Defending the Arctic Refuge: Introducing a Public History Website

Many thanks to NiCHE for allowing us to reblog this blog post by Finis Dunaway, author of Defending the Arctic Refuge: A Photographer, an Indigenous Nation, and a Fight for Environmental Justice. You can explore the Defending the Arctic Refuge website here.

If I were to tell you that in the 1980s a group of amateur activists in California put together a low-budget slide show about the raging debate over Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, you’d be forgiven for wanting to ask, “how bad is it?” After all, they even called the show The Last Great Wilderness, suggesting that it would offer nothing more than simplistic framings of wild nature. At least that’s what I expected when I first saw it. But I was wrong.

I had been searching for the show for about a year, because Arctic Indigenous leaders, DC-based environmental advocates, and grassroots activists across North America had all told me that it had played an absolutely critical role in the fight to keep oil drills out of the Arctic Refuge. Having written about the power of iconic images in environmental history, I was intrigued by their claim that a little slide show exerted such enormous impact on a high-profile environmental debate. I began researching this history from the bottom up and was surprised by what I found. The sources revealed how Last Great Wilderness tours helped build a political movement and forge unlikely alliances between environmentalists, Indigenous peoples, and other groups. For two decades, the show had toured the United States, usually presented at unassuming venues like university lecture halls, public libraries, and church basements. The more I researched the story, the more I realized that it cast new light on where history happens and how non-iconic images act in the world.

Title slide for The Last Great Wilderness slide show. The caribou photograph was likely taken by Lenny Kohm in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in 1987 or 1988. This title slide represents a composite of two slides—one featuring the caribou photograph, the other with the title lettering—that were programmed via a fade-dissolve unit to merge together onscreen for several seconds.

Eventually, I was able to track down a copy of the show after learning that it had been recently digitized by a member of the 1980s group, complete with soundtrack, narration, and about 250 images. Despite its title, The Last Great Wilderness broke from conventional representations of wilderness. Indeed, a key sequence of the show—made in cooperation with Gwich’in communities—presented the Arctic Refuge struggle as a fight for Indigenous rights and cultural survival. The show also connected the Arctic drilling debate to systemic issues of fossil fuel dependency and global warming. This was not standard wilderness fare. It was a surprising source, one that could easily fall into history’s dustbin.

That became the main motivation for creating a public history companion website for my bookDefending the Arctic Refuge. In addition to making the slide show available, I also decided to showcase a diverse array of other sources—activist speeches, government reports, documentary films, scientific studies, investigative journalism, and more—that illuminate the broader history of the Arctic Refuge struggle. Recently completed, the site features a historical timeline packed with sources. I also grouped the materials into six thematic pages that encompass the book’s main narrative threads: Gwich’in AdvocacyPhotographers & FilmmakersGrassroots OrganizingPolicy & PoliticiansThe Porcupine Caribou Herd & Wildlife of the Refuge; and Government Suppression of Science. Visitors can thus scroll through a chronological account or dive right into a topic they find most interesting.

Screenshot of Defending the Arctic Refuge website.

Besides the Last Great Wilderness show, what else will you find on the site? Here’s a quick rundown of ten of my favorite sources:

Gwich’in Niintsyaa: For millennia, the Gwich’in have stewarded Arctic lands and formed relations of responsibility with the caribou. The threat of oil drilling in the Arctic Refuge coastal plain—the exact place where the caribou go to have their young—galvanized the Gwich’in Nation to take action. A pivotal moment in this history occurred in 1988, when Gwich’in from Alaska, the Yukon, and the Northwest Territories gathered together in Arctic Village, Alaska. The event, many said, marked the “rebirth of a nation” and led to the formation of the Gwich’in Steering Committee to defend the caribou calving grounds and Gwich’in culture. Gwich’in Niintsyaa, an Indigenous-produced film, documents this historic gathering. The film is mostly in Gwich’in with English subtitles.

Ellen Bruce (right) talking with Brewster Fields Jr., Gwich’in Gathering, Arctic Village, Alaska, 1988. Photograph by Lenny Kohm.

Primary Habitat of the Porcupine Caribou Herd: This remarkable map produced by the Gwich’in Steering Committee reveals the striking overlap between the homeland of the Gwich’in and the migratory range of the Porcupine caribou herd. Implicitly, the map critiques the arbitrary border between Canada and the United States—and makes a cartographic argument for the interconnections between Gwich’in culture and the caribou.

Gwich’in Steering Committee, map, Primary Habitat of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, n.d. Courtesy of Gwich’in Steering Committee.

