Alaska and Hawaii stand out from the other 48 contiguous US states for a number of historic and geographic reasons. If you’re looking for a quick answer, here’s the gist: Alaska and Hawaii are the most recently admitted states, having only become official US states in 1959. Their geographic isolation from the continental US also contributes to their unique histories and cultures.

In this comprehensive guide, we will dive deep into the factors that make Alaska and Hawaii constitutionally, culturally, economically, and geographically distinct from other states.

The History of Statehood in Alaska and Hawaii

Alaska and Hawaii have unique histories when it comes to their statehood in the United States. Let’s explore the fascinating journey these two states took to become part of the Union.

Alaska and Hawaii were the last states admitted to the union

Alaska and Hawaii hold the distinction of being the last two states to join the United States. Alaska officially became a state on January 3, 1959, while Hawaii followed shortly afterward on August 21, 1959. The long process leading to their statehood was marked by various challenges and debates.

For Alaska, it took almost a century from the time it was purchased from Russia in 1867 to becoming a state. The vastness of its territory, harsh climate, and lack of infrastructure posed significant obstacles. However, the discovery of valuable resources, such as gold and oil, played a crucial role in the push for statehood.

In the case of Hawaii, its journey to statehood was influenced by geopolitical factors. The strategic location of the islands in the Pacific made them valuable to the United States, particularly during World War II. The attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 highlighted the need for Hawaii’s inclusion as a state for national security reasons.

Native Hawaiian and Alaskan native cultures vs. Americanization

One of the key differences between Alaska, Hawaii, and the other US states lies in the preservation of their native cultures. Both Alaska and Hawaii have strong indigenous populations with rich cultural traditions.

In Alaska, Native Alaskan cultures, such as the Inuit, Yupik, and Athabascan people, have a deep connection to the land and have maintained their traditions for thousands of years. Similarly, Native Hawaiians have a distinct culture rooted in the Polynesian heritage, with hula dancing, lei-making, and the Hawaiian language playing significant roles in their identity.

While Americanization and modernization have influenced these states, there has been a conscious effort to preserve and celebrate their native cultures. This cultural diversity adds to the unique character of Alaska and Hawaii, setting them apart from the other US states.

Strategic importance led to statehood

The strategic importance of Alaska and Hawaii played a significant role in their journey to statehood. Alaska’s position as a gateway to the Arctic and its vast natural resources made it a valuable asset for the United States. Similarly, Hawaii’s location in the Pacific Ocean made it an important hub for military operations and trade.

The events of World War II further highlighted the necessity of including Alaska and Hawaii as full-fledged states. The attack on Pearl Harbor propelled Hawaii to the forefront of national security concerns, while the potential threats in the Arctic region emphasized the strategic value of Alaska.

Ultimately, the strategic interests of the United States, combined with the perseverance and unique cultural heritage of Alaska and Hawaii, led to their admittance as states. Today, they continue to be cherished for their natural beauty, cultural diversity, and historical significance.

Geographic Isolation from the Contiguous US

Alaska and Hawaii, the two non-contiguous states of the United States, are unique due to their geographic isolation from the rest of the country. Let’s explore why these states stand out.

Extreme distances from the continental US

Alaska, located in the far northwest of North America, is separated from the contiguous United States by thousands of miles of Canadian territory. This immense distance contributes to the sense of isolation experienced by Alaskans. The state’s remote location also means that transportation to and from Alaska can be challenging. Despite these challenges, Alaska’s vast and breathtaking landscapes attract adventurers and nature enthusiasts from around the world.

Hawaii, on the other hand, is located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, around 2,400 miles southwest of California. This archipelago is made up of a chain of volcanic islands, each with its own unique beauty and charm. The distance between Hawaii and the mainland US has resulted in a distinct culture and lifestyle that sets it apart from the rest of the country.

Distinct climates and natural environments

Alaska and Hawaii have drastically different climates and natural environments compared to the contiguous US. Alaska experiences long, cold winters and short, mild summers, while Hawaii enjoys a tropical climate with warm temperatures year-round. The unique climates of these states have shaped their landscapes, flora, and fauna.

Alaska is known for its vast wilderness, including stunning glaciers, towering mountains, and abundant wildlife. It is home to Denali, the highest peak in North America, and the famous Northern Lights. Hawaii, on the other hand, boasts beautiful beaches, lush rainforests, and active volcanoes. The islands are a haven for outdoor enthusiasts, offering opportunities for surfing, snorkeling, hiking, and more.

Self-sufficient economies

Due to their isolation, Alaska and Hawaii have developed self-sufficient economies that rely heavily on industries unique to each state.

Alaska’s economy is driven by its rich natural resources, including oil, gas, minerals, and fisheries. The state is a leading producer of seafood and plays a crucial role in meeting the United States’ energy needs. Tourism also contributes significantly to Alaska’s economy, with visitors flocking to experience its pristine wilderness and wildlife.

Hawaii, on the other hand, heavily relies on tourism, which is a major driver of the state’s economy. The islands’ beautiful beaches, cultural heritage, and warm climate attract millions of visitors each year. Agriculture, especially the cultivation of pineapples and sugarcane, used to be a significant industry in Hawaii but has declined over the years.

Cultural Differences from Mainland US

Native Hawaiian and Alaska Native influences

One of the key factors that sets Alaska and Hawaii apart from the other US states is the strong influence of Native Hawaiian and Alaska Native cultures. These indigenous communities have a rich history and unique traditions that have been preserved and celebrated over the years. In Alaska, for example, the Native Alaskan way of life revolves around subsistence hunting, fishing, and gathering, which has shaped their deep connection to the land and the environment. Similarly, in Hawaii, the Native Hawaiian culture emphasizes a strong connection to spirituality, nature, and the concept of aloha, which extends beyond a simple greeting to encompass love, peace, and harmony.

