Racialization and Resistance in the Ice Geographies of the Arctic and Colonized Alaska



Land is not always made of earth, as we discuss with Jen Rose Smith. Her work on ice in the context of the Arctic Circle in general, and Alaska in particular, shows how the very materiality of land has deep repercussions in both the way Indigenous people are racialized and the means through which they can resist colonialism.

Rose Smith Funambulist 1
La’ Glacier on Eyak land. / Photo by MNDA (2021).

LÉOPOLD LAMBERT: You’re currently writing a book that will be entitled Icy Matters: Race, Indigeneity, and Coloniality in Ice-Geographies. I know that this is a work in progress so what you can say about it is limited, but could you tell us a little bit about ice in an issue dedicated to land? What does the temporality and mutability of ice involve as a key component of one’s living environment? Your short fiction, “Cryogenics,” around the La’ Glacier in your homeland is something I have in mind while asking the question.

JEN ROSE SMITH: Sure, I can talk a bit about it. Basically, I’m interested in ice in three ways, and I’m using this kind of three pronged approach to come at my analyses. On a general scale, I’m thinking about how ice has been wielded as a tool and a terrain for furthering multiple forms of white supremacy. So the first way that I’m interested in ice is thinking about it as an imaginary. Arctic ice geographies—I do a little bit of thinking in Antarctica, but mostly on Arctic ice geography—this, major part of the globe, has filled the West with fear and anxiety. That ice geographies, through this particular colonial lens, have been understood as barren, blank, empty, without history, as ahistorical and without sociality. That’s one of the ways that I’m thinking about ice and how it’s been sort of rendered and mediated. And we can see this in some major contemporary ways. In this moment, we are seeing ice as it appears in a dominant cultural imaginary, as it is narrated, and packaged out to multiple viewing audiences as melting ice: calving glaciers, fracturing ice sheets, etc., ice that the viewer can’t necessarily pinpoint its location—it’s the ice melt of everywhere.. These images fill our TV screens, movies, computers, and the newspapers, and in that way, ice is utilized and forced to represent a climate apocalypse that is said will inevitably destroy the planet, and will destroy the human species.

The second prong of this analysis is thinking about ice as it’s been made malleable and culled into articulation through science, and this is mostly through projects that cordon off ice. Through different kinds of technologies, that work maps ice’s surface, its volume, its composition, etc. And I’m thinking here in particular in terms of the technologies of the ice core, or drone images, or satellite images: all of these new and constantly populating technologies are working to try and analyze, organize ice as data. And so we have these polar ice caps that are constantly being measured and surveilled and tracked and poked and prodded to reveal information about the planet, and oftentimes the health of the planet. This always correlates back to the question of human health.

And as a substance, ice has agency and it is an entity that moves and shapes and responds to the world. We don’t just act upon ice, ice is also making decisions of its own accord.

And then the third and final interest of the sort of organizing format of the book is thinking about ice as a materiality, and also as an analytic. Obviously, these three ways are not neatly contained analyses, instead they overlap, and they inform one another. In this third one, I’m thinking about the material constitution of ice as a substance. And as a substance, ice has agency and it is an entity that moves and shapes and responds to the world. We don’t just act upon ice, ice is also making decisions of its own accord. In that sense, I’m thinking about what ice does offer, just by virtue of existing in all of its movements, shapes, and conditions, to thinkers, intellectuals, scholars, etc. for thinking about relations of power. I’m interested in critical analyses of race, and indigeneity, thinking about these constant struggles over territory and sovereignty, especially again, as ice is changing shape and moving, particularly in Arctic spaces. And thinking of that, in this final prong, I’m interested in how ice then complicates these questions of boundaries and borders. Ice is pushing out these neat containers, of land, of ocean, of the concept of roots and tides, as it moves and offers these different ways of organizing the world. As I said in the second category, there are some humans that are working so hard to try and control ice and understand ice and all of the possible dimensions that they can, but the truth of the matter is that ice is actually quite elusive. It eludes many of these sort of dominant colonial formations of thought.

