Through Chugiak lecture series, Eagle River professor brings history to life

Monday, May 1, 2017 - 14:32
  • Star photo by Kirsten Swann Dr. Katie Ringsmuth, a University of Alaska historian, poses for a photo in Eagle River March 2017. Tundra Vision, Ringsmuth’s public history consulting venture, organizes popular lecture series in Anchorage and Chugiak-Eagle River.
  • Courtesy photo David Ramseur, a visiting scholar of public policy at the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Institute for Social and Economic Research, is set to give a free public lecture at Chugiak High School April 13 at 6:30 p.m. The presentation is part the ongoing Knik Lecture Series.

From her home on the hillside above Eagle River, Dr. Katie Ringsmuth looks out over Cook Inlet and thinks about Russian trading posts and Dena’ina bidarkas and the rich, abundant history of the land known as the Last Frontier.

While others see it as the end of the road, Ringsmuth sees Alaska as a leader at the crossroads – a cultural, economic and environmental bridge that has connected the globe for centuries. But so much of Alaska’s history remains unexplored. As an adjunct professor at the University of Alaska, Ringsmuth sees that firsthand.

“We know so little about our history, and yet I can’t fill classes,” she said. “So that’s where Tundra Vision started. I just felt compelled to find out: Have we lost that connection to our history?”

Through Tundra Vision, a small public history consulting firm, Ringsmuth has organized a series of lectures covering a diverse slice of Alaska heritage. The ongoing Knik Lecture Series presents the history of Knik Arm communities alongside current issues facing the region.

An April 13 event at Chugiak High School is set to feature David Ramseur, a visiting scholar of public policy at the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Institute for Social and Economic Research. The topic? The complex, evolving relationship between Alaska and Russia. The presentation, part of a statewide celebration commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Alaska Purchase, begins at 6:30 p.m. and includes refreshments, a dance performance and an introduction by Mat-Su College Director Talis Colberg.

In February, attendees gathered in the Chugiak High School auditorium for a mock trial and presentation by members of the Anchorage and Mat-Su Borough Youth Courts. An introduction by UAA Professor Emeritus Steve Haycox provided historical context. Lectures at other locations around Anchorage cover a range of other topics

For Ringsmuth, the public events are all about building connections – to the past, the present and the ever-changing places around her.

A child of the Pacific Northwest, she spent her summers in Bristol Bay, where her father worked for the Alaska Packers Association at a South Naknek cannery, “a place where you could hear maybe 15 different languages on the docks,” Ringsmuth said.

It sparked her curiosity about the many cultural, economic and historic forces at work in Alaska. Years later, after a breakup down south and a move back north, Ringsmuth settled into a completely different part of the state, studying to complete her Master’s degree through the Northern Studies program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

While working for the National Park Service, she completed her dissertation, a historic resource study of Aniakchak National Monument and Reserve. An ancient volcanic caldera, the remote mountain’s explosive past reshaped the Alaska Peninsula. Ringsmuth entered the project with trepidation.

“I was really worried that I’d have nothing to talk about, and I ended up writing a 300-page book called ‘Beyond the Moon Crater Myth,’” she said, laughing. “And that’s kind of my whole point with these lectures – you just have to start. We are just scratching the surface in Alaska history.”

Through her years of studying and teaching, she’s explored the colorful pasts of Bristol Bay, Katmai National Park and Preserve and places beyond and between. She’s authored multiple history books and conducted deep original research.

People call Alaska the Last Frontier; a place far removed from the Outside. But Ringsmuth looks at it as a “multi-ethnic, multicultural, multiregional and multi-historical” place, connecting the circumpolar north in specific, vital ways. She sees Alaska at the forefront.

That’s the message she hopes to pass to her audiences, through lectures and conversations in Anchorage libraries, university classrooms and the Chugiak High School auditorium.

“I think that’s really important, especially instilling in our students that we are leaders,” she said. “We’re not an outpost of something – we are leaders.”

Contact reporter Kirsten Swann at [email protected]

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