Heritage

The Fascinating Story of the First Filipinos in Alaska

The Filipino community dates back to over 200 years.
IMAGE WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
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Many history books have focused on the Philippines and its ties to many places. As resourceful and as resilient as we are, Filipinos have survived in the farthest corners of the world. Surprisingly that includes Alaska where one of the earliest Filipino settlements is found. Alaska's Filipino community dates back to over 200 years ago, and today, it's one of the largest Asian American subgroups in the state.

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It's believed the first Filipino arrived in Alaska in 1788 as a crew member in a merchant ship. The galleon, named Iphigenia Nubiana, had traveled long and far to barter sea otter furs. Though no proof has been found of a Manila man on that ship, a year later, more Filipinos were present when two American trading ships made a pit stop in Manila on its way to Alaska. This time around, about 29 Filipinos were on board to make history.

From the 1600s to the 1800s, a number of Filipinos settled in the cold state. Many married local women of the Eskimo, Aleut, and Tlingit tribes and took on work in various industries, with a large portion thriving in fisheries. In Thelma Buchholdt's book Filipinos in Alaska, she even writes of an instance when Tlingit people singled out a Manila man for his appearance and thought he was a part of their tribe. They even went as far as begging him to stay, thinking he was enslaved by Spaniards.

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An early stream seine netter.
Photo by WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.

In the 1900s, when U.S. colonization was at its full force, Filipinos made their way to America and landed in Alaska, calling themselves Alaskeros. Buchholdt describes how Caucasian workers were housed in heated compounds, which were a luxury compared to the cramp and cold conditions the Filipinos had to live with. Along with the squalid living conditions, the Alaskeros worked the more difficult tasks in the canneries. They loaded and unloaded trucks, as well as sorted, gutted, cleaned, and packed the salmon. The whites, on the other hand, were in charge of maintenance and operations.

The Alaskeros worked in salmon canneries during the summer and traveled to the west to work on farms during the offseason. These men were essentially the first Filipino overseas workers. In 1933, these men founded the first Filipino-led union called the Cannery Workers’ and Farm Labors’ Union Local 18257. With a motto of "Unity is Strength," these Alaskeros worked toward a just system after noticing they were only hired for the least desirable jobs.

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Filipino worker's quarters at a salmon cannery in Nushagak, Alaska.
Photo by WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.

Even so, Filipinos were a lot luckier in Alaska than in other parts of America. They faced a lot less discrimination in the area due to the early Asian settlements. And in the early 1900s, the Filipino Community was formed in Juneau. Today, the community still exists with this objective: "To foster better and harmonious relationships, understanding, and brotherhood among ourselves and with other ethnic groups, and to keep alive our Filipino heritage, culture, customs, and traditions."

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As the largest Asian group in Alaska, there are more than 30,000 Filipinos in the cold state. And many still continue to migrate there. Today, there are a number of notable Filipinos who migrated to Alaska, including the organizer of the first Filipino union Virgil Duyungan, politician Thelma Buchholdt, novelist Carlos Bulosan, professor E.J.R. David, and more.

*This story originally appeared on Esquiremag.ph

*Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors

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Paolo Chua for Esquiremag.ph
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