Christa Wallace, 53, an instructor at the University of Alaska Anchorage since 1989, presented an on-campus world civilization lecture then drove home.
Twenty minutes later she opened the door to her Chugiak residence for another history lesson with “The Echo.”
With a bachelor’s degree in history and foreign language and a master’s degree in Middle East and Far East studies, Wallace is more than well-informed.
The red-head, with a chin-length bob and pearl earrings, did not hesitate as she answered question after question. Wallace explained the McKinley/Denali naming controversy, told the story of how President Harding died shortly after the first-ever presidential visit to Alaska and discussed Russia’s dissatisfaction with that famous 1867 real estate deal.
Alaska’s unique history can be fun, but it can also be tragic.
“We didn’t bother to ask them,” Wallace said, referring to Alaska’s native people who have inhabited this land for 8-10,000 years.
On the first day of every course, Wallace outlines “the foundation of who existed here.” Students learn the traditions and history of each cultural group.
From that point on, Wallace tries to incorporate the native viewpoint with each topic.
“Every time we’re going through something it’s got both sides,” Wallace said.
For example, when Wallace teaches the Civil Rights movement, she describes what it was like in 1950’s and 60’s Alaska. “Natives Need Not Apply” was commonly displayed in store windows and in want ads.
Wallace described her teaching style as “a cross between story-telling and trivial pursuit.”
“I don’t test and I don’t quiz. I make them write,” she said.
Wallace focuses on argumentative questions which force students to form a personal opinion and “bring a good argument back.”
UAA graduates about eight history majors per year but all students must complete nine credit hours with a combination of history, social studies or geography.
Wallace is intent on educating more than just her students. When she hears a politician say something that is not historically accurate, she mails the officeholder textbooks and literature with highlighted passages.
Wallace’s two girls also get the teacher treatment. When Wallace votes, she brings her children into the booth.
Her daughters have been on the “Dead-End Tour,” a trailer trip across the state to villages located where the roads runs out.
“You’ve got to go see the great state,” Wallace said.
For a more local trip, she recommends Baldy in Eagle River.
“Go climb Baldy. See how straight the streets are,” she said.
From the mountain top, climbers can observe the streets of Anchorage laid out in a grid, the result of a city that was designed in 1915 by the Army Corps of Engineer. Sightseers can also spot the Nike missile silo in Artic Valley, a remnant of the Cold War.
Residents curious about local historical sites can contact the Chugiak-Eagle River Historical Society at www.cerhs.com. The site also offers virtual copies of the “Knick Arm Couriers,” a newspaper in operation from 1958 to 1973.
In her scant free time, Wallace is a Girl Scout leader, helps at the Eagle River Food Pantry once a week and is organizing volunteers for this year’s Alaska Scottish Highland Games.
At the end of the interview, Wallace’s youngest daughter, Ellen came downstairs in search of dinner. When asked if she planned to major in history, the fifteen-year-old shook her head.
“No,” she said decidedly. “I want to make history.”
Ellen plans to design a space shuttle that can travel to Mars.
“Honey, I would love to read about you in a history book,” Wallace said.
Author’s Note: Wallace is finishing her doctorate in cross-cultural studies at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Her dissertation studies the economic impact on native Alaska men who join the National Guard.
Wallace recommends the following books which she includes in her Alaska Studies curriculum.
- “Good Time Girls of the Alaska-Yukon Gold Rush” by Lael Morgan Rush
- “Interpreting Alaska’s History: An Anthology” edited by Mary Childers Mangusso and Stephen W. Haycox
- “The Klondike Fever: The Life and Death of the Last Great Gold Rush” by Pierre Berton
- “The Native People of Alaska” by Steve J. Langdon
- Wallace also suggests any Alaska photo history books by Stan Cohen.
Three topics that Wallace believes every Alaskan should research and understand: Alaska Permanent Fund (1976), ANSCA (1971) and the Molly Hootch.