history / Stones & Bones / volume 10 number 7, July 2008
THE LONG VIEW
By now the story of Reinhard Neuhauser is well known. The University of Alaska Anchorage graduate, local ski instructor, and six-year Alaska resident was returning from his native Austria in January to accept a position with the Fairbanks Economic Development Corporation when immigration officials detained him in Seattle. After being informed he was holding the wrong type of visa—a mistake for which the US consulate in Vienna is apparently responsible—Neuhauser was interrogated, strip searched, jailed overnight (where he was not allowed to sleep for more than a few minutes), and put back on a plane for Austria at his own expense. It is uncertain whether he will ever be allowed back in the US—assuming he even wants to return.
This type of Kafkaesque treatment of foreign-born Alaska residents might sound like only a post-9/11 phenomenon. Sadly, it’s not.
In the fall of 1941, Otto Geist was preparing to travel to New York. As he did most years, the archaeologist had spent the spring and summer traveling all over northern Alaska collecting Pleistocene-era fossils, mostly mammoth and bison bones, which he now intended to deliver to museums and laboratories on the East Coast. Despite having almost no formal academic training, Geist had established himself as a pioneer of Alaska archaeology and palaeontology. He initiated ethnographic studies of Alaska Native cultures and amassed an unrivaled collection of Native artifacts and natural history specimens—accomplishments for which he would one day be awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Alaska.
But in late 1941 he was just a German-born immigrant who had the misfortune of planning a trip Outside the same week the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
People were jittery as they wondered whether Japan would bomb Alaska next. Towns along the coast went under blackouts. It was not uncommon to see men with guns cruising the streets of Anchorage late at night.
As told by journalist Charles Keim in Aghvook, White Eskimo, it was in this atmosphere of fear that suspicions grew about the true nature of Geist’s trip. While in Anchorage for a few days waiting for a train, Geist stayed with friends and kept a low profile. In Seward he boarded a steamer along with another German who had been on a hunting trip in Alaska. The ship was stopped repeatedly by patrols looking for aliens, but, amazingly, both men managed to reach Seattle unmolested.
On his return trip in the spring of 1942, Geist was detained in Seattle for three hours while officials examined his papers. Only when prominent Alaska officials traveling on the same steamer vouched for him was Geist allowed to travel. Back in Fairbanks, an army officer ran into Geist and, stunned to see the suspected double-agent in the flesh, blurted out, “We had orders to stop you. We heard that you were trying to take a great many maps out of Alaska.”
Geist had put up with such nonsense before. In 1918 he was a naturalized citizen serving in the US Army when his commanding officer learned he’d been in the German infantry as a teenager a decade earlier. Not only was Geist stripped of the rank of sergeant, but soldiers in his company were dispatched to keep 24-hour watch on the man suddenly suspected of being a spy. At the time, Geist was caring for soldiers dying in the influenza epidemic—a duty one could hardly characterize as a potential intelligence breach—and his guards privately apologized for their xenophobic officer.
Geist and Neuhauser are alike in another respect: Their treatment is all the more galling when one considers their many selfless contributions to Alaska. Neuhauser volunteered as a ski instructor in Fairbanks, once bringing a group of local kids to Austria for an alpine skiing camp. As one close friend put it, “He has done more for Alaska in six years than most have probably done in a lifetime.”
By the same token, Geist’s record of public service in Alaska is beyond stellar. During the Second World War, Geist helped organize the Alaska Territorial Guard, which enlisted and trained thousands of Alaska Natives as a reconnaissance force and first line of defense against a possible Japanese invasion. ATG officials wanted leaders who understood and had the respect of Natives. Geist was the perfect choice.
Though the ATG was never called upon for much more than marksmanship training, it left a remarkable legacy. This was essentially the first time that Washington and Juneau engaged Alaska Natives in an official, non-paternalistic capacity. No one showed up in the villages to proselytize or send the children off to boarding schools. Instead the military came to distribute rifles and ask the Natives for help in defending Alaska.
One can hardly gauge the lasting impact of this simple action. By treating the men as equals, Geist and the ATG created a territory-wide social and political structure that empowered Natives for decades afterward. Historians cite the ATG as a key factor in both the later political emergence of Alaska Natives and the land claims movement.
Now imagine how history might be different had Geist been kicked out of Alaska by any of the suspicious, small-minded men who suspected him of stealing maps.
One has to wonder what Neuhauser might have achieved for Alaska had we given him the chance.