Congressional testimony of Jonathon Solomon: In 1988, Gwich’in leader Jonathon Solomon testified before Congress about the urgent need to protect the Arctic Refuge from oil drilling. He explained why the Gwich’in Nation supported wilderness designation for the coastal plain, but also offered an alternative definition of wilderness that stressed cultural and subsistence rights. “Where you see empty land,” Solomon said, “I see hundreds of camps still used by our people. Where you see a faraway reserve, we see our back yard.”

Charlie Swaney’s hunting camp along the East Fork of the Chandalar River, inside the boundary of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, not far from Swaney’s home community of Arctic Village, Alaska, 2002. Swaney stands on a wooden observation tower, scanning for animals. Photograph by Subhankar Banerjee.

Images of Migratory Wildlife: Currently numbering over 200,000 animals, the Porcupine caribou herdis central to the ongoing struggle over the Arctic Refuge. A Story Map produced by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Yukon provides a visually stunning overview of the herd’s annual migration to the calving grounds on the Arctic coastal plain. Likewise, an illustrated report published by Audubon Alaska highlights the incredible array of birds that migrate from across the continent and around the world to find sustenance and shelter here.

Audubon Alaska, Birds and Oil Development in the Arctic Refuge, 2001. The cover image shows surf scoters flying over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Photograph by Subhankar Banerjee.

Congressional testimony of Lenny Kohm: A key character in Defending the Arctic Refuge is Lenny Kohm, a former jazz drummer and aspiring photographer who had a life-changing experience while visiting Gwich’in communities in 1987. Returning home to California, he immediately threw himself into activism and helped create The Last Great Wilderness slide show. Testifying on Capitol Hill, Kohm urged lawmakers to consider the human rights issues at stake and to listen to the Gwich’in.

Caribou antlers hanging on wooden racks, Old Crow, Yukon, 1988. Photograph by Lenny Kohm.

Government Suppression of Science: From Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump, a series of Republican administrations suppressed or altered scientific studies concerning the Arctic Refuge. In addition to featuring documents about whistleblowers who exposed these abuses and shared scientific truths with the public, the site also includes the work of investigative reporters. One standout piece by Adam Federman covers scientific manipulation and the Arctic Refuge debate during the Trump years.

Cartoon by Mike O’Meara, Homer News, August 20, 1987.

Last Great Wilderness presentations: Because Last Great Wilderness tours happened before the age of smart phones, there is scant video footage of these presentations. The site features rare video recordings from the 1995 Youth Environmental Summit in Loveland, Colorado, including Lenny Kohm speaking before and after the slide show, and Gwich’in leader Norma Kassi sharing her stories and knowledge with the audience.

Arctic Photography and the Smithsonian Controversy: The site profiles the work of key photographers, including Subhankar Banerjee. In 2003, as the George W. Bush administration pushed to drill in the refuge, an exhibit of Banerjee’s Arctic photographs at the Smithsonian Institution generated a firestorm of controversy. Op-eds in the New York Times and other venues lambasted the Smithsonian for censoring art and cowing to the demands of drilling proponents.

Screen shot of Senator Barbara Boxer speaking with a polar bear photograph by Subhankar Banerjee behind her, March 2003. Soon after Boxer praised Banerjee’s photographs while also condemning President George W. Bush’s plans to drill in the Arctic Refuge, a major controversy over Banerjee’s art broke out at the Smithsonian Institution.

Last Great Wilderness primary sources: Arctic Refuge defenders knew they were up against powerful, deep-pocketed adversaries. The only way to protect this land, they believed, was to organize and mobilize constituent pressure to convince fence-sitting politicians to vote against oil drilling. A collection of behind-the-scenes sources provide insight into how Last Great Wilderness tours were organized and how they built public support for refuge protection.

Films: The site highlights a selection of films about the Arctic Refuge, with examples ranging from the 1950s through the 2020s. One short film that I have found works particularly well in the classroom is simply titled The Refuge. It features interviews with two Gwich’in women, Bernadette Demientieff and Princess Daazhraii Johnson, who linked the refuge debate to their own personal stories and the ongoing colonialist effort to control Indigenous lands and cultures.

Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, testifying at Bureau of Land Management public hearing on fossil fuel leasing and development in the Arctic Refuge., Washington, DC, June 15, 2018. Photograph by Mladen Mates, courtesy of Alaska Wilderness League.

By making these and other sources available, I hope that visitors will chart their own paths into this history and be surprised by what they find.

Finis Dunaway is professor of history at Trent University.