Are you a chechako, a sourdough, or a tourist, or somewhere in between?

As I met people in Alaska, a question I would often was ask was, how long have you lived in Alaska?  This seems like a straightforward question to me and yet the answers I got surprised me.

“I’ve been here five years.”

Spoken with some hesitation, “I’m still and a chechako and I’m not sure if I can make it through my first winter, but I’m going to try.”

“17 winters.”

“I’m a sourdough,” said with pride.

Or simply, “I was born here.”

“I’m Yupik”

It turns out there is a hierarchal system for just how Alaskan you are.  The people who answered I’ve been here X number of years, most likely only spend summers in Alaska.  They tend to be ranked lowest on the totem pole, no matter how many years they have lived in Alaska.

The next step up are Chechako, which is the native word for newcomer and it’s still used today.  While I’m sure back in the day, you were a chechako for many years, but today it is used mostly by people who are still working on their first or second calendar year.

If you live there year round you count your time by the numbers of winters you have survived.  Once you reach 20 winters, you are considered a sourdough.  It seemed to be a source of pride with everyone who claimed this status.  I saw countless restaurants, stores, and gas stations with sourdough in the name.  While this may be a badge of honor today, years ago it was just the opposite.  We heard several stories on how the term sourdough came about, but they all had the same basic theme running through them.  The miners came to Alaska to earn a living.  But as almost of them arrived having to work off the debt for their passage to Alaska along with their room and board, they were never able to dig their way out of the hole.  Thus, they had soured on Alaska, but didn’t have the dough to leave. sourdough 1 sourdough 2

Very few people I met were born in Alaska.  Those that were almost all seemed to be young.  This could be in part because the tourist season and summer vacation coincide and working in restaurants, stores, or as tour guides make good summer jobs for high school students.

At the top of the totem pole are the native tribes.  Since this is the elite Alaskan sub-group, it would be appropriate that I met a genuine princess of a native tribe!

native tribe 1 native tribe 2

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