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Science Environmental Science

Defending the Arctic Refuge

A Photographer, an Indigenous Nation, and a Fight for Environmental Justice

by (author) Finis Dunaway

The University of North Carolina Press
Initial publish date
May 2021
Environmental Science, Native American Studies, Environmental Policy
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    May 2021
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Tucked away in the northeastern corner of Alaska is one of the most contested landscapes in all of North America: the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Considered sacred by Indigenous peoples in Alaska and Canada and treasured by environmentalists, the refuge provides life-sustaining habitat for caribou, polar bears, migratory birds, and other species. For decades, though, the fossil fuel industry and powerful politicians have sought to turn this unique ecosystem into an oil field. Defending the Arctic Refuge tells the improbable story of how the people fought back. At the center of the story is the unlikely figure of Lenny Kohm (1939–2014), a former jazz drummer and aspiring photographer who passionately committed himself to Arctic Refuge activism. With the aid of a trusty slide show, Kohm and representatives of the Gwich'in Nation traveled across the United States to mobilize grassroots opposition to oil drilling. From Indigenous villages north of the Arctic Circle to Capitol Hill and many places in between, this book shows how Kohm and Gwich'in leaders and environmental activists helped build a political movement that transformed the debate into a struggle for environmental justice.   

In its final weeks, the Trump administration fulfilled a long-sought dream of drilling proponents: leasing much of the Arctic Refuge coastal plain for fossil fuel development. Yet the fight to protect this place is certainly not over. Defending the Arctic Refuge traces the history of a movement that is alive today—and that will continue to galvanize diverse groups to safeguard this threatened land.

About the author

Finis Dunaway is professor of history at Trent University.

Finis Dunaway's profile page

Editorial Reviews

Inspirational reading for environmental crusaders of all walks of life."—Library Journal


Dunaway . . . has written a terrific book that contributes to the history of environmental activism by focusing squarely on the grassroots. . . . The book's other significant contribution is its discussion of the sometimes powerful, other times fraught, alliances between Indigenous peoples and mainstream environmental groups that were almost always led by non-Indigenous whites."—H-Environment