The Last Frontier’s Lost Tribes: Exposing the Racial Bias in Alaska’s Reality TV

The Last Frontier’s Lost Tribes: Exposing the Racial Bias in Alaska’s Reality TV


The Last Frontier’s Lost Tribes: Exposing the Racial Bias in Alaska’s Reality TV

The vast landscapes and unforgiving wilderness of Alaska have become a popular backdrop for reality television, with shows like “Alaska: The Last Frontier” capturing the drama of rugged individualism and battling the elements. Yet, a crucial element remains strangely absent: the vibrant and enduring cultures of Alaska Native peoples. This conspicuous erasure begs a critical question: is America’s fascination with the “frontier myth” perpetuating a form of racial bias by ignoring the pre-existing inhabitants of Alaska?

The “frontier myth” rests on the romanticized notion of conquering untouched land. It conveniently overlooks the inconvenient truth that Alaska was, and remains, the traditional territory of thriving Indigenous communities. Groups like the Inupiat of the Arctic North, the Yup’ik people inhabiting the Bering Sea coast and interior Alaska, the Tlingit, Haida, and Island Alaska Native peoples of Southeast Alaska, the Aleut communities of the Aleutian Islands and the western mainland, and the Athabascans, who have lived throughout the interior and southcentral regions for millennia, have developed unique cultural identities, languages, and complex social structures. Their sophisticated understanding of sustainable resource management and deep connection to the Alaskan environment stand in stark contrast to the portrayal of fumbling newcomers “roughing it” in reality TV.

While racism unquestionably plays a part, the issue goes beyond mere prejudice. Here’s how this dominant narrative perpetuates a historical injustice:

  • Historical Invisibility: The “frontier” narrative paints a picture of white settlers as the rightful inheritors of a pristine wilderness, conveniently erasing the complex history of Indigenous dispossession through forced relocation, treaties violated by the US government, and federal boarding schools designed to dismantle their ways of life.
  • Reinforcing Stereotypes: The absence of Alaska Natives in these programs creates a void that can be easily filled with inaccurate or romanticized stereotypes. Shows portraying a struggle against the elements reinforce the “savage noble” trope, erasing the sophisticated cultural practices and technological innovations of Alaska Native peoples.
  • Missed Opportunities: Reality TV has the potential to be a powerful platform for cultural exchange and education. Showcasing thriving contemporary Indigenous communities in Alaska would not only challenge these stereotypes but also highlight their resilience, cultural richness, and ongoing contributions to the state’s social fabric.

Moving Beyond the Myth:

There is a critical need to move beyond the tired “frontier” trope. Here are some potential paths forward:

  • Co-production and Representation: Partnering with Alaska Native filmmakers, storytellers, and cultural experts from all groups, including the Inupiat, Yup’ik, Tlingit, Haida, Aleut, and Athabascan peoples ensures authentic representation and avoids the pitfalls of cultural appropriation. Their voices and narratives should be at the forefront.
  • Highlighting Coexistence: Reality TV could explore the complexities of life in modern Alaska, showcasing how newcomers and Indigenous communities can learn from each other and coexist respectfully. Documentaries could focus on collaborative resource management efforts and the challenges of preserving traditional ways of life in a rapidly changing environment.
  • Celebrating Tradition: Programs that highlight Alaska Native art forms like intricate basket weaving practiced by the Aleut and Southeast communities, expressive masks created by the Tlingit and Haida, and powerful storytelling traditions shared by all groups would offer valuable cultural insights. Showcasing traditional hunting and fishing practices, conducted by the Inupiat, Yup’ik, Athabascan, and all Alaska Native groups in a way that honors the land and its bounty, could dismantle stereotypes and foster a deeper appreciation for their relationship with nature.

The Power of Storytelling:

By diversifying the stories told about Alaska on television, we can challenge the dominant narrative and create a more complete and respectful portrayal. This requires a shift in perspective, acknowledging the deep connection between the land and its Indigenous inhabitants. It’s time to celebrate the rich tapestry of Alaska’s history and culture, giving voice to the “lost tribes” of the Last Frontier and fostering a deeper understanding of their enduring presence.

This approach not only corrects a historical blind spot but also offers a more accurate and enriching viewing experience.