of the modern Pueblo domain. Northern Tiwa is spoken in Taos and Picuris, while Southern Tiwa is spoken at Sandia and Isleta in the vicinity of modern Albuquerque. Tiwa was also spoken historically at Ysleta del Sur near El Paso, Texas, which was founded by Southern Tiwas displaced during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. There is some evidence that the Piro pueblos south of the Southern Tiwa also spoke a language closely related to Tiwa, although this language is poorly documented and is now extinct.
    • Tewa: This subfamily occupies the portions of the northern Rio Grande valley near modern Santa Fe, in the pueblos of San Juan, Santa Clara, San Ildefonso, Nambe, Tesuque, Pojoaque. A closely related dialect was also spoken further south in the Galisteo Basin until approximately 1700, when the remaining residents of that area moved to the Hopi area of Arizona and founded the pueblo on First Mesa known as Hano (or Tewa), which continues to speak a dialect of the Tewa language to this day.
    • Towa: Today this language is spoken only at Jemez Pueblo on the western edge of the Rio Grande region, but until the 1830s it was also spoken at Pecos on the eastern edge. When the pueblo of Pecos was abandoned its remaining inhabitants moved to Jemez, where their descendants still form a distinctive segment of the population.

So that’s the present situation. The picture is complicated, and it’s hard to figure out what the historical events that resulted in this arrangement would have been. The fact that Tiwa occupies both the northern and southern ends of the Rio Grande culture area, while Towa occupies the eastern and western peripheries and Keres occupies both a core part of the center of the region and an area further west that is more similar culturally to Hopi and Zuni, makes it difficult to fit the known facts into a simple scheme of migration or cultural diffusion. Clearly the story must be more complicated, and digging into those complexities will be the purpose of the following posts in this series.

Kuaua Pueblo, Coronado State Monument, Bernalillo, New Mexico

Kuaua Pueblo, Coronado State Monument, Bernalillo, New Mexico

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Kivas in East Plaza, Pueblo Bonito

Kivas in East Plaza, Pueblo Bonito

It’s quite clear that, in a general sense, the modern Pueblo people of New Mexico and Arizona are the cultural descendants of the ancestral Pueblo (Anasazi) groups of Chaco Canyon and other parts of the northern Southwest no longer occupied by people of Puebloan culture. Indeed, as the previous post explains, the descendants of the Chacoans are much easier to identify than those of pretty much any other prehistoric society in the Southwest. Nevertheless, the modern Pueblos are quite diverse in many ways. While they all have similar material culture, which is what most clearly shows their relationship to prehistoric sites like Chaco, the Pueblos speak six different languages belonging to four completely unrelated language families, and the linguistic divisions correspond generally (but not perfectly) to differences in other aspects of culture, such as kinship systems, sociopolitical structures, and religious practices.

With so much diversity, it’s reasonable to hypothesize that some modern Pueblo groups have closer connections to particular ancient sites than others. Demonstrating any specific connections has been frustratingly difficult for scholars so far, however. The immense upheavals of the Spanish colonial period led to significant changes in many Pueblos that make it difficult to trace their histories back into the prehistoric period, and archaeology has demonstrated considerable evidence for prehistoric upheavals that similarly obscure continuities of culture and population. Adding to the difficulty are the facts that the Pueblos have long had very similar material culture to each other, which makes it difficult to tell different ethnolinguistic groups apart archaeologically, and that the extensive migrations of the late prehistoric period seem to have involved rapid change in material culture as well, obscure whatever small differences had existed among different Pueblo groups.

On account of these difficulties, for a long time Southwestern archaeologists and anthropologists were often reluctant to try to reconstruct culture history in enough detail to connect specific ancient sites with specific modern Pueblos. In recent years this reluctance has decreased, however, and there is now a fair amount of interest in these questions, spurred in part by the requirements under NAGPRA for demonstrating cultural affiliation of modern groups in ancient sites. It’s interesting to compare this trend to the last period of considerable interest in this topic, which was similarly spurred by the effort in the 1950s to settle Indian land claims. In any case, archaeologists today have proposed various models of Southwestern prehistory to account for the distribution of modern Pueblo peoples.

With this context, and inspired in part by some interesting questions asked by commenter J. R. Barnett, I’ve decided to do a series of posts addressing this issue and the types of evidence available to address it. I’ll be focusing heavily on linguistic evidence, which is of particular interest to me personally as well as being of considerable importance in defining cultural differences among the Pueblos. I will, however, also discuss the evidence from archaeology, physical anthropology (including DNA studies), sociocultural anthropology, and oral traditions. In doing some reading on these topics recently, it’s been apparent that there really is quite a lot of relevant evidence out there. While we will surely never be able to recover every detail of the story, it’s worth taking a serious look at the available evidence to see what we can find out.