That’s the main idea of the third category: that, in these unique specificities of ice, I think we need to think about power relations with an additional set of concepts and tools. And thinking about “Cryogenics,” the fiction piece that you referenced, I think that one way of getting at that is through poetics, thinking about different ways that ice is mediated through the human experience, particularly through an Indigenous experience, that are not simply relegated to this question of the quantitative. Poetics is a really a rich place to do some of that thinking.

LL: Listening to you makes me ponder on how ice geographies are typically difficult to map, and as we know, what is difficult to map is difficult to colonize.

JRS: Yes, that’s a great point. And I think that it’s part of this desire to populate new forms of technology that can map, that can measure, that can surveil, to try and make sense of what ice does and what ice is.

LL: In this work on ice, you articulate a concept of “temperate-normativity” to describe the formation of European racialization of Indigenous people in the Arctic, in particular when it comes to environmental determinism. Could you unpack it for us?

JRS: Sure, this concept comes up in the book and also in an article I’ve published in Environment and Planning D called “‘Exceeding Beringia’”—borrowed from the title of Joan Naviyuk Kane’s poem, “Exceeding Beringia” (2016), which I use as a form of evidence in that piece. The way that I’m thinking through temperate normativity is thinking through how Western civilization is grounded in this idea of agriculture as a specific kind of cultivation, and this sort of sedentary lifestyle that is meant to emerge out of an agricultural way of being in the world, of a kind of stasis in space. The idea is then that this form of civilization is the “proper” form of civilization. There’s this sort of undergirding idea that being an agriculturalist is really the most proper way to live, because out of that sort of sedentarism, is the only way for a particular form of sociality to occur, for government and governance to occur, of all of these sort of organized ways of politically being in the world, all stem from this particular form of cultivation. Each of those projects and instances  necessitate a particular kind of land where specific kinds of growth can occur: it all stems from a temperate locale, and that becomes the apex. In that rendering of civilization, ice geographies become the antithesis to that and, as such, the antithesis of civilization: the possibility of legible government, of organized culture is impossible, so the story goes. Wrapped up in that is the idea that the peoples then that live in ice, with ice, along ice, in ice geographies become rendered aberrant or exceptional, or outside of these major master narratives that are used to describe how people should be living and how people should be interacting with one another. So in that historical idea of temperate normativity, it is a site of racialization. Because if you aren’t living and existing in temperate normative landscapes, then you are a non-normative subject.

Ice geographies come to matter as they make precarious temperate living and temperate landscapes and temperate livelihoods.

This continues to shape the present moment. And it’s reiterated in these dominant narratives of climate change, that don’t, for the most part, understand and don’t see ice and ice geographies as the center. Ice is always something that is far off. And ice and ice geographies mostly only come to matter in these dominant narratives largely through the belief that ice melt is a danger. Ice geographies come to matter as they make precarious temperate living and temperate landscapes and temperate livelihoods. So I think that this understanding of temperate normativity is still present, we can still see it, we can still name it and point to it. Most of the thinking that gets done, and gets held up for attention is the thinking that comes from settled urban hubs situated in typically temperate landscapes, and often around universities. So, in that sense, the centering of a kind of temperate normative planet is continuing this historical idea that a particular form of civilization is the most “advanced” or the most important. That’s how I’m thinking about temperate normativity, as it is operating on multiple scales, and in multiple temporal ways.

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Elizabeth Peratrovich Mural by Tlingit Athabascan artist Crystal Worl on the walls of the Downtown Juneau Library Building in Alaska. / Photo by Shackpoet (2021).

LL: Now talking about your homeland—which, at the scale of the Eyak nation, is situated on the Pacific Coast, not on the Arctic Ocean. When talking about Jim Crow Laws, we of course tend to turn towards the southern states of the U.S. settler colony, thousands of kilometers away from the region designated by Russian and after 1867, U.S. colonists as “Alaska.” Nonetheless, these racial segregation laws were also active against the Indigenous people of the region. Could you describe the conditions of settler colonialism at that time?

