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Chronicle of Higher Education - Technology, November 17, 2000

A Web Site's Tales of the North Aim to Help

Alaskans Understand One Another


Ronald Spatz says that Alaskans know better than most people what it feels like to be separated from the modern world -- and from each other. People from dozens of cultures, speaking as many languages, live in the largest state, much of which has never been traversed by roads or rails.

"People talk about the 'digital divide,'" says Mr. Spatz, a professor of creative writing at the University of Alaska at Anchorage, and the founding editor of the Alaska Quarterly Review. "We've got a digital divide -- and a cultural divide, and a geographic divide. Name the divide, and we've got it," according to Mr. Spatz.

But Mr. Spatz says he believes that a Web site dedicated to stories about Alaskan culture and people can help bridge some of those gaps. Mr. Spatz also hopes that his project, LitSite Alaska, will be a reading and writing tool for students in elementary, middle, and high school.

The Web site, which was unveiled just last month, was started with a $13,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and is supported by the university (

"Unless you've lived here, I don't think that you can understand the magnitude of living in Alaska," Mr. Spatz says. "It's not just the space or the fact that there are no roads or railroads in some areas. There are 20 language groups in Alaska in terms of Alaskan native cultures. And then there are other groups from different heritages."

Mr. Spatz says, "I thought we could really use the Internet in Alaska to put together a Web magazine that builds windows into people's lives, through narrative. If we can tell people stories, we can build an amazing resource."

"To me, telling people's stories and thinking about them is a way to shape self, to do something to find an identity for a place," he says.

The site features a number of folk stories, articles, and first-person accounts. Most of them are short, merely attempting to capture a snapshot of unusual fixtures of Alaskan culture. Nearly all of the works displayed on the site focus on themes of education, literacy, and storytelling.

One article, about the "shopping cart ladies," features two women who read supermarket-ad fliers on a public-radio station as a service to the blind. There are informational features about Native Alaskan community centers and newspapers. There also is a personal account by Sophie Prosser, a 76-year-old woman who, as a teenager, went on a hunger strike to persuade her parents to let her leave their tiny village to go to Anchorage, where she could get a high-school education. Alexandra J. McClanahan, a former journalist who is now an advocate for Native Alaskans, interviewed Ms. Prosser and edited her story. She is excited about LitSite's potential.

"Even if you could afford to go to a tiny, remote village, say Point Hope, Alaska, what are you going to do to connect with people there? Are you just going to drop into the community? It's difficult for the people in Anchorage to understand what the rural people are facing, and it's even difficult for the rural people to understand Anchorage," she says.

Ms. McClanahan brings up a continuing political battle as an example: Rural people, and many Native Alaskans, have been trying to secure a "subsistence preference" that gives them first hunting or fishing rights if there is a shortage of animal resources. The issue has been divisive, she says. "I think that if you lived in Anchorage and you were on the fence about the issue, you could access [LitSite] and learn about what rural people face -- about the fact that they don't have a grocery store," she says. "It might make a difference in how you felt about the issue. I'm not saying that LitSite will solve all these problems, but it could be a very important piece for getting people to communicate with each other," Ms. McClanahan says.

Some of the site's vignettes simply capture a romantic side of the solitary Alaskan life. Mr. Spatz got one such piece from Toby J. Sullivan, who recently returned to the university as a creative-writing student after working as a commercial fisherman for 20 years. In his essay, "Read Another One!," Mr. Sullivan recalls sitting in a cabin with his crew after a long day on the water and listening to distant neighbors chatting on their shortwave radios. Late at night, after the conversations died down, Mr. Sullivan and his crew members began reading poems by Robert Service and William Butler Yeats over the airwaves.

"We would pause for long minutes between readings, and at first there were only calls for more, but after a while when we stopped other voices in other cabins came out of the darkness, reading poems from books they had pulled down off their own fishcamp bookshelves," Mr. Sullivan writes.

"People began reading amazing things -- poems, passages from novels, lyrics from songs right off the backs of the cassette tape boxes, even the manifesto-like statement of quality from a case of beer."

Mr. Sullivan met Mr. Spatz at the university. "I told Ron the story, and he thought it would be the kind of thing that he would want for the site," Mr. Sullivan says. "So I went home and wrote it down, and he put it up there."

Like most of the writers who contribute to LitSite, Mr. Sullivan didn't get paid for the work. As part of the literacy mission of the project, the site also features online workbooks with lists of reading and writing exercises. And there are stories from Alaska parents, discussing how they teach their children to read.

Although the Web site is a 21st-century idea, it's being pitched to an Alaska that's partly premodern. Some of the state's villages are accessible only by airplane or boat -- in these areas, there certainly aren't wires connecting villagers to the rest of the world. Although many far-flung Alaskan villages import the world's media via satellite dishes, using that technology for the Internet can be expensive and unreliable.

So Mr. Spatz has come up with a way for LitSite to overcome Alaska's peculiar technological limits. Each year, a version of the Web site will be downloaded to CD-ROM's, which will be distributed to every library and school in the state. "This gives people immediate access," he says. "In some areas, there may be only one phone line or one connection."

Mr. Spatz says he would like to see individual LitSite chapters spring up at schools in villages across the state, each producing works that convey the character of a particular place.

LitSite is sponsoring a "post-card contest" as one of its continuing projects: Twice each year, the site will post the best submissions describing a favorite Alaskan place in no more than 100 words. Winners of LitSite's contest will receive a small, literature-oriented prize, such as a book or a bookstore gift certificate.

Features such as the post-card contest -- which promote literacy while conveying a sense of place or culture -- have earned the enthusiastic support of E. Lee Gorsuch, chancellor of the University of Alaska at Anchorage. "I think the real power of the project is that those aspects naturally blend," Mr. Gorsuch says. "It's powerful when you see fourth-grade students trying to give voice to their traditions."

LitSite's potential to offer accounts from distant places in Alaska could "create enormous appreciation for the different cultures out there," he says. "When the sun goes down in Barrow" -- the state's northernmost point -- "and doesn't come up for months, that's a new experience to people in the lower latitudes." Section: Information Technology Page: A62

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