This morning, when I arranged my day according to my Franklin-Covey planner, I saw that today is the anniversary of Michelle and my move to Alaska. The surprise came when I realized that Michelle has been an Alaskan for 20 years now.
Twenty years of life in Alaska means much, or little, depending on one’s point of view. For some small n natives (those born here) like me, and multi-generational Alaskans, 20 years residence may barely move one beyond “new comer” status. On the other hand, we are a transitional state (if you will) one that sees a lot of change in its population.
A few years ago a friend and I reflected on Michelle’s and my 14 years residence in Juneau. I’d begun to feel settled in, but by no means an old timer. When we compared that time to many of the people we’d known there, though, we began to see that most of the people we knew there no longer lived there. Many people that I had considered long time residents actually moved there well after we arrived.
When I was a kid, the term “cheechako” was very popular in Alaska. I think it’s a word from the Chinook trading language commonly used on the west coast in pioneer days, meaning “new comer” in some sense. In the gold rush era, this term was enthusiastically applied to anyone who arrived after the one using the term, usually a crusty “sourdough” who had been in country all of one winter. There used to be an elaborate set of qualifications to raise a Cheechako to Sourdough status, none of which I remember anymore, but it used to be vital information on the playground. We used the term as an insult most of the time. Directed at the right person with the right amount of scorn, it was a potent put down. For that reason, and in the name of familial harmony, I never used the term to describe Michelle.
I may perhaps be forgiven, though, for viewing her as a new comer, as chief instigator of her emmigration to Alaska. But 20 years is long enough that I should stop thinking of her as newly arrived. She has certainly assimilated. If it weren’t for her childhood stories of life in the lower 48, it would be hard to tell her from someone who was born and raised here.
I’m sorry to post this so late in the day. The salmon have finally begun jumping in Lynn Canal, and I’ve dedicated my morning to catching a fish for a dinner to celebrate my Alaskan bride’s 20th year in her new home state. No luck this tide, perhaps this evening.