What Does “Cheechako” Mean In Alaska?

Every state in America has its own list of words or terms that are only used in that state and Alaska is no exception.

One term that only exists in Alaska and you may not be familiar with is “Cheechako,” the opposite of the term “sourdough” that I recently wrote about.

What is a cheechako?

In contrast to a sourdough, someone who has lived in Alaska for a long time, a cheechako is a relative newcomer to Alaska.

Specifically, it refers to someone who is not well-versed in Alaska’s culture or our way of life and might not have a good understanding of how to survive a harsh winter up here.

It is sometimes used in a negative sense, akin to calling someone a rube, a ninny, or a Johnny-come-lately, but not always. Usually, you can tell by the tone of the person calling you one whether they mean it as an insult or not.

Where Does The Name Come From?

Cheechako, like many of the names for different types of salmon that I recently wrote about, comes from the language of the Chinook people of the Pacific Northwest.

It’s an English phonetic approximation of “cheechago,” which translates as “newcomer.” It is pronounced as chee-CHAW-ko.

How Do I Stop Being Called A Cheechako?

After a few years of living in Alaska, you’ll shed the title and become a full-fledged sourdough, although the exact amount of time it takes to do that depends on the person you’re asking.

The easiest way to avoid being called one is to blend in as best you can. You can tell a few stories about the state you came from now and again, don’t get me wrong.

Up in Alaska, we occasionally get people from the lower 48 who show up and start telling everyone at the bar how Alaska needs to be more like California, Texas, Washington, or whatever other state they used to live in.

This is peak cheechako behavior. Alaska is actually doing pretty great the way it is, no disrespect to wherever you used to live. By the way, if it was so great back there, why’d you move?

How Can I Avoid Being A Cheechako?

Unlike the opposite term sourdough, cheechako has less to do with how long you’ve been here and is more of a state of mind.

I don’t like speaking ill of the dead, so I’ll be as respectful as possible here. I’ve mentioned Christopher McCandless from the book-turned-film Into The Wild a few times before.

He was a cheechako. He was tired of society and thought he could survive a harsh Alaskan winter alone in an abandoned bus, despite not understanding how difficult it is or fully knowing what he was getting into. At the risk of spoiling the book or movie for you, he died.

That’s the real issue with cheechakos. It’s not that we hate newcomers or anything like that, we just don’t like people coming up here and getting seriously injured or killed because they didn’t understand what we consider the basics. Alaska can be a dangerous place and it happens far too often.

I hope this doesn’t put you off wanting to live in Alaska. It’s a very beautiful place and we’re always happy to have new people.

We only ask that you accept and respect our ways. They’ve worked for hundreds or even thousands of years. If you do that, you’ll be a sourdough in no time!

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