History Felt: Alaska Peninsula Reindeer Herding
Over the last two years of research in southwest Alaska, I’ve developed a feel for the region’s history as I’ve been tracking down the history of reindeer herding on the Alaska Peninsula. At the turn of the 20th century, pastoralism was introduced to northwest Alaska as part of a government program to “improve” the welfare of Alaska natives. This program spread southward to the Alaska Peninsula in 1905. For 45 years, herders ranged as many as 10,000 reindeer throughout the Peninsula, supplying the region with meat and hides. The viability of herding on the Alaska Peninsula, however, was short-lived and ended in 1950. Herders could not afford to miss out on high-paying fishing jobs which took them away from their reindeer, leaving the reindeer to fall prey to wolves or join wild caribou herds.
While this history is not yet easily accessible, some fragments survive: memos, rangeland permits, and maps housed in U.S. National Archives, historical photos and tools in individual collections and museums. Other parts of this history remain protected by their ubiquity among community members, as reindeer stories are told and retold. In this installation I’ve woven together threads of different media. Specific properties—the design of documents, the texture of objects, the rhythm of voices—animate its underlying data, spanning wide temporal and geographical space to congregate in history making. Feelings of familiarity and estrangement, satisfaction, and disconnection emerge from discovering a single event or person through different modes of awareness: reading, touching, listening. These are the feelings of doing historical ethnography that guide and shape the directions of my research, and provide anchors for analysis.
As a cultural anthropologist, I draw on phenomenology, material culture, and storytelling approaches. I’m fascinated by the things we make, and the processes and narratives involved in making. These interests shape how I explore my current research about the histories and legacies of reindeer herding on the Alaska Peninsula.