Department of History
2015 to 2016
A Lab at the Top of the World: Circumpolar Health and Indigenous Politics in Cold War Alaska
My project will trace the development of the Alaskan circumpolar health movement from its beginnings in early the Cold War to the present day. Beginning during World War II, the American government intensified the development of resource extraction industries and infrastructure in the Alaska Territory. Processes of biomedicalization ran parallel to those of industrialization; the Cold War scientific ethos that situated indigenous peoples as scarce and endangered resources also framed indigenous communities as “natural laboratories” for understanding the dynamic relationships between human bodies, disease, and environment. In the 1950s, understanding how the Arctic environment impacted human bodies and minds became an urgent part of the American military’s research agenda, based on a perceived need to maintain a permanent military presence in Alaska and defend the nation from a potential attack on its northern borders. From its inception, then, circumpolar health was entangled in the processes of American colonialism in Alaska and was instrumental in generating sustained scientific interest in Native Alaskans. However, during the Cold War decades, Alaska also transitioned to full statehood and witnessed a radical transformation of indigenous politics, leading to the redistribution of territory and of political power on a massive scale. Circumpolar health emerged as an important site from which Alaska Native peoples contested colonial incursions into their territory, critiqued American government policy, and argued for a central role in setting the agenda for arctic health research. This project considers how these seemingly disparate constituencies - biomedical researchers, public health officials, Native Alaskan political leaders - competed and collaborated to shape the practices and priorities of the Alaskan circumpolar health movement.