Apparent Kiva at Abo Pueblo, Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument

Apparent Kiva at Abo Pueblo, Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument

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Sunset over Mount Susitna from Anchorage, Alaska

Overall, the five books on my reading list were all very interesting and I’m glad I read them. Their usefulness to someone interested in Alaska but not in my specific situation varies, however. I think the most useful single book on the list as a general introduction to Alaska is McPhee. Also good as a general introduction to the Arctic, but not focused on Alaska specifically, is Lopez. For those with a more historical interest in the state, Marshall is great; conversely, for those more interested in the idea of how someone might live “off the grid” in the Alaska wilderness, Proenneke would be a better choice. Finally, Miles is good for those interested in the details of National Park Service history, a small group to be sure but one probably heavily overrepresented among my readership.

I’ve read a lot more about Alaska than these five books, of course, but I’ve decided that further discussion of Alaska is probably best suited for a different blog (or possibly more than one). From now on this blog will focus specifically on the prehistory of the Southwest and related issues, although I will of course let my readers here know of any additional blog projects I start on other topics.

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Sea Ice, Barrow, Alaska

The fifth and final book on my reading list was Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez. This book occupies a distinctive place on the list not so much because of its subject matter, which overlaps various of the other books to varying degrees, as because of its tone, which is quite different from all the others. The tone here is not journalistic or scientific but literary, with extended passages of lyrical reflection on landscapes and ecosystems that make reading it a very different experience from the other books. Lopez writes novels in addition to his nonfiction, which puts the tone into its proper perspective, I think. It’s a very interesting book in a variety of ways. The focus is on the North American Arctic as a whole, so Alaska plays a role but considerably more attention is given to Canada, which encompasses a larger geographic area and has been more central to a lot of the history Lopez describes as context for contemporary issues. Nevertheless, the issues Lopez discusses in the Canadian context generally have parallels in Alaska (as well as in Greenland, and for that matter in the European and Siberian Arctic, which Lopez barely mentions), and it makes sense to discuss the Arctic as a whole despite its internal diversity.

Despite the aforementioned literary tone, this is definitely a work of nonfiction, which might be classed as popular science for want of a better category. Lopez describes various aspects of the Arctic, mostly focusing on the animals, the landscapes, and the indigenous peoples, with an overall emphasis on the fragility of all these systems and the way they are threatened by modern Western society and its recent interest in industrial development in the North. This fits right in to the tradition of environmentalist writing represented by the likes of Rachel Carson and Edward Abbey, but Lopez gives it his own distinctive stamp. He is clearly enchanted by the landscapes and wildlife he sees, and worried about how they will fare in a world of oil drilling and strip mining, but he also clearly recognizes the ambiguities of the situation, the importance of the perspectives of indigenous hunters even when their ideas might be incompatible with those of white environmentalists, and the inevitability of a certain amount of development given the prevailing circumstances. He points to previous incidents of inadvertent environmental destruction in the Arctic, such as the devastation of whale populations by nineteenth-century whalers, as important cautionary tales for those who would ponder tapping the resources of the North, but he stops short of a blanket demand that no extraction take place. He recognizes the power of industry at the same time that he fears it, and seems to ultimately offer only a caution to be careful and consult with the locals before making any hasty decisions. He makes a big deal out of a visit the CEO of an international shipping company happened to make to an Inuit hunting camp while he was staying there. The CEO had heard about reports that the company’s ships were disturbing the wildlife the hunters depended on, and he asked them about the issues and listened to what they said. This obviously sounds like a publicity stunt, but Lopez interprets the way it was done as an important contrast to the superficial way such stunts are usually done, and points to it as a hopeful sign for the future. Whether he was right to do so is unclear, but it’s an interesting, nuanced approach to issues on which he clearly has strong opinions.

Lopez published this book in the mid-1980s, and from the perspective of today one of the most striking things about it is that for all his pessimism about the environmental future of the Arctic he never once mentions anthropogenic climate change. The idea of global warming was certainly around at the time, but it had not yet emerged as a major concern even in environmental circles, and the threats to the Arctic environment that Lopez describes are all the result of human actions on ecosystems that are fragile but otherwise stable. Nowadays it seems pretty striking that threats to the Arctic environment could be envisioned this way; the effects of climate change are already quite apparent in Arctic regions, and such effects as melting permafrost and accelerated coastal erosion are already having substantial effects on communities in Alaska and elsewhere. Furthermore, some of the effects of climate change, such as lower sea ice extent (which hit a record minimum this past summer), open the door to increased shipping, mining, and other industrial activity in the Arctic. These are precisely the local threats Lopez focuses on in the book, but there they look like isolated phenomena, whereas now they seem to be part of a larger and more dire picture. Obviously this is not really a criticism of Lopez. He wrote when he did, and his perspective was based on the information then available. It’s only now, with more information and a changed perspective, that climate change looks like such a major background presence shaping a changing North.

