Thomas Michael Swensen

Katrin H. Lamon Resident Scholar


The Great Land: The Environment and Belonging in Native Alaska

Thomas Michael SwensenThomas Michael SwensenPhoto courtesy of Anthony Kim.Thomas Michael SwensenPhoto courtesy of Anthony Kim.

The Great Land: The Environment and Belonging in Native Alaska begins with an investigation of the 1989 Exxon Valdez Oil Spill’s harm to southern Alaska’s marine life and Native cultures. This event serves as a starting point to trace indigenous belonging to the nation amid the industrialization of North America’s most western borderlands. The name “Alaska” derives from the Unangax̂ word Aláxsxaq that at times is translated as “The Great Land.” Russian functionaries adopted Aláxsxaq in the eighteenth century from the Native workers they subjugated into gendered coercive labor regimes. Their conscripted work in extractive industries combined political alienation and ecological devastation that then became the basis for Alaska’s political economy. In this project the term “The Great Land” ties indigenous experience to the environment by focusing on compulsory Native belonging to Russia and later the United States amid ecological tragedies and land rights efforts that were paramount in shaping Alaska as a state in the union. Examining this intersection of belonging and the environment, Swensen makes visible how one of the nation’s first noncontiguous colonies embodies a link between US continental expansion and the establishment of overseas possessions that followed the acquisition of the Alaska region.

Affiliation at time of award:
Assistant Professor, Division of Ethnic Studies, University of Utah

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