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EDITORIAL: How do you define who's an Alaskan?

Mar. 9—"Alaska calls to those who crave solitude and adventure, and have a deep respect for nature's power." — John McPhee, "Coming into the Country"

In deciding a court case about a Legislature seat, the Alaska Supreme Court waded into one of the most contentious debates in our state: How do you define "Alaskan" — and how long does it take to qualify?

In the lawsuit, the court ruled that Rep. Jennie Armstrong qualified as an Alaska resident for the purposes of her candidacy for the Legislature in 2022, if only barely. Alaska law states that candidates must have been residents of Alaska for three years and must have lived in the district they seek to represent for a year prior to filing. Armstrong met that bar by a matter of days, having come to visit in 2019 and making plans to return permanently after traveling Outside to move her belongings.

The squishiness of the residency requirement points to the difficulty of defining intent — and nods to deeper, potentially insoluble questions: What makes a person an Alaskan? Is it a matter of time spent here? Is it a state of mind? Is there a physical or psychological entrance exam, so to speak?

Even when looking only at the state's legal residency definitions that most of us agree are woefully insufficient in defining whether a person is an Alaskan, there's a surprising amount of variability. The requirement of three years in Alaska to run for the Legislature is on the long end, even if (as the state Supreme Court found) it permits for trips Outside to tie up the loose ends of the incorrect lives that prospective Alaskans formerly maintained. When it comes to that other famous marker of Alaskan-ness, the Permanent Fund dividend, the residency requirement is a calendar year in the state before filing your first application; woe betide those who arrive here on Jan. 2.

Other residency definitions get progressively looser. The Department of Fish and Game requires Alaskans to have lived here for 12 consecutive months — a year, though not necessarily a calendar one — before they can purchase a resident hunting, fishing and/or trapping license. When it comes to resident tuition at the University of Alaska, a year in the state will qualify you — but there are a number of shortcuts allowed too, such as being an active military member, spouse or dependent. And the bar for getting an Alaska driver's license is perhaps the lowest of any of the government residency markers — an Alaska mailing address, as established by paperwork such as a utility bill.

In defining what makes a person an Alaskan, however, the conversation often steers away from some precise duration of residency and toward a host of subjective and sometimes intangible metrics. Some people say you have to live here for a winter (or 10 of them) before you're an Alaskan, so that you prove you can stick it out. Some people say you have to live outside Anchorage, or Fairbanks, or even off the road system altogether. Some people say you have to see 20 below, or 40 below (the days of colder standards are fleeting, though they do still come around occasionally).

And there's something more, too. Most of us know people who have been in Alaska for a long time — in some cases, their whole lives — and never do anything particularly Alaskan. On the flip side, there are people who are Alaskans in their temperament, interests and sense of place from the day they arrive. It's worth betting that there are Alaskans out there who never actually make it here — theirs is the saddest lot, never knowing that their place in the world exists and they just haven't found it yet.

Even though what makes a person a "real Alaskan" isn't strongly correlated with the duration of their habitation, Alaskans have a decided tendency to "pull rank" by introducing their opinions with a preamble: "I've been here for 35 years," "I came up before the pipeline," "I'm a fourth-generation Alaskan," and so forth. We would probably all be wise to stay humble when it comes to that kind of imagined credibility, given that Alaska's Native people have all of us new arrivals beat by hundreds — even thousands — of generations. When you consider that some of the state's people have been here since prehistoric times, the braggadocio over having once stood in front of a bank sign at 40 below seems pretty silly. Who among us could credibly claim to be able to make our way without electricity, imported food or even forged-metal hand tools?

So when it comes to what constitutes a real Alaskan, perhaps a better set of criteria is needed: Does a person respect the land and all we get from it? Do they work to keep this a place where their children and grandchildren can grow up and experience the same ineffable wonder as those who came before them? Will they stop to help a neighbor in distress when it's cold out?

The answers to those questions might not be as easy to determine as the date a person stepped off the plane onto Alaska soil for the first time, so they'll never be used as a yardstick for whether someone can run for the Legislature. But imagine the kind of representatives we would have if they were.