Overall, this is an interesting book, and a useful supplement to the others I read. I can see why it was at the bottom of the list: it doesn’t focus on Alaska specifically, and the part of Alaska it does relate to is a relatively small part of the state (though a very important one). As a stand-alone volume, however, it would probably be a better choice for the general reader than some of the others that ranked higher on my list.

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Aerial View of the Brooks Range

The fourth book on my reading list was Arctic Village by Bob Marshall. Marshall was an important figure in the wilderness movement of the early twentieth century and one of the founders of The Wilderness Society, and John Miles discusses him in this context in his book, but Arctic Village actually has relatively little to say about Marshall’s wilderness advocacy. Instead it is a detailed sociological study of the upper Koyukuk River area in the central Brooks Range of north-central Alaska in the early 1930s, focused on the community of Wiseman. Marshall came to the Koyukuk more or less on a whim and stayed for about a year, ostensibly to study tree growth at the northern tree line as part of his PhD studies in forestry at Johns Hopkins University, but as he admits right at the beginning of the book he didn’t end up learning much about the trees because he spent most of his time hanging out with and learning about the people. The book is the result of that learning.

It’s a fascinating book in a bunch of ways, and probably the most interesting to me of the five on my reading list. Marshall had a very specific agenda in writing it, which was essentially to present the society of Wiseman and the Upper Koyukuk as a sort of utopian “civilization” that could serve as a model for society in general. His methods were those of social science rather than history or memoir, and the book is full of numbers and statistics. These are generally of dubious value for generalizing beyond the Koyukuk itself, but the amount of work Marshall put into collecting and analyzing them is impressive. Marshall himself comes across as something of an odd guy. He was a committed socialist and atheist, and he emphasizes the aspects of Koyukuk society that align well with these ideologies and downplays those that don’t. To his credit, however, he does include and acknowledge the data that conflicts with his overall thesis, although he doesn’t emphasize it. A few portions of the book are in the form of narrative or dialogue, but most of it is the sober recitation of statistics. Marshall clearly wanted it to be taken seriously as sociology, and it seems that it was. It was an enormous commercial success among general readers as well, which ironically led to a surge in tourism to Wiseman that quickly changed the character of the society Marshall had extolled.

The society Marshall describes is basically that of a small community of gold miners and others providing services to them during a “bust” period in the boom-and-bust cycle that has long characterized the economy of Alaska. There are fewer than 200 residents in the huge area Marshall covers, a small fraction of the number during the “boom” period of the 1910s in this area. Marshall’s attempts to portray this society as a “civilization” at all, let alone one that could serve as a model for people everywhere, are therefore quite unconvincing. He argues at one point that the Koyukuk might be able to carry on without any contact from the larger society for as much as a couple of years, which I think just emphasizes the extent to which this was a distant, frontier appendage of a much larger civilization rather than an alternative to it.

This impression is intensified by the realization, amply documented in Marshall’s detailed demographic tables, that the society he describes is mostly composed of older white men, mostly those who originally came in earlier gold rushes and ended up staying for various reasons. This group is supplemented by a sizable minority of Eskimos, who are also not indigenous to this specific area but came from other parts of northern Alaska following the gold miners and the opportunities they presented to supplement a fundamental hunting-and-gathering economy with occasional wage work. Marshall describes both the white and Eskimo populations in  considerable detail and romanticizes both to some extent, although there is no obvious reason to discount the accuracy of his data. One point he emphasizes is the relative lack of racial prejudice, which would have been a considerable difference from most of the US at the time. It’s worth noting that the fact that  nearly all the women in the area were Eskimo may have had a significant impact on the white miners’ opinions about the Eskimos, and Marshall does in fact go on at some length about the attractiveness of the young Eskimo women.

Overall this is a fascinating snapshot of life in rural Alaska at a certain point in time, as well as a largely unintentional glimpse into the psyche of an important figure in the modern wilderness movement. I liked it a lot, although others might find the extensive tables and lists a bit much.

