From the first contact with humans to its current position as the largest state in the U.S., the history of Alaska has always been exceptional. Carving out its unique path in politics, trade and lifestyle, the state continues to move forward with an independent vision for the future, which includes deepening ties with China
Starting more than 15,000 years ago, the land that is Alaska today hosted the first people who crossed into America over the Bering Land Bridge, spurring an influx that would eventually populate the entire continent. That migration, along with another wave some 3,000 years later that brought the Na-Dene and Eskimo-Aleut, gave rise to unique indigenous cultures that learned to survive on Alaska’s harsh, but bountiful, lands.
It wasn’t until the 1700s that Europeans came across this land marked by powerful rivers, massive lakes and towering mountain ranges, when a Russian expedition landed near what is today Kayak Island. Russians eventually settled parts of Alaska, but around a century later sold the territory to the United States for around $7.2 million in gold –roughly $0.02 an acre. Just five years after the purchase, in 1872, gold was discovered near Sitka, an event that triggered a gold rush in which adventurous pioneers and prospectors traveled north to seek their fortunes – a trend that would be repeated with other resources.
“We’re a resource state, with $5 trillion of resources that we know of. But of course, there’s much more than that,” said Alaskan Governor Bill Walker, who is the only independent state governor in America.
Though controlled by the U.S., it wasn’t until 1959 that Alaska became an official U.S. state, and under the condition that it would be the only state in the country to own the resources it holds in the ground. In 1971, to harmonize relations with the native population, the U.S. passed the historic Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), which broke from the typical reservation system and gave native peoples significant amounts of land, capital and economic motivation.
Strategically located and with abundant resources, since those pivotal dates, Alaska’s GDP has grown larger than that of many countries, despite having a population of less than 800,000.
The pioneer spirit of the Alaskan people continues to mark the state’s development. Alaska has one of the highest rates of new business launches in the country, with more than 16,335 company licenses granted in 2017 alone.
The state is also marching to the beat of its own drum when it comes to foreign relations. Bucking the federal U.S. government’s tendency to look at China as an economic rival, the state sees vast opportunities to cooperate with the Asian powerhouse in sectors including natural resource exports, technological cooperation and tourism. It makes perfect sense to Gov. Walker: “My mentor, former governor Wally Hickel, used to call me into his office and tell me to look at Alaska on the globe from the top down. You don’t see the Florida panhandle; what you see is Asia.”