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Uncovering Alaska

September 13, 2016

Most of us know that Alaska is the 49th state, but we assume that it was assimilated, seemingly effortlessly, into the American nation. Even Alaskan residents do not know the full history of that process, because few scholars have examined it. Born in Alaska, PhD candidate Jessica Arnett understands this lack of research and is working to reveal new insights through her dissertation on Alaska Native Sovereignty.

Arnett is researching how the interaction of colonizing settlers and imperialism has shaped Alaska’s current position under US law. She explained how, different from the arrangements in the lower 48 states which include treaties and reservations, Alaska’s indigenous population is arranged into regional for-profit corporations that control specific areas of land. "It's a really fundamental difference in the expressions and vehicles of indigenous sovereignty,” she says.

Arnett is trying to understand how colonizers and federal actors characterized Alaskan natives in relation to American Indians. Ultimately, the question comes down to what the legal status of Alaska Natives means in terms of Native land, sovereignty, and citizenship rights, and US settler colonial or imperial ambitions. This debate is ongoing, essentially from 1867 up through Alaska statehood and even into its current political status

The impact of Arnett’s research extends beyond the Alaskan borders because it examines how the federal government interacted politically with the indigenous population. This interaction, though unique to Alaska, is important because non-native actors characterized Alaska natives in relation to American Indians. “What I’m essentially trying to argue is that you can’t understand the United States, and you can’t understand American Indian History, unless you understand Alaska and Alaska Natives. That’s the major takeaway—in order to understand what’s going on in the lower 48 states, you have to understand what’s going on in Alaska.”

Arnett has received a CLIR Andrew Mellon Fellowship for her dissertation research. This fellowship has given her a unique opportunity to travel to various sites across the country in pursuit of primary sources. The fellowship, which is awarded to only fifteen students per year nationally, is given to graduate students doing original source dissertation work in the humanities and related social sciences so that they can do more extensive research–wherever in the world it's necessary.

The funding to visit source repositories  is an incredible advantage for Arnett, simply because her primary sources are not all in one place. “One of the interesting things about researching Alaska is that my archives are located all across the United States,” she says. “Just about every month I’m getting off one plane and getting on another."

So far she has traveled to various presidential libraries and archives in Alaska, Washington DC, Seattle, and College Park, MD. Discovering connections throughout her archival research has been crucial to understanding the bigger picture. “What I’m finding is that a lot of the conversations about Alaska’s independance are located in different and underutilized archives,” she explains. “Once you get to them all you can put the conversations together. It’s really exciting.”

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.