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Aerial View of Port Alsworth, Alaska

Moving from the general to the specific on the issue of wilderness, the third book on my reading list was One Man’s Wilderness by Sam Keith and Dick Proenneke. The authorship of this book is somewhat complicated; basically, it was based on the journals Proenneke kept in the late 1960s while building a cabin at Twin Lakes in what later became Lake Clark National Park and reworked into a book by Keith, a writer who was a friend of Proenneke. Keith’s influence can be seen especially in some of the earlier passages where Proenneke describes at length events that took place over the course of weeks. This part doesn’t seem much like a diary. Most of the book, however, does feel like it has been taken mostly verbatim from Proenneke’s journals. The time period covered is roughly one year, during which Proenneke built his cabin almost entirely from scratch, using only hand tools.

This is a classic work in the Alaska wilderness literature. Proenneke filmed himself building the cabin, and the footage he produced later became the basis for an accompanying PBS documentary called Alone in the Wildnerness. Between the book and the documentary, Proenneke has become a household name among the sorts of people who know about wilderness and national parks in Alaska. It’s an interesting read just to see what it took for him to survive in the rather harsh conditions he encountered with very few resources at his disposal. From the time period covered by the book it’s not apparent what would happen to Proenneke (it ends as he leaves Alaska to care for his sick father back in Iowa), but he ended up returning to the cabin and living there for over 30 years, until he got too old for the rigorous lifestyle. When Twin Lakes became part of the newly created Lake Clark National Park in 1980 Proenneke was allowed to stay, and his cabin is now one of the most popular sites in the park.

It’s worth noting, however, that there are some odd things about this book. Unlike most other people who have come to the Alaska wilderness from elsewhere, Proenneke was not seeking gold, furs, or any other material gain. He came to Twin Lakes to retire after having worked as a ranch hand and laborer for many years, most recently in Kodiak. There is therefore a certain lack of grounding to his account of building the cabin and all of his daily activities. It’s interesting to read about everything he had to do to live out there, but it’s never clear just why he’s there. Ultimately he seems to just be there because he loves the wilderness so much, but still, that’s a hell of a commitment to wilderness making him do all that work for that alone.

It’s also noteworthy, in the context of the story John Miles tells about wilderness and the national parks, that Proenneke’s idea of wilderness doesn’t really match up with the concept of wilderness enshrined in the Wilderness Act, promoting by organizations like The Wilderness Society, and now protected by the National Park Service and other agencies. Proenneke didn’t just visit the wilderness; he lived there. Indeed, he moved there and built a cabin, which is in some ways the diametric opposite of the wilderness ideal of a land untouched by human activity. And yet, rather than a villain appropriating the wilderness for his own use, Proenneke is seen today by wilderness advocates primarily as a hero and a role model. There’s a definite tension here that I don’t think has ever been resolved.

Also, it’s worth noting that for all his rhetoric about getting away from it all and rejecting the modern world Proenneke arrived at Twin Lakes in an airplane. That plane was piloted by Babe Alsworth, a legendary bush pilot who moved to the shores of Lake Clark in the 1940s and founded what would become the community of Port Alsworth, which is now totally surrounded by Lake Clark National Park and the site of the park’s field headquarters. Alsworth continued to bring Proenneke’s mail (including supplies he had ordered) and to stop by from time to time to check on him. Proenneke did live off the land to a considerable degree, but he was nowhere close to self-sufficient. He talks about all of this in the book, but he never discusses how he paid for it. He must have saved up quite a bit of money in his working days.

Proenneke also doesn’t really put his own effort into the context of the times. To be fair, there’s no particular reason to expect him to do so, but it’s worth noting what else was going on at the time. The 1960s and 1970s were a time when many people (often called “rusticators”) were flocking to Alaska to live in cabins in the wilderness, and Proenneke was both part of this movement and an inspiration for later stages of it, largely through Keith’s book, which was originally published in 1973. The people John McPhee saw living like this on the Yukon near Eagle in the mid-1970s were also part of the general trend. Proenneke knew many of the other rusticators in his area, but they don’t show up in the book, and the impression it gives is that he was completely alone out there aside from Babe Alsworth’s occasional visits. That may well have been true for that first year, but it definitely was not for thirty years after that during which Proenneke remained a fixture of the region.

Overall, this is a good book, and a short and entertaining account of the Alaska wilderness and what it takes to live there. I didn’t make it out to Proenneke’s cabin while I was working for the Park Service, but I did get to Port Alsworth and other parts of the park. It’s a beautiful area, well worth a visit for those who can afford the (substantial) cost of getting there. This book definitely only gives a narrow perspective on Alaska and excludes a lot of important things, but taken for what it is it’s a good read.

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