Tuesday, September 27, 2011

“The Canadian Reindeer Project: Experimenting with Science and Development in Northern Environmental History”

Hello readers of this blog!

I'm hoping I can use this space to share some writing with you--to gather your input and to let you know what I've been working on recently.

I have been invited to contribute a chapter for an edited volume on northern environmental history. This field of scholarship has academic kin in environmental history, Canadian and Alaskan history, and Arctic studies. The longer piece of writing below is actually a blog post about my chapter for this edited volume. (I know, this is a very involved introduction--but please, dear reader, keep reading).

The blog post is part of a series of posts released by the contributing authors, meant to promote the collection and to start conversations among the authors. We are gathering as a group in late October to offer feedback to one another and to build cohesion into our project. You can check out the existing posts and read more about our group here.

Any feedback on this post is welcomed and appreciated. You'll soon see that I'm writing to a very specific audience, so apologies for jargon and ambiguous references. Also, to learn more about the shape of my contribution to the book project--and my dissertation--please attend next week's brownbag. I will be presenting on the Canadian Reindeer Project and adding flesh to the skeleton of an argument I lay out below.

All the best-
Andrew Stuhl


On December 8th, 1948, a motley crew of civil servants, military officials, and academics huddled together at the Royal Canadian Air Force mess on Gloucester Street in Ottawa. Calling themselves “The Arctic Circle,” they formed to confront matters of national importance in the north. At this inaugural meeting, botanist A.E. Porsild reported on the reindeer experiment in the Mackenzie Delta, a government program he helped establish in the 1930s. Admitting some difficulties in recruiting local Inuit as herders, Porsild boasted that the Canadian Reindeer Project had demonstrated “considerable and sustained progress."

This scene hints at several themes I will explore in my contribution to this collection. Consider first the interplay between expertise and administration embodied in A.E. Porsild. Hired by the Department of Interior to study the Alaskan reindeer industry in the mid 1920s, Porsild had no academic training in botany nor experience managing reindeer. He was selected as the man for the job despite internal grumblings in a nascent northern bureaucracy—a so-called systematic botanist was no match for a “practical reindeer man” who could travel in the remote, unforgiving north. Yet by the 1940s, Porsild was hailed as an authority on Arctic vegetation, partly because of his tenure with the body assembled to manage the Canadian Reindeer Project, the Interdepartmental Reindeer Committee. His career is a rich case study for understanding the conditions by which professional scientists entered the realm of Arctic leadership.

At the center of Porsild's report to The Arctic Circle sat reindeer, an animal he had grown to know well. The story of reindeer has heretofore been confined to popular accounts of the drive from Alaska or presented as a corollary to histories of game management. Thanks to historian John Sandlos, we understand the reindeer as representative of conservation politics in the early 1900s and as emblematic of a pastoral Arctic ideal. Emerging from a Royal Commission on developing muskox and reindeer industries, the reindeer experiment created a 7,000 acre Reindeer Grazing Preserve, protected by permits for trapping or hunting within its boundaries. Yet the introduction of a foreign species to the Western Arctic has more nuances to unpack, beyond the ways officials used reindeer to regulate northern life and landscapes.

At play with the Canadian Reindeer Project was not just a politics of conservation, but also a politics of conversion. We glimpse this as Porsild bemoans the issue of attracting Inuit from the trapping economy to the grueling practice of herding. Enchanted by the animal's innate abilities to transform barrenlands into grazing pastures, bureaucrats hoped the animals would convert primitive hunters to domesticated herders—creating Canadian citizens who, by their labor in a new reindeer economy, demonstrated sovereignty in the Western Arctic. Here, in the reindeer, we witness a tool capable of restricting the “wanton slaughter” of caribou—and establishing a wholly different commerce among bureaucrats, Saami, and Inuit. The Reindeer Project thus begs for contextualization alongside other Canadian imperial gestures in a post-Depression era push for low-cost paternalism and high-value development.

The timing of this first meeting of The Arctic Circle presents a final riddle, for my chapter and for northern environmental historians. One of the grand narratives of northern historiography postulates that Ottawa neglected northern territories until mid-century, when defense needs provoked unprecendented intervention into Arctic life. That The Arctic Circle would convene in 1948 to consider a twenty-year-old development scheme may then seem out of place. Building on recent scholarship that challlenges the simplicity of this narrative, I argue that relationships between the government and the north should not be measured with post-World War II characteristics as a baseline. Rather, we must situate manifestations of expertise and development, as has been achieved with the idea of “the North,” in historical, geographical, intellectual, and political contexts. Doing so yields a complex, if more complicated, picture of northern environmental history.