The Native Hawaiian and Alaska Native influences can be seen in various aspects of daily life, including language, art, music, dance, and cuisine. For example, both Alaska and Hawaii have their own distinct languages that are still spoken by some community members. Additionally, traditional arts and crafts, such as carving and weaving, are important cultural practices that have been passed down through generations.

Outdoor and seafaring lifestyles

Another major difference between Alaska, Hawaii, and the other US states is the outdoor and seafaring lifestyles that are deeply ingrained in the culture of these two states. In Alaska, the vast wilderness and rugged terrain provide opportunities for activities such as hiking, camping, fishing, and hunting. The state is also known for its world-class fishing and unique wildlife, including bears, moose, and whales.

In contrast, Hawaii’s location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean offers residents and visitors a paradise for water-based activities. Surfing, snorkeling, diving, and sailing are just a few of the popular water sports enjoyed by locals and tourists alike. The islands also boast stunning landscapes, from lush rainforests to active volcanoes, providing endless opportunities for exploration and adventure.

Diverse multicultural societies

Both Alaska and Hawaii are home to diverse multicultural societies that add to the richness and uniqueness of these states. In Alaska, you can find a mix of different cultures, including Native Alaskans, Russians, Asians, and Europeans, among others. This cultural diversity is reflected in the state’s cuisine, celebrations, and festivals.

In Hawaii, the population is a melting pot of different ethnicities, including Native Hawaiians, Asians (particularly Japanese and Filipino), Pacific Islanders, and mainland Americans. This diversity is celebrated through various cultural events, such as the Aloha Festivals and the Honolulu Festival, which showcase the traditions, music, dance, and food of different cultures that have shaped Hawaii over the centuries.

Special Legal Status and Governance

Alaska and Hawaii, despite being part of the United States, have special legal statuses and governance that set them apart from the other states. These unique characteristics contribute to their distinct cultures and ways of life.

Exemptions from certain federal laws

One significant difference is that Alaska and Hawaii have exemptions from certain federal laws that other states must adhere to. For example, Alaska is exempt from the Roadless Rule, which restricts road construction and timber harvesting in designated national forests. This exemption allows for more flexibility in resource management and economic development in Alaska’s vast wilderness areas.

Hawaii, on the other hand, has certain exemptions from federal immigration laws due to its unique geographic location and cultural ties to the Asia-Pacific region. This allows for more lenient immigration policies and a diverse population that includes many immigrants from Asian countries.

Unique state constitutions and laws

Both Alaska and Hawaii have their own state constitutions, which give them the power to enact laws and govern themselves within the framework of the U.S. Constitution. These state constitutions reflect the unique needs and priorities of each state.

For example, Alaska’s constitution includes a provision that requires the state to manage its natural resources for the maximum benefit of its residents. This has led to the establishment of the Alaska Permanent Fund, which distributes a portion of the state’s oil revenue to eligible residents as an annual dividend.

Hawaii’s constitution, on the other hand, recognizes the importance of native Hawaiian culture and provides for the protection and preservation of native Hawaiian rights and resources. This reflects the state’s commitment to honoring its indigenous heritage and fostering cultural diversity.

Native corporations in Alaska

One unique aspect of Alaska’s governance is the presence of native corporations. These corporations, established under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, are owned by Alaska Native shareholders and aim to promote economic development and self-sufficiency for Alaska Native communities.

Native corporations have played a crucial role in the economic growth of Alaska, particularly in industries such as oil and gas, mining, and tourism. They have created job opportunities, invested in infrastructure development, and contributed to the overall well-being of Alaska Native communities.

To learn more about Alaska’s native corporations, you can visit the official website of the Alaska Federation of Natives:

Economic Drivers in Alaska and Hawaii

Fishing and Maritime Industries

One of the major economic drivers in both Alaska and Hawaii is the fishing and maritime industries. Due to their unique geographical locations, these states have access to rich marine resources, which provide abundant opportunities for commercial fishing. Alaska, known as the “Last Frontier,” is home to some of the most productive fishing grounds in the world. The state’s fishing industry is known for its high-quality seafood, including salmon, halibut, and crab. Similarly, Hawaii’s fishing industry thrives on the diverse range of fish species found in its surrounding waters. The popularity of Hawaiian seafood, such as tuna and mahi-mahi, has made it a significant contributor to the state’s economy.

Military Spending and Bases

Another factor that sets Alaska and Hawaii apart from other U.S. states is the significant military presence and spending. Both states have strategically important locations that make them ideal for military bases. Alaska is home to several military bases, including Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and Eielson Air Force Base. These bases not only contribute to the local economy through employment opportunities but also drive the growth of related industries, such as defense contractors and support services. Similarly, Hawaii hosts several military installations, including Pearl Harbor, which have a significant impact on the state’s economy.


Tourism plays a vital role in the economies of both Alaska and Hawaii. While Alaska attracts tourists with its stunning natural landscapes, including glaciers, mountains, and wildlife, Hawaii entices visitors with its beautiful beaches, volcanoes, and unique culture. The tourism industry in Alaska provides opportunities for activities such as wildlife viewing, glacier tours, and outdoor adventures. In Hawaii, tourism revolves around beach activities, surfing, snorkeling, and exploring the islands’ rich cultural heritage. The revenue generated from tourism in both states supports local businesses, hotels, restaurants, and other tourism-related industries.


In summary, Alaska and Hawaii’s geographic isolation and late admissions to the union have allowed them to develop unique histories, cultures, economies, laws, and relationships to the federal government that set them apart from the Lower 48. While they may seem exotic and far-flung to most Americans, Alaska and Hawaii are very much part of our nation and continue to exemplify the diversity of the United States.

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