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Alaska and My Family

On this day in 1867, the United States paid Russia $7 million for Alaska. Personally, it’s my favorite purchase.


But the anniversary has me thinking about how much the state has changed, particularly in recent years.

My great-grandparents arrived in Juneau in 1885, and my grandmother was born that same year, the youngest of eight children. She was rumored to be the first Caucasian baby born in Juneau. At age five, she was kidnapped by Tlingit Indians. Her eldest brother later saved her, toting his best shotgun.

My grandmother’s story was later dramatized in a play, Hootchinoo and Hotcakes. The play was primarily staged for tourists who came to town by cruise ship. But sometime during the 1970s, a bunch of folks moved to Juneau from Outside—the lower forty-eight states. They didn’t like the play. It was “culturally insensitive.” “Politically incorrect.”

The play was taken off the stage.

Despite historic fact, we weren’t supposed to say that during territorial days the Tlingit Indians behaved like ruthless savages. But they did—and good for them. The Tlingits were the only Alaska Native tribe the Russians couldn’t conquer. And that’s saying something: the Russians were plenty ruthless too.


Six years ago I went back to Juneau for my parents’ memorial services. At the time my youngest son was five. He wore a coonskin cap and carried a toy rifle wherever he went—even to bed. Having heard the heroic story of his great-grandmother’s rescue by shotgun, he wanted to find a toy replica in Juneau.

But the Juneau toy store owner told us she didn’t carry guns—not even cap guns. She couldn’t. “I would like to carry guns, but the parents in town would boycott my store. They’d drive me out of business.”

Our son was crushed. So we walked down the block to the bakery, hoping a doughnut would lift his spirits. When we walked into the bakery, a bunch of boys immediately gravitated to the kid with the coonskin cap and toy rifle. Happily, our son let them hold the rifle. He let them pet his hat. And his face beamed. But suddenly women began rushing forward, yanking the boys away.

I didn’t understand. Until one of the women stomped up to me and declared: “WE don’t play with guns!”

I wanted to shoot her.

That afternoon, we went back to the house where we were staying. Our host was a dear old family friend who had lived in Juneau for eighty-five years. Born and raised in Alaska, and a die-hard Democrat, he was instrumental in drafting the state Constitution, and later served as a highly respected judge. He was also a WWII veteran, having served with the 10th Mountain Division. When he saw my son’s interest in weaponry, he brought out his old Army .45. What a thrill!

Alaska MountainsBut somebody in the room wasn’t happy. She was, in fact, head of Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game. Though she didn’t grow up in Alaska, she was now in charge of telling Alaskans how to manage their living natural resources. And here’s what she told us: We were encouraging “violence” by encouraging our son’s appreciation of this historic weapon. (Never mind how she glared at the toy rifle.)

Back when Hootchinoo and Hotcakes got banned, the Outsiders came north in droves to work on the oil rigs. But just as many came to Alaska as environmentalists and lawyers and “activists” of various stripes. As a girl growing up, it seemed like an exciting time. The Alaska Pipeline was going to change everything—there were even rumors we would get TV reception.

But I can still remember the day in August, 1974, when I begged my dad to buy me a sweatshirt that showed a picture of the Pipeline. My dad refused. He refused to buy anything heralding the Pipeline. And not because of the oil.

A lifelong Alaskan—District Attorney during Alaska’s territorial days and later a Justice on the Alaska Supreme Court—my dad hated what was happening to his state. Not the jobs. Not the revenue. Those were good, he said.

“But the do-gooders,” he said. “They’re coming. These are the people who know what’s good for you—better than you know yourself. And they always pave the road to hell. Someday you’ll understand.”

At the time, I thought he was wrong. I wanted the sweatshirt. And the Outsiders seemed like very nice people. They just wanted to make things better; they just wanted Alaska to be more like the other states.

What was wrong with that?

There’s a significant rite of passage, and it comes when you realize your parents were right.

The day after these incidents with the toy rifle, I scattered my dad’s ashes in Juneau. My gun-toting five-year-old stood by my side.

I told my dad he was right.

And then I told him goodbye.


  1. alaskan says:

    Unfortunately, this is true. Anchorage has become Los Anchorage

    1. Yes, it was coming even in the 1980s and 1990s. Always hoped something would stem that tide. And still hoping!
      Thanks for leaving your comment.

  2. Win Gruening says:

    Sibella, this was a wonderfully written piece. Having known your parents and you as a young girl made it all the more entertaining.

    1. Win! How wonderful to hear from you! Thank you for your kind words.

      Just this week I was telling my sons about Ernest and Dorothy—all that Ernest and Dorothy did for Alaska, and for these guys’ grandparents, particularly their grandmother.

      Please send me an email. I’d love to hear what all the Gruenings are up to these days.

      Thanks for your note.

  3. Volker J Hruby says:

    Thank you for sharing this with us. It’s always the “Outsiders” that want to change things. I have been in Alaska since December 1959 and I too have seen many changes – most of them not good.

    1. Volker, you’re right. The changes since ’59 are enormous, and not all good for the state or for Alaskans. Thanks for your note.

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