The states of Alaska and Hawaii have two major attributes in common. They are the two most recent states. Alaska was admitted to the Union in January of 1959, Hawaii in August of that year. They are also the only two states that are not contiguous with the other 48. Otherwise, they are a study in contrast. Alaska is the northernmost state, Hawaii the southernmost. Alaska is the largest state in area, Hawaii, nearly the smallest. Alaska is famous for its cold winters, while Hawaii is a tropical paradise.
Alaska is situated in the extreme northwest portion of the North American continent jutting into the Pacific Ocean to its west and south, the Arctic Ocean to its north, and sharing a long border with Canada to its east. An island in its extreme west, Little Diomede, is only three miles from the Russian island of Big Diomede. Alaska’s coastline is the longest of any American state.
Despite its physical size (more than twice the size of the next largest state, Texas) Alaska has a population of just over 700,000, nearly half of whom live in or near the state’s largest city, Anchorage. About 15% of Alaska’s population consists of American Indians and Alaska Natives, while two-thirds of the population is white. The oil and gas industry accounts for about 80% of the economy of Alaska, with seafood taking up most of the rest. Alaska’s vast stretches of wild land also support a lively tourism industry. Standard images of Alaska include that of a grizzly bear catching salmon in a stream, a dog-sled race, Eskimos in kayaks, and vast stretches of snow-capped mountains.
The state of Hawaii takes up most of the Hawaiian Islands in the center of the Pacific Ocean, actually one of the most remote inhabited areas on the planet. Its eight major islands are Hawaii (the largest, called “the big island”), Maui, Oahu (the most populous, site of the capital, Honolulu), Kahoolawe, Lanai, Molokai, Kauai and Niihau. Ethnically, among American states, Hawaii has the lowest percentage of white Americans, barely a quarter of the population. The descendants of native Hawaiians and of Japanese, Filipino, Chinese and other Asian immigrants give Hawaii a unique ethnic flavor. Tourism is the state’s largest industry, followed by food production. Tropical Hawaii is the only US state to produce coffee and sugarcane, and is also well known for its pineapples and macadamia nuts.
Hawaii has a unique Polynesian culture. Cultural events, including dances and ritual feasts called luaus, vary widely in authenticity depending on how closely connected they are to the tourist industry. By the same token, Hawaii has a distinctive local food tradition, overlaid with a heavily tourist-oriented style of eating. See the Life In The USA section on Hawaiian Cuisine for an analysis of the real and not-so-real. Three quarters of the state’s population speaks English as the primary language at home. Most of the remainder speak the various Asian languages, with some Spanish speakers. Only a few thousand people speak the native Hawaiian language to any degree of fluency, although scholars and cultural associations strive to keep it alive. Standard images of Hawaii include female dancers undulating in grass skirts, pigs roasting on a spit during a luau on the beach, surfers, pineapple plantations, and the Pearl Harbor memorial site. (Actually, a true Hawaiian luau would probably prepare the pig in an underground pit, but this does not photograph very well.)
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