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Indeterminate Natures: Race and Indigeneity in Ice-Geographies



Indeterminate Natures: Race and Indigeneity in Ice-Geographies


Jennifer R. Smith

Doctor of Philosophy in Ethnic Studies

University of California, Berkeley

Professor Shari Huhndorf, Chair

My dissertation Indeterminate Natures: Race and Indigeneity in Ice-Geographies analyzes the ways that land, race, and indigeneity have been co-constitutively formed under conditions of coloniality. Unlike other Indigenous places in the United States, Alaska has not been colonized primarily through land dispossession by military warfare, through the enactment of treaties, or creation of reservations. Instead, Alaska lands and Alaska Native peoples have been subjected to colonization through gradual encroachment and resource development—processes that hinge upon colonial definitions of land, race, and indigeneity that are indeterminate and thus, often fall outside of hierarchies of race given by scientific racism, and legal protections afforded by federal Indian law. Specifically, at the time of the Alaska Purchase in 1867, the geographical boundaries of the territory of Alaska had not been legally defined, and the racial origins of Alaska Natives were ambiguous and therefore they were not legally understood as Indigenous subjects or potential citizens. It wasn’t until 1931 that Alaska Natives received legal federal recognition as Native subjects. These racial, geographical, and legal indeterminacies, I argue, have shaped conflicts surrounding Native rights and territorial claims to the present day. Over the course of five chapters, I use methods of literary analysis, archival research, and grounded fieldwork to examine the conditions under which these forms of indeterminacy are produced and contested in treaties, scientific expeditions, land surveys, photographs, letters, poetry, and embodied knowledges. My analysis covers four key moments in Alaskan history that elucidate the ways in which Alaska Natives have been uniquely dispossessed through colonial definitions of racial, geographical, and legal indeterminacy.

In Chapter One, I use archival documents of geographical data, racialized cartoons, climate tables, and U.S. Senate documents, to analyze racial and geographical indeterminacy at the time of the Alaska Purchase. Each remaining chapter examines the ways in which indeterminacy figures in racial and territorial conflicts in subsequent periods in Alaskan history. Chapter Two focuses on the Harriman Alaska Expedition of 1899, which launched scientific studies of the territory during the era of the Alaskan Gold Rush. I focus on the landscape photographs of Edward Curtis and renderings of Alaskan people and lands, including the spectacular aesthetic of ice. Chapter Three examines conceptions of land and Native identity in the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) the largest land claims settlement in U.S. history. I am particularly interested in the ways that ANCSA redefined indigeneity through a corporate capitalist status and land as commodity while leaving unsettled questions about sovereignty and subsistence rights. For this chapter, I analyze letters written and testimony given by Alaska Natives of the era who grappled with the political indeterminacy the Act generated for Alaska Natives. Chapter Four analyzes Alaska Native poetry about Indigenous Arctic landscapes changing landscapes in global warming and other universal narratives of humanity that take place in Arctic spaces. I conclude with Chapter Five that brings together the main themes of the preceding chapters through examining oral histories of my home community of Eyak, Alaska. Together, these chapters draw out the political and social effects of indeterminacy over time, how they have enabled unprecedented forms of dispossession, and how they ultimately leave Alaska Natives in a precarious political position in the time of climate change.

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