JRS: Sure, and perhaps starting with an aside about the Pacific Coast. When I started thinking about these questions, a lot of them were about Alaska and about the unique legal positions that Alaska Native folks are in, and how that came to be. And through reading archives and researching and studying certain time periods of Alaska history and Alaska Native history, the question of ice surfaced not only for northern parts of Alaska, but also around how imaginaries of Alaska and ice shaped the enactments of racialization, even for those who are who have been called “sub-Arctic Indians.” So the manifestations of ice, even if not materially or explicitly present, are always part of the equation of race and power, it is still shaping politics, still shaping questions of dispossession and racialization.

To answer your question, one thing that you brought up is this history of Jim Crow laws, which were the systematic, racist policies of segregation and that really is an undertold history of Alaska. I don’t identify as an historian, and I’m not an expert of this time period, but I can say a few words on this important part of history. I would, however, refer to Alaska Native historians that are experts of this time period and these questions of segregation and racism: Dr. Holly Guise and Dr. Caskey Russell. These two have a lot of really important things to say about that era, and the World War II era, and particularly about Elizabeth Peratrovich, who was a Native activist in the 1940s. She, among many other Native folks at the time, accomplished a lot of important lobbying for the passing of the Anti-Discrimination Act in Alaska, which was passed in 1945. And that was essentially civil rights legislation that worked to end the segregation of spaces years before similar legislation was passed on a federal level.

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Map of Alaskan languages by Léopold Lambert. All information comes from the Alaska Native Languages Map by the Alaska Native Language Center, University of Alaska Fairbanks (2011). The interest of making a new map was to ensure that all information was legible in the magazine’s format, as well as to use a cartographic projection centered on the North Pole, rather than the “usual” ones that tend to distort Arctic territories.

I can also say in relation to Jim Crow laws as they stand out as a concretized example of racism and segregation in Alaska, that they correspond to one moment of racialization of Alaska Native peoples among many. Part of what I discuss in my book, are the multiple ways that Alaska Native peoples were racialized, which, in my estimation, can be and should be analyzed through this question of ice. The particular proximity to ice geographies is a major point of the ways that Alaska Native folks were racialized, especially in early times. In your second question, you brought up this term of environmental determinism. That is certainly one way that was enacted through the idea that your immediate environment is shaping your capacities and your capabilities as a human being. Early anthropologists and ethnographers saw the material of ice as slowing intellectual capacities, for instance.

Another thing that I’m interested in is the ways that Alaska Native peoples and polities were racialized as of Asian descent. I talk about this in one of my book’s chapters, but in this regard, I would like to also cite Dr. Juliana Hu Pegues’s work and her book Space-Time Colonialism: Alaska’s Indigenous and Asian Entanglements (2021). In it, she demonstrates the ways that Asian and Indigenous peoples in Alaska were similarly and differently racialized by colonial and Imperial regimes in Alaska during 1867 period and onward, through lenses of race, gender, and labor. This is a crucial text for thinking long form about the question of racialization in Alaska.

LL: In Alaska, the colonial stranglehold on the land is not merely a surface one, but also one that touches the million-year-old depths of the earth sedimented as oil. What does this particular dimension of U.S. settler colonialism imply in terms both of life conditions for Indigenous people and their resistance?

JRS: Infrastructures of extraction, in the state of Alaska has most certainly become intrinsic to the socialities that exist in Alaska in a range of different kinds of ways. One way I’ve thought about this question about how oil shapes social-political landscapes, particularly Alaska Native politics, is through the context of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, or ANCSA, which was signed in 1971. Up until that point, in Alaska Native history, there wasn’t a precedent legal framework through which land claims were processed. There were a few instances here and there in terms of certain tribal polities receiving land or money. And there was one case of a given reservation status—there is one reservation in Alaska, Metlakatla—but as a whole, Alaska Native polities have an entirely different legal history when it comes to claims to land.

