What Human Rights Look Like: Border-Crossing Caribou and a Fight for Environmental Justice

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Editor’s Note: This is the fourth post in the Northern Borders and Boundaries series. You can read other posts in this series here.


Near the end of the Last Great Wilderness slide show, viewers see scenes from a caribou hunt.

The screen is filled with a picture of two caribou in the distance. They stand before a spruce forest, returning the gaze of the photographer—and the hunter. The next slide shows a man toting a rifle. Then audiences see him skinning and butchering a carcass.

Lenny Kohm, first photograph from caribou hunt series, taken near Old Crow, Yukon, 1988, included in the Last Great Wilderness show.
Lenny Kohm, photograph of Richard “Dick” Nukon, second image from caribou hunt series, taken near Old Crow, Yukon, 1988, included in the Last Great Wilderness show.
Lenny Kohm, photograph of Richard “Dick” Nukon, third image from caribou hunt series, taken near Old Crow, Yukon, 1988, included in the Last Great Wilderness show.

In traditional conservation imagery, caribou would appear as creatures to see but not kill, as spectacles for the eye, not as sustenance for the human body. But The Last Great Wilderness was not a traditional conservation show. Created in 1988 by a group of amateur activists in Sonoma, California, the show placed the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—one of the most contested lands in all of North America—in a broader frame. The presentation encouraged audiences to see this Alaskan refuge in transnational perspective, as a place vital to the food security and cultural survival of Indigenous communities on both sides of the US-Canada border.[1]

Title slide for The Last Great Wilderness. The caribou photograph was likely taken by Lenny Kohm in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in 1987 or 1988. This title slide represents a composite of two slides—one featuring the caribou photograph, the other with the title lettering—that were programmed via a fade-dissolve unit to merge together on-screen for several seconds.

The caribou hunt photographs were taken by Lenny Kohm just outside of Old Crow, Yukon, home of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation. A former jazz drummer and aspiring photographer, Kohm was an unlikely activist. He first visited the Arctic Refuge in 1987 on a speculative assignment for Audubon magazine. He came to Alaska knowing that the Reagan administration was planning to turn the refuge’s coastal plain—1.5 million acres stretching along the Beaufort Sea—into an oil field. But he had no idea that the fight encompassed more than a question of wilderness versus oil. After visiting Gwich’in communities, Kohm gained an entirely different perspective on the issue. From the Gwich’in, he learned that the drilling plan represented a form of colonial violence that threatened their culture and the caribou that migrate through their lands.[2]

Known as the Porcupine herd, these caribou take the longest land migration of any animal on earth, traversing steep mountains and icy rivers in Canada and Alaska before reaching the Arctic coastal plain, where they have their young. Long before Europeans ever arrived in the Arctic, Indigenous peoples stewarded these lands and built relations of responsibility with caribou and other creatures. In more recent times, the Gwich’in and Inuvialuit fought against colonialist mega-projects and used land claims agreements and other measures to gain protection for the calving grounds on the Canadian side of the border. Yet the Porcupine caribou primarily use the Arctic Refuge as their birthing place—the exact area where the fossil fuel industry sought to drill.[3]

Gwich’in Steering Committee, map, Primary Habitat of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, n.d. The two curvy lines on this map show the overlap between the homeland of the Gwich’in and the migratory range of the Porcupine caribou herd. Just to the east of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are two national parks–Ivvavik and Vuntut–that were created out of Indigenous land claims agreements in Canada. Although the map includes a dotted line to indicate the US-Canada border, its true focus is on the interconnections between human communities and wildlife species across arbitrary boundaries. Courtesy of Gwich’in Steering Committee.

Back home in California, Kohm threw himself into anti-drilling activism, forming a grassroots group to galvanize public concern for refuge protection. He returned North the following year, spending four months in Gwich’in communities in Alaska, Yukon, and the Northwest Territories. Kohm was there to take photographs for the Last Great Wilderness show and to learn from the Gwich’in about their lives on the land.

