About Alaska and its Music History

Alaska, admitted into the Union as the 49th state in 1959, is a land of immensity, vastness and contrast. It got its name from the Aleut word Alyeska: 'the great land'. Alaska's diversity is evident from the far-flung regions that encompass 39 mountain ranges containing 17 of the 20 highest peaks in the United States, including Mt. McKinley, or Denali (The Great One), at 20,320 ft (6,252 m), the tallest mountain in North America. Alaska has 33,904 miles (54,246 km) of shoreline (twice the length of the 'lower' states) and 470 sq miles (1,200 sq km) of permafrost. Temperatures can range from 90°F (32°C) or higher in summer to minus 60°F (16°C) in winter. Alaska's land area is 570,374 sq miles (1,460,000 sq km), making it the largest state in the United States -- one-fifth the size of the combined contiguous 48 states. The state is divided into six geographical areas: South Central/Gulf Coast; Southwestern/Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian Islands; Southeastern; Northern/Arctic; Western/Bering Sea Coast; Interior (Northeast to the Canadian Border).

Human beings have inhabited Southeast, the Aleutians, the Interior and the northwest Arctic for 11,000 or more years. Alaska's first explorers and settlers were confronted with the various and rich traditions of the several Native populations: the Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Athabascan, Yup'ik, Inupiat, Aleut and Eyak, each of which had its own rituals of music and dance. The successful voyages of Vitus Bering and of his lieutenant Alexis Chirikov in 1741 opened Alaska to Russian explorations. The first colony was established in 1784 on Kodiak Island, and the coming of Orthodox priests and the subsequent formation of Russian Orthodox congregations had an immediate effect on the indigenous music in the southeastern portion of the territory.

Alaska's physical extremes - of distance, of sunlight and darkness and, above all, of cold - have meant that, from the days of the first settlers, providing one's own musical entertainment was a hugely important element in survival. That tradition of self-provision has continued into the twenty-first century and, although the various media are all present and have made distinctive contributions to Alaskan musical life, Alaskans have continued to think of themselves in significant ways as self-sufficient, and music plays a very large role in their individual lives.

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