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Alaska, a Conquered Frontier

As I’ve reported on Alaska here at TWI, I’ve tried to keep in mind the theme of Alaska as our last great frontier.

During my first trip north, I wrote about Gov. Sarah Palin’s Western spirit. I saw how her rise to power was built on individualism and a can-do spirit.

I’ve also thought about the idea of Alaska as the last sliver of wilderness when writing about Sen. Ted Stevens and his complicated love affair with the state. He often talks about how Alaska is a “young” state whose needs other members of Congress simply do not understand.

But in reporting on one Alaska character, Todd Palin, I’ve come to think about the state as a much tamer place than I’ve enjoyed imagining.

I had planned to write about how he represents the American frontiersman. Todd works with his hands, in the oil fields on the North Slope and at sea as a commercial fisherman. Both jobs are considered the most physically demanding of any occupation in Alaska.

However, after conferring with Stanford University history professor Richard White, I’m not so sure about Todd the frontiersman.

White, who is an expert on the history of U.S. mining, told me that unlike frontier towns, Alaska’s extraction industries are highly regulated and dominated by large corporations. Todd, for example, works for BP.

“I am not sure what any of this has to do with a frontier or the “old spirit” of the state,” White said, “which is mostly known for taxing extractive industries and redistributing part of the proceeds to the population.”

Todd Palin is a blue-collar worker, but perhaps he’s only reminiscent of a frontiersman.

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