“He wanted to connect with the Indigenous peoples and grasp our stories,” Norma Kassi, a Vuntut Gwitchin leader, recalled about Kohm. “He went right directly to our camps, and lived with us on the land and ate caribou with us and helped us make dry meat. He wanted to feel that. He embraced our Indigenous knowledge as much as he could.”[4]

By the time Kohm returned to Old Crow in May 1988, he had built trust and understanding with community members. They viewed him as an ally and believed that his photographs would aid in their struggle to protect the calving grounds. He began his four-month journey through Gwich’in country in Crow Flats, a vast wetland complex north of Old Crow, where he stayed with Norma Kassi and her family at their hunting camp. He took pictures of a snow-covered mountain across Zelma Lake, glimmering in the pale light; of caribou crossing in groups over the still-frozen lake; and of the camp site itself, showing the large canvas wall tent where Kassi’s family slept and the smaller recreational tent he pitched nearby. These experiences allowed Kohm to learn transnationalism on the ground, from glimpsing local realities and seeing firsthand how Gwich’in lives, culture, and food security were tied to the transboundary caribou herd.

Lenny Kohm, photograph of Norma Kassi’s family hunting camp, Crow Flats, Yukon, 1988.

During his 1988 visit, Kohm accompanied Richard “Dick” Nukon, the hunter in the pictures, on a trip up the Porcupine River to harvest caribou. The true power of these photographs can be understood in light of what the cultural critic Susie Linfield has claimed about images. “It is awfully hard,” Linfield observed, “to photograph a human right: what in the world would it look like? In fact, rights don’t look like anything at all.”[5] The caribou hunt series, though, shows us what human rights look like—the right to access food, the right to continue subsistence activities, the right of the Gwich’in to sustain their multimillennial relationship with the caribou.

Kohm would never forget what happened when he and Nukon returned to the village with two caribou carcasses. A large group gathered “to celebrate the kill. A boy stepped forward. He was the hunter’s grandson. His eyes were filled with pride.” “I saw that look,” Kohm recalled, “and I thought, ‘That’s been going on for 30,000 years.’ But, now, we’re going to end it for a finite amount of oil.”[6]

Unlike many other photographers who have depicted Indigenous peoples, Kohm did not come as a salvage ethnographer, trying to create a visual record of a culture he believed doomed to extinction. Made with the cooperation of Indigenous communities, Kohm wanted these pictures to play an active role in helping the Gwich’in fight for a future of their own.

The Last Great Wilderness show featured Kohm’s slides as well as audio clips of interviews he recorded in Old Crow. As audiences see Nukon hunting and other scenes from Gwich’in lands, they hear the voice of Randall Tetlichi, who explains how his people have relied upon and cared for the caribou since time immemorial. “That’s our survival,” Tetlichi says. “If there’s no caribou, we’re going to have a hard time up here. And I hope people from the South listen to us and try to get the picture that we talk about.”[7]

With Gwich’in support, Kohm’s photographs became a crucial part of the Arctic Refuge campaign. For almost twenty years, he took the Last Great Wilderness show on the road, often joined by Gwich’in spokespeople from Canada and Alaska. “We’re not asking for pity,” Norma Kassi told a slide show audience in 1995. “We seek understanding and acceptance for our knowledge of what we can share. We need to be listened to. We need to be partners in all decision making for our future. Because they will never get rid of us. We’ll always be here.”[8]

In churches, libraries, university lecture halls, and other venues across the United States, the Last Great Wilderness show and Gwich’in spokespeople changed how grassroots audiences understood the Arctic Refuge. Despite its title, The Last Great Wilderness transcended the familiar dualisms of the wilderness ideal to present the refuge as intricately connected to human and nonhuman communities in Alaska and beyond. Even though Kohm’s photographs never became iconic, they exerted vital agency in the world, forging a political movement across vast distances and national borders. Together, Kohm’s images and Gwich’in voices helped turn a traditional wilderness battle into something else entirely: a transnational fight for environmental justice.[9]

