Saturday, July 14, 2012

Well, hello again, men and women of the Arctic Brotherhood tribute band. It seems that it's been a really long time (once again) since I've updated this. At times i've had big plans to post weekly entries, and then life gets in the way sometimes.

But, as always, the men of the Arctic Brotherhood rarely leave my mind for more than a few hours. They walked these streets, they climbed these mountains, they made these buildings, and they designed the logo on my arm. It's hard to not be immersed in them, really, in a place where history is so alive.

The question everyone always seems to ask me, besides "What is the Arctic brotherhood?" is "What happened to the Arctic Brotherhood?" Whenever someone asks me that, if any of my friends who know me very well are around, they smile, shake their heads, and hopefully LEAVE as soon as they can to avoid hearing that long, long story all over again.

That question is, really, what drove me to the AB in the first place. That question, and a man named Henry Bowman (sadly, no relation). I ended up finding a lot of answers by November of last year on that, but in a lot of ways it's still something that never really got resolved in my mind.

Why did the Arctic Brotherhood fail? OK. There are several factors involved. First, easy ones.

Number 1. When the AB first started in 1899, the white population of Alaska, the Yukon, and northern British Columbia was mainly made up of men (like that alliteration?) who were miners and merchants (BAM, take that Dr. Seuss). As everything became a little more settled over the years and decades, women joined the ranks. And, in this last frontier, traditional gender roles simply did not apply on either side. When the Alaska Native Brotherhood formed in 1912, the Alaska Native Sisterhood followed shortly. All kinds of other fraternal organizations began allowing women to join, even in the form of women's auxiliaries.

But did the Arctic Brotherhood? Never!

This is important to think about considering that when Alaska became a territory in 1912 (thank you AB Past Arctic Chief James Wickersham of Nome and Fairbanks), women were never denied the right to vote as they had been in other states, districts and territories. Women were, under the law, equal to men. An organization specific to the north that did not allow them to be equal to men would maybe have naturally faded out.

Number 2. The population of Alaska dwindled post-Klondike. The gold rushes to Nome and Fairbanks, among others, kept bringing people in for a few years, but a good deal of men and women came to the north looking for gold and never found it. Sure, lots of them stayed. But lots of them didn't. Where did they all go when they left? Vancouver or Seattle.

When they all found themselves in those western ports of call and realized they were among fellow Arctic Brethren, they wanted to meet with each other the way they had done up here. But could they? Of course not!

Why? Because one of the tenets of the fabric holding the Arctic Brotherhood together was its geographic exclusivity. Its innate northern-ness is what made it so unique. In order to be a member, on top of being male, over 18, and probably white, a man had to live north of the 54'40" line. (Not 54 feet and 40 inches. 54 degrees and 40 minutes. In case you were confused.) "BUT!" you might say, if you knew that honorary members like Senators and Presidents were initiated into the AB (which i'm sure you don't), "how come visiting dignitaries got to be members then?"

Well, they were just special. That's all. Even Governor General Earl Grey (not the tea guy) was given ceremonial honors by the AB when he visited Dawson, Camp #4. But these men were honorary members, not full members with all the privileges.

This became an interesting conflict within the AB. Just think about it, even in terms of the people who inhabit the great white north today. So... you come up north and live that incredibly difficult lifestyle inherent to the area, powering through it all because you love living here, and you're a part of an organization that celebrates that lifestyle... then your buddy gets tired of the 60-degrees-below-zero winters and the isolation, moves away, and still wants to be a part of that organization? I can tell you with absolute certainty that it would piss people off.

There's this thing about Alaska that you may not realize if you've never visited or lived here. People are really proud to be Alaskan. Not in the same way people are proud to be New Yorkers or Bostonians. The length of time you've lived in Alaska, the number of winters you've put in, is absolutely a status symbol. Not everyone's vocal about it but there is a certain hauteur and condescension put on by people who have been here a while. And i don't think it's a new phenomenon.

Robert Service observed it best in one of his poems: "I'm one of the Arctic Brotherhood, i'm an old-time pioneer. I came with the first, oh GOD! how i've cursed this Yukon-- but i'm still here."

Number 3. This is a little more abstract, so if you've been drinking while reading this you may want to come back another time.

When the AB started in 1899, like i said, Alaska was the last frontier. It was undeveloped, rugged, unimproved, remote. A good deal of towns, cities and villages were completely inaccessible in the winter time except by dog sled, if you were lucky. (Remember this last winter how Nome had to get fuel from a Russian tanker? It was even worse back then.) Even during the summer months, the main connections between points on the map were waterways. The mighty Yukon connected a good deal of former AB camps to each other, along with water routes in the Inside Passage and the Gulf of Alaska.

There weren't a lot of roads. Apart from the 100-mile stretch from Skagway to Whitehorse at the turn of the century, there weren't railroads in those early years of the AB. And a good deal of communities were hundreds of miles away from the next town over. Things were isolated.

So it's only natural that fraternal orders were such a big deal in those days. The Masons, Elks, Eagles, Knights of Pythias, Moose, Sons of the North, Maccabbees, to name a few, all flourished in this corner of the world in the early days of white people invading.

It makes sense. These communities were isolated, remote, and quite often, entirely miserable to live in. Groups like the AB did things to make people feel more at home -- had social gatherings - to help people support each other - medical care and rescue missions - and to give people something to do in the long winter months - built libraries and pool halls. People relied on these organizations to take care of each other.

Then industrialization happened. (Yeah, we have running water now. it's cool.) Planes started coming in to bring the mail. The Alaska Railroad was completed in the early 20s (the reason for President Harding's visit to Alaska, during which he chilled with the AB men here at Camp #1). The Richardson Highway was in progress (thank you AB member Captain Richardson). Technology made new Alaskans and Yukoners a lot more mobile. And suddenly, or gradually, they realized they didn't need the clubs so much.

When you can get from one town to another pretty quickly, it's not that important to have such a close-knit support network in your neighborhood, I guess.

At the same time, although the AB died out, maybe due in part to each of those three reasons, other similar organizations are still alive and well. The Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood are still going strong, as are the Pioneers of Alaska and Yukon Order of Pioneers (YOOP - love that acronym). As any Skagwegian will tell you, the Elks and Eagles survived long past the gold rush in our little town and still are very important to the community in ways beyond the fact that they're the only 2 bars open through the entire winter.

So... if other organizations didn't fall to the same wayside, why did the AB? That, my children, is another story for another day, even though that's the story I set out to tell in this post. Evereything I've put out here has just been theories. There was a very concrete event in 1909 which spurred the upset within the AB that doomed them forever. That story and its resulting story arcs are outside the realm of hypothesis -- it was very well-documented by Dr. Moore and our faithful anonymous journalists of the era.

But more on that later. Brace yourselves, AB fan club, for the next chapter in this epic tale.

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