Boreas: MOVE

Histories and Futures of Relocations in Alaska and Rural Chukotka

Funded by the National Science Foundation, Arctic Social Sciences
PL Professor Peter Schweitzer
University of Alaska Fairbanks

Ph.D. researcher Elizabeth Marino will be performing preliminary fieldwork in February and March in the following communities: Shishmaref, Koyukuk, and Anchorage. Currently, the Fairbanks group is also participating in a course associated with the MOVE project entitled “The Anthropology of Migration”. In this course we are currently discussing interdisciplinary perspectives on migration theory, studies of Northern relocation, and forced migration.

Residents of Shishmaref, Kivalina, Newtok, and many other coastal communities of Alaska face erosion and, thus, the loss of their residential areas due to severe storm events and other consequences of a changing climate. The former residents and their descendants of Naukan and Chaplino in Chukotka and of King Island in Alaska preserve strong memories of being relocated almost 50 years ago. The indigenous residents many communities on the Chukchi Peninsula have experienced waves of expansion and contraction of their villages, be it due to the sedentarization of reindeer herders, the mass influx of Russians and other incomers, or their rapid out-migration since 1990. During the summer of 2005, the threat of the closure of an Air Force Base in the vicinity of Fairbanks spurred community protests and scenarios of economic and social decay. At the same time, a good portion of the non-indigenous population of Fairbanks is characterized by having arrived during or after the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in the mid-1970s, an event which serves as a dividing line between “old settlers” from “new settlers”.

All of the cases mentioned above refer to past and future population movements triggered by outside forces, be they direct state intervention, market forces, or changes in the natural environment. All of them are also characterized by memories of past events and conditions, as well as by speculations about the future, in short by narrative ways of adapting to changing conditions. Notwithstanding these similarities, these and other examples are defined by a number of important differences. Most obviously, Alaska and Chukotka seem to represent two diametrically opposed experiences regarding the role of the state in population movements. While Chukotka has been the frequent recipient of Soviet and post-Soviet forms of social engineering, Alaska seems to have been relatively free from such interventions. A closer look, however, reveals that also in Alaska many small-scale communities have been closed or relocated, for a variety of different reasons. At the same time, large influxes of non-indigenous people occurred during economic boom periods, many of which were either initiated or regulated by the state.

One of the most compelling reasons for conducting this research is that there is hardly any documentation of the diverse relocation phenomena which have characterized Alaska and rural Chukotka throughout the 20th century and into the 21st. The first goal of documenting what has happened and continues to happen is both of scholarly importance, as well as highly relevant to affected communities. The second goal of focusing on four or more case studies will, apart from providing more in-depth documentation, result in a better understanding of the factors which contribute to positive and negative effects of relocation events. This addresses important issues regarding the creation and re-creation of community identity and the importance of “place” in these processes. Another compelling reason for this project is its new, comparative approach. Yet another reason for this study is its emphasis on the people themselves. This project reaches beyond a general history of events and delves into their impacts and perceptions thereof.

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Affiliated Project - Moving an Iñupiaq Village: Negotiating Forced Settlement, Relocation, and Socio-environmental Changes in Kivalina, Arctic Alaska