Notes

[1] This piece draws on the research and analysis in Defending the Arctic Refuge: A Photographer, an Indigenous Nation, and a Fight for Environmental Justice (forthcoming, University of North Carolina Press, May 2021).
[2] “Vuntut Gwitchin” is the name of this First Nation in Yukon, Canada. “Gwich’in” is the spelling used by other Gwich’in First Nations in Canada, by Gwich’in tribal governments in Alaska, and by the transnational Gwich’in Steering Committee. In this piece, I spell the word as “Gwich’in” unless I am specifically referring to the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation.
[3] See Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation and Shirleen Smith, People of the Lakes: Stories of Our Van Tat Gwich’in Elders/Googwandak Nakhwach’ànjòo Van Tat Gwich’in (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2009); Stanley Njootli, “Two Perspectives—One Park: Vuntut National Park,” in Northern Protected Areas and Wilderness: Proceedings of a Forum on Northern Protected Areas and Wilderness, ed. Juri Peepre and Bob Jickling (Whitehorse: Canada Parks and Wilderness Society and Yukon College, 1994), 132-36; and Brad Martin, “Negotiating a Partnership of Interests: Inuvialuit Land Claims and the Establishment of Northern Yukon (Ivvavik) National Park,” in A Century of Parks Canada, 1911-2011, ed. Claire Elizabeth Campbell (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2011), 273-301. On Indigenous peoples’ struggles for environmental justice, see also Dina Gilio-Whitaker, As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, from Colonization to Standing Rock (Boston: Beacon Press, 2019); Kyle Powys Whyte, “The Dakota Access Pipeline, Environmental Injustice, and US Settler Colonialism,” in The Nature of Hope: Grassroots Organizing, Environmental Justice, and Political Change, ed. Char Miller and Jeff Crane (Louisville, CO: University Press of Colorado/Utah State University Press, 2018), 320-37; and Kyle Powys Whyte, “Indigenous Experience, Environmental Justice and Settler Colonialism,” in Nature and Experience: Phenomenology and the Environment, ed. Brian E. Bannon (London: Rowman and Littlefield International, 2016), 157-73.
[4] Norma Kassi, interview with author, April 9, 2020.
[5] Susie Linfield, The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 37.
[6] Lenny Kohm, quoted in Michael Mansur, “Slide Show to Bring Debate on Wildlife Refuge in Alaska,” Kansas City Star, October 15, 1991.
[7] Randall Tetlichi, quoted in The Last Great Wilderness, multimedia slide show produced by Glendon Brunk and Lenny Kohm (Sonoma Coalition for the Arctic Refuge, 1988).
[8] Norma Kassi, speaking at Youth Environmental Summit, Loveland, Colorado, June 1995; speech recorded on Hi-8 (8 mm) film by Jeffrey Barrie; video footage shared with author.
[9] On the need for more scholarship on non-iconic images, see Gregg Mitman and Kelley Wilder, eds., Documenting the World: Film, Photography, and the Scientific Record (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016). On the grassroots circulation of images in the Arctic Refuge campaign (especially the documentary film Being Caribou), see also Shirley Roburn, “Shifting Stories, Changing Places: Being Caribou and Narratives of Transformational Climate Change in Northwestern North America,” Ph.D. diss., Concordia University, 2015; and Shirley Roburn, “Beyond Film Impact Assessment: Being Caribou Community Screenings as Activist Training Grounds,” International Journal of Communication 11 (2017): 2520-39. On how the Gwich’in Nation transformed the Arctic Refuge debate into a struggle for environmental justice, see also Finis Dunaway, “Indigenous advocacy transformed the fight over oil drilling in the Arctic Refuge,” Washington Post, March 14, 2021.
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Finis Dunaway

Finis Dunaway is professor of history at Trent University. He is the author of Seeing Green: The Use and Abuse of American Environmental Images, which received the John G. Cawelti Award from the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association and the History Division Book Award from the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. His new book is Defending the Arctic Refuge: A Photographer, an Indigenous Nation, and a Fight for Environmental Justice (University of North Carolina Press, 2021).

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