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Arctic Ecologies: The Politics and Poetics of Northern Literary Environments


Allison K. Athens

"Arctic Ecologies: The Politics and Poetics of Northern Literary Environments"

This dissertation examines the lives of humans and animals in the North American Arctic and the types of narrative modes used to describe them. My project seeks to elucidate the poetics of place, or how language creates and shapes the specificity of social and ecological environments in the north. This poetics is not neutral, however, as language, chiefly the language of writing but also that of film, is political in its enactments of or prohibitions on ways of engaging with the world. Thus, my project begins with administrative discourses such as legal statutes that govern hunting, fishing and subsistence activities; congressional documents such as the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act; and state and federal mandates that create (and sometimes destroy) wilderness parks and recreation areas in Alaska. Furthermore, given that these governing directives often obscure the prolific contemporary written and visual art of Alaska's native peoples that represent a very different view of place, inhabitation, and northern identity, my project engages the concurrent critical and creative work of northern indigenous peoples. I divide my dissertation into four chapters, each featuring an iconic creature of the north: polar bear, seal, caribou, and salmon. I choose these animals for their prominence in stories about the environment, economy, and culture in the Arctic. They are also important for being at the center of disputes involving laws enacted either to protect them from human exploitation or to aid in their harvesting for personal or profit-motivated use. Finally, I explore the stakes of undoing and redoing these contested spaces and discourses and ask how they might coexist, if one idiom (the language of linear economic development) were not to colonize another (the language of a multidimensional ecology). Reading an alternative epistemology through the lenses of ecocriticism, feminism, and postcolonial theory allows me to confront an archive that first figures, then legalizes, wilderness as empty, species as vanishing, and history as linear and progressive.

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