We, Alaska Native tribes and polities, did not sign treaties with any version of the United States federal government or state governments.

We, Alaska Native tribes and polities, did not sign treaties with any version of the United States federal government or state governments. And because of that fact our processes of land claims look entirely different than the way they do in the majority of the U.S., California notwithstanding. And this all stems back to what you mentioned, in terms of Alaska, being purchased by the U.S. from Russia in 1867. In terms of thinking about the colonial period in the U.S., 1867 is relatively late. At that point, many treaties with Native nations had already been signed. And the U.S. was understanding Alaska as an imperial acquisition, so not necessarily an extension of manifest destiny in the same kind of format that it was violently being enacted in the what we call “the lower 48,” but Alaska was seen as the United States starting its journey as an Empire. Thinking of it in that way, when the U.S. and Russia were signing the Treaty of Cession, which is the Purchase of Alaska, no Alaska Native nations were being consulted nor were there forms of negotiation with Alaska Native polities. So the land was acquired wholesale, which is a pretty important point, because now in Alaska, currently there are 229 federally recognized tribes. That constitutes almost half of the over 570 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. The diversity of Alaska native tribes is huge: we have 20 distinct languages, Alaska is a huge landmass… And because of that lack of negotiation with Alaska Native nations, lots of Native folks say that Alaska isn’t actually U.S. land, because the land was never ceded. The land was never transferred or purchased from Alaska Native tribes themselves.

That specific history of the absence of treaties, which means no treaty rights, and no negotiation with specific distinct political entities of Alaska Native peoples really goes on to shape Alaska Native politics throughout history, and definitely into the contemporary moment. And going back to the question of oil, the whole body of ANCSA, the way that it took shape and pushed through as legislation quickly—it was settled under two years. There was a sense of urgency given the discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay in 1968, in northern Alaska. This discovery of oil was the backdrop in which ANCSA was formulated, agreed upon, and quickly settled. So I think that the presence of oil, in the obvious ways that we think about oil development and its relation to climate change, is certainly there. But there are all of these other sort of formative and influential ways that that oil has shaped Alaska Native history and Alaska Native politics, historically, and in the form these politics take today. I think that specifically, in terms of the relationships to the industry, it is part of the fabric of life in Alaska, and it exists in a multiplicity of relationships, politically, and in social relationships. And so I think it’s important to stay attentive to how that works in a very fine grained way.

LL: What does LANDBACK look like in the context of Alaska and neighboring Indigenous nations?

JRS: I think that my gut reaction to this question is my feeling that there are many Alaska Native folks back home who could probably and should probably answer it more easily and more appropriately than I can or should as someone who doesn’t live in Alaska full year round. But of course, I think about this question a lot. My political sensibilities have an attachment, a responsibility, and an obligation to my homelands and my people. I talk to my brother a lot about this question, because he is one of those people who is working on the ground to think about what LANDBACK and ocean looks like in practice. My conversations with him informs my thoughts and my answer to a large extent. I like to think about LANDBACK on the scale of a day, or the scale of a year, or the large scale of a lifetime, and at the scale of a community. For me, LANDBACK looks like literal land back, like in acres, for those of us who have been dispossessed, and continue to be dispossessed. But I think it also means control and management over industry, jobs, markets, housing, and resources, and specifically an Indigenous management network of those resources. So it’s about the literal land itself, but also a control over resources and the management of resources. In addition to that, it also looks like Native folks having complete and unfettered access to their homelands, to the management of those lands. This is tied up with also having access to your language, cultural items, access to travel to your homelands, and whatever you need for that travel, access to your stories and your histories, to your place names, to all of your fish and your berries and your plants and all of that access without oversight and without paperwork. So I think the folks that are doing that kind of work, to me, means what doing LANDBACK looks like. ■