Sunday, July 4, 2021

Finis Dunaway's "Defending the Arctic Refuge"

Finis Dunaway is professor of history at Trent University, where he teaches U.S. history, environmental studies, and media studies. His books include Natural Visions: The Power of Images in American Environmental Reform and Seeing Green: The Use and Abuse of American Environmental Images. Seeing Green received the John G. Cawelti Award from the American Culture Association/Popular Culture Association and the History Division Book Award from the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.

Dunaway applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Defending the Arctic Refuge: A Photographer, an Indigenous Nation, and a Fight for Environmental Justice, and reported the following:
A casual browser opening to page 99 might be surprised by what they find. The page begins with a description of photographs taken by Lenny Kohm, the book’s main protagonist, outside of Old Crow, Yukon. But these images do not depict vast mountains or other conventional scenes of sublime wilderness. Instead, Kohm documented a caribou hunt, including shots of a man toting a rifle and then skinning and butchering a carcass.

Later in the page, the reader will encounter the words of Randall Tetlichi, a citizen of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, whom Kohm interviewed in Old Crow in 1988. “That’s our survival,” Tetlichi said to him. “If there’s no caribou, we’re going to have a hard time up here. And I hope people from the South listen to us and try to get the picture that we talk about.”

Page 99 introduces readers to key themes that run throughout Defending the Arctic Refuge. Kohm’s photographs and Tetlichi’s words reveal how the debate over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—one of the most contested lands in all of North America—has always been about more than wilderness versus oil. From visiting Gwich’in communities in Alaska and Canada, Kohm learned to see fossil fuel development as a form of colonial violence that jeopardized the food security and cultural survival of Arctic Indigenous peoples. The page also indicates the close relationships Kohm built with Gwich’in communities—and how these bonds shaped the Arctic Refuge struggle.

As on page 99, Defending the Arctic Refuge places Kohm—an unlikely activist—at the center of the narrative. A former jazz drummer and aspiring photographer, Kohm experienced an epiphany in the Arctic in 1987. He soon became an anti-drilling activist, using his photographs as part of a multimedia slide show called The Last Great Wilderness. For the next two decades, Kohm presented the show to grassroots audiences across the United States, often joined by Gwich’in representatives from Canada and Alaska. Together, Kohm’s photographs and Gwich’in voices helped turn a traditional wilderness battle into something else entirely: a transnational struggle for Indigenous rights and environmental justice.

Page 99 plunges the reader into the micro-history of Kohm’s transformative experience in Gwich’in country, but it does not summon the broader scales of analysis found elsewhere in the book. Other chapters consider the Arctic Refuge fight in light of longer histories of Indigenous resistance to colonial mega-projects; of the work of other photographers and filmmakers who mobilized opposition to Arctic drilling; and of the power struggles and changing political dynamics in Washington, DC.

Defending the Arctic Refuge is a story of the grassroots taking on Goliath, of a slide show galvanizing the citizenry, of unlikely, cross-cultural alliances forming across vast distances. The book shows how countless people across the continent—including Indigenous leaders, environmental activists, scientists, students, churchgoers, and many others—made this history. If not for their actions, the Arctic Refuge would have long ago been turned into an industrialized oil field.
Visit the companion website to Defending the Arctic Refuge.

Follow Finis Dunaway on Twitter.

--Marshal Zeringue