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The Ontological Problem with Sovereignty: Indigenous Nations, Territoriality, and the Making of Natural Resources in Alaska

Chelsea Chapman

University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Anthropology

December 20, 2009

Congressional resolution of Alaska Native land claims in the 1970s, driven by a discursive collusion of carbon crisis and neocolonial urgency to build the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, has created a substantively different legal and economic relationship between Alaskan indigenous nations and the state than that which exists for Lower 48 tribes. It has also resulted in increasingly intense inter-tribal and intra-organizational conflict over environmental governance, development, and energy, most recently culminating in a January 2009 heating oil crisis in rural villages throughout the state. In this paper, cultural conceptions of fossil energy held by young indigenous anti-development activists from Gwich’in and Koyukon tribal villages are contrasted with those held by energy analysts in Doyon, Ltd, interior Alaska’s largest regional Native corporation. The villages rejected the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and their citizen activists now provide counter-narratives of sovereignty and ‘natural resources’ that not only diverge from those held by Doyon members, but also illuminate indigenous diversity in conceptions of energy as category. Narratives of last winter’s rural crisis demonstrate how fossil energy is conceived of in culturally distinctive ways by Alaska Native environmental activists, policy makers, and energy analysts. Further, their evaluations of energy covary with diverse legal relationships between village governments, the corporations, and the state. By investigating fossil energy as a total social fact, critical ethnography can illuminate the multiple cultural understandings of relational sovereignty and energy that inform indigenous conflict in Alaska.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 25

Keywords: energy, anthropology, sovereignty, Alaska, ANCSA

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Date posted: April 2, 2010  

Suggested Citation

Chapman, Chelsea, The Ontological Problem with Sovereignty: Indigenous Nations, Territoriality, and the Making of Natural Resources in Alaska (December 20, 2009). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1579776 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1579776

Contact Information

Chelsea Chapman (Contact Author)
University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Anthropology ( email )
5240 Sewell Social Science Hall
1180 Observatory Drive
Madison, WI 53706
United States
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