Each year, more than 800 students from Alaska compete with middle and high school students from around the world in National History Day® (NHD). Working individually or in teams, they bring history to life as writers, filmmakers, web designers, playwrights, and artists. The Alaska Humanities Forum serves as the state coordinator for Alaska History Day, collaborating with statewide partner agencies, teachers, and volunteer judges to hold local and statewide contests from which students advance to participate in the June National History Day contest in the Washington, DC area.
This year’s NHD theme was Triumph & Tragedy in History, and 30 students from Alaska have qualified to participate at the national level. One of these is Anna Laird of Cordova, who wrote a paper that garnered first place in the Senior Division. Her topic: “The Fisherman’s Blockade: Turning the Tide of the Exxon Valdez Tragedy.”
Tell us a little about yourself - where you live, where do you go to school?
I grew up abroad, living on my parent’s charter boat in Argentina and the Antarctic. We took the boat up to Alaska when I was eleven, and we have been based out of Cordova, Alaska ever since. I have been homeschooled for all my school - the only time I go into a school building is for SATs and the like. Cordova is a fishing town with about two thousand people, maybe a few less in the winter. I have lived here for almost half my life. In the summer I work on my parents’ boat. I like to paint, write, and go sailing and hiking.
What is your History Day project and how did you come up with your topic?
I did a History Day project the previous year, so I had been on the lookout for something to write about. It was actually because I was taking environmental science this year, and my textbook mentioned the Exxon Valdez oil spill. I had heard about the spill since I first came to Cordova, and there had been some events on the 25th anniversary, but this was the first time that I had realized that it was an event of national concern.
After I began my research - visiting the museum, reading books, chatting to people around town - I began to realize what an enormous subject the oil spill was. I also learned about the various ways the Cordova community had resisted Exxon, something that seemed somewhat excluded from the way the event was told in national stories. I decided to pinpoint the blockade of Valdez Narrows for my essay, because it was the culmination of this resistance.
Are you going to National History Day in DC?
Yes! Although the logistics are quite complicated, as my family will be working at the time. I am hoping to visit some colleges as part of the trip.
What are you most excited about seeing and/or doing?
I think it will be fascinating to see the other projects and get to talk to some other people who are interested in history. I’m also looking forward to meeting people from around the country, and to see a new part of the states. If I get the chance I would love to see a bit of Washington DC and perhaps visit some museums.
Is there something that arose during your research that surprised you or was particularly fascinating?
The story as a whole was fascinating to discover. The way the bits and pieces of information came together, like a newspaper article about the failed salmon run, or a piece of legislation that was never passed. The way the tensions within the fishing community began to escalate over the summer, and the spontaneous nature of the blockade itself.
What were your challenges in completing the project?
I had to work in quite a tight time frame, because we traveled over Christmas and I didn’t have access to the Cordova library and museum. Another thing I was a bit nervous about was going out and speaking to people around town about the event, but it turned out to be a pleasure rather than a challenge. Everyone was very lovely about helping, from the museum staff who let me look through their records to the people I did interviews with. Other people gave me books and videos to look at.
What’s next for you?
Well, I hope to do another history project next year, although I am not sure what form it will take. This project really made me fall in love with research, and it got me thinking a little bit about possible college majors- although nothing is certain yet! One thing I am interested in is the Aleutians war. I have spent some time in the Aleutians and have seen old military bunkers, sunken ships and crashed panes from the war. I think it would be a fascinating topic to explore.