unsettling biomedicine: research, care, and indigenous rights in cold war alaska
My dissertation maps the entangled histories of biomedical research, medical care, and Indigenous self-determination in Cold War Alaska. I argue that, through these historical processes, economic and biomedical indigeneity were co-constitued.
Beginning in the late 1940s, when the polar regions took on a new Cold War strategic importance, biomedical researchers flocked to Alaska to study its environments and peoples. This surge in research became part of Alaska’s emerging colonial economy. Alaska Native peoples engaged in biomedical labor as research subjects and, at the same time, American researchers and health officials claimed that their work could make Alaska Native peoples healthy and fit to serve as a labor force in Alaska’s burgeoning resource extraction industries. In doing so, they aimed to enroll Alaska Native peoples in their own dispossession.
However, in the 1960s, a powerful Alaska Native activist movement rose up in response to territorial dispossession and economic exploitation. This activism culminated in the passage of the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), the largest land claim in American history, which created thirteen for-profit Alaska Native Regional Corporations. Alaska Native peoples became shareholders in these corporations. Alaska Native Regional Corporations were tasked not only with generating profit and securing economic self-determination for Alaska Native communities, but also with providing healthcare and social services to the Alaska Native and American Indian individuals who lived in their respective administrative regions. As a consequence, increased access to healthcare became one of the primary dividends of ANCSA, and one of the most immediate ways that many Alaska Native peoples experienced the benefits of self-determination
Observing the rise of Alaska Native self-determination, biomedical researchers, social scientists, and anthropologists began to argue that Alaska Native peoples were incapable of engaging in capitalist enterprise without experiencing severe psychological consequences. Scholars have demonstrated that certain economic activities, particularly those that are highly profitable, are seen as incommensurable with the maintenance of authentic Indigenous identities. My research demonstrates that this debate, usually framed in terms of law, land, and culture, has been fundamentally shaped by biomedicine. In Alaska, where the preservation of Alaska Native self-determination has depended upon continued economic success, debates surrounding the impact of capitalism on physical, mental, and spiritual health had particularly high stakes.
American colonial biomedicine aimed to construct the relationship between biomedical and economic indigeneity in specific ways, but Alaska Native peoples contested these characterizations and engaged with biomedicine on their own terms. By the 1980s, Indigenous activists across the circumpolar regions had begun to contest the practices and priorities of biomedical research in the Far North. They pressured biomedical researchers to respond to the needs of Indigenous communities and to respect new sets of ethical expectations. In an effort to consolidate complete control over biomedicine, Alaska Native health organizations gradually began to fund and control their own medical research divisions with the intention of improving Alaska Native peoples’ health. But the institutional structures and practices of these organizations have sometimes borne a troubling resemblance to colonial biomedicine. Cold War biomedicine, then, not only produced biomedical knowledge in colonial spaces, but sets of formations and relationships between institutions of research, care, and ethics.
Mistrust in Medicine: The Rise and Fall of America’s First Vaccine Institute
In this article, Marco Ramos and I explain how physicians—in the 19th century and today—have worked to build public confidence in vaccination in an American culture suspicious of medical expertise. You can check it out over at the American Journal of Public Health.
Historian Andrea Rusnock also provides a thoughtful editorial to accompany the piece, which elaborates on humanitarian and financial aspects of vaccination in American History.
COMMUNICATIONS TECHNOLOGIES AS COMMUNITY TECHNOLOGIES: ALASKA NATIVE VILLAGES AND THE NASA SATELLITE HEALTH TRIALS OF THE 1970S
Jeremy Greene and I explain the role that NASA telecommunications satellites played in the development of systems of rural healthcare in Alaska.
Decolonizing indigenous genomics
My take on Kim TallBear's outstanding book: Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science for Postcolonial Studies
History of anthropology at naisa 2016
My thoughts on the 2016 Native American and Indigenous Studies Association Annual Meeting for the History of Anthropology Newsletter.
review: the birth control clinic in a marketplace world
My review of Rose Holz's fascinating study of birth control clinics sites to understand the entanglement of business and charity for The Canadian Bulletin of Medical History.
reaching out, looking in: on Research, refusal, and responsibility
This piece, published at Somatosphere, describes my attempts to engage ethically with Indigenous communities and reflects upon the broader set of obligations that come with historical work.
series: Critical histories, activist futures
Sarah Pickman and I co-edited a series of papers at Somatosphere, which are drawn from a conference, titled "Critical Histories, Activist Futures: Science, Medicine, and Racial Violence," that Sarah, Marco Ramos, and I co-organized at Yale University in February 2017.
The conference brought together historians, anthropologists, health practitioners, scientists, and local community activists to discuss the role of activist scholarship in confronting the ongoing injustices present in scientific research, healthcare practices, and academic institutions.
"Wet" Vs. "Dry" Feminists—And Why Society Can't Handle Women's Relationships With Alcohol
A short history of feminism, alcoholism, and the ways that American society has judged women who drink more than (we think) they should.
history as a resource for understanding drugs today
Marco Ramos and I taught an undergraduate seminar class on the History of Drugs in Twentieth Century America. We wrote about the process of conceptualizing the course and the experience of teaching it in a series of posts for Points: The Blog of the Alcohol & Drugs History Society