Indeed, as native northerners, scientists, and civil servants made sense of the federal presence in the Western Arctic in the 1950s, they turned to the reindeer for guidance. Like Porsild above, officials in Ottawa found in the animal hope for a happy union among science, enterprise, and government. In contrast, for Inuit in Aklavik and Inuvik, reindeer epitomized governmental exploitation of and experimentation with northern lands and people. Reindeer had not suddenly appeared as symbols of progress or control. Rather, these meanings were imbued in the animals because of a deep history and despite a radically changing present. For those at mid-century and for us today, then, the Canadian Reindeer Project brings into focus textures of northern environmental history that might otherwise be overshadowed.


  1. Andrew, congrats on being invited to contribute a chapter to a book! I still need to read this more carefully, but you know I love it since it's about Canadians. I look forward to talking to you about your work more seriously soon!

  2. "The Arctic Circle": Love it!

    Reading this, my basic reaction is "Write it." You've got a solid proposal here and some rich material. As always, it is written in a really compelling style.

    The offer still stands to trade some writing. I'm dealing with similar issues of academic/practical science (In your case the "so-called systematic botanist" vs. “practical reindeer man” and in mine the intersection of economic botany and tropical ecology). You are dealing with development, ecology, conservation, and the meanings of the arctic, and I am doing similar things with the tropics. There are some interesting convergences and comparisons to make.

    If there are more specific kinds of feedback you're looking for about this particular piece, let me know. To me, though, it looks like you've identified some intriguing central themes-- you've just got to go ahead and work through the story in the larger chapter.

    Looking forward to your brown bag!

  3. My only suggestion in your future construction of this chapter is to be careful about framing the reindeer as actors e.g. turning to "reindeer for guidance." It seems to suggest that the reindeer actively lent their assistance or provided feedback. Or another example: "Reindeer had not suddenly appeared as symbols". I think the passive voice leaves open the possibility that the reindeer had something to do with their transformation into symbols.

    I think the only thing reindeer can do in an active sense is eat, poop, sleep, fight, and copulate, no? I'm splitting hairs here. This is going to be a really great piece. I'm excited.

  4. I'm OK with the way you're using reindeer. Mostly you appear to be looking at the cultural/scientific meanings humans imbued them with. But I think you also know how to use reindeer as historical actors as an environmental historian, and I would disagree with Bennett about your need to back away from this. Reindeer's biological nature surely did play a role in how they could or could not be used to transform Inuit ways of life or develop the arctic landscape. And I do think that the biological and physical nature of species can play a role in their transformation as symbols-- they're not blank slates.

  5. I'm just referring to the language the blog contains rather than a theory of mind over deer. I guess this depends on how you will frame the animals with respect to their guidance. If this concerns their habitat and behavior and the ways humans responded, then sure. But I think the use of the word guidance is a bit of a stretch, because it anthropomorphizes the deer. However, if the historical actors did indeed do this, then it's quite appropriate to include this word choice in your historical interpretation. But I just wanted to make a distinction between the deer's utility to the humans involved, and their human qualities. It seems like they had explicit functions (aesthetic and practical) in this story, which suggests their tool-like qualities to me.

    Also my lack of familiarity with environmental history probably has something to do with this. My only exposure to historical analysis of animals comes out of the history of venesection, and clearly the animal role in that is incredibly awful to think about. In that context, I see the folks who end up on the dissecting table as more as a blank slate, as it was often their bodies surgeons were interested in. I should read more about the history of animals and environment.

  6. Thanks for the comments everyone! Megan, we should definitely share some work. As soon as I have some completed, you'll be the first to know!

  7. There are some strong parallels between your study and Actor Network Theory--especially my obsession with the deer.

    From Wikipedia

    Actor-network theory insists on the agency of nonhumans. Critics maintain that such properties as intentionality fundamentally distinguish humans from animals or from “things” (see Activity Theory). ANT scholars respond that (a) they do not attribute intentionality and similar properties to nonhumans; (b) their conception of agency does not presuppose intentionality; (c) they locate agency neither in human “subjects” nor in non-human “objects”, but in heterogeneous associations of humans and nonhumans.

    Better sources

    • Laboratory life: The construction of scientific fact Introduction, Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar. (Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1986).
    • Laboratory life: The construction of scientific fact Chp 2, Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar. (Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1986).
    • Give me a laboratory, Bruno Latour. IN: Mario Biagioli (ed.), The Science Studies Reader, (New York: Routledge), 1995 [1985], pp. 258-75.
    • Actor network theory and after After ANT (J. Law), John Law and John Hassard, ed. (Oxford, Blackwell, 1999) pp. 1-25, 74-89.
    • Actor network theory and after On recalling ANT (B.Latour), John Law and John Hassard, ed. (Oxford, Blackwell, 1999) pp. 1-25, 74-89.
    • Actor network theory and after Ontological politics (A.Mol), John Law and John Hassard, ed. (Oxford, Blackwell, 1999) pp. 1-25, 74-89.
    • The Growing Engagement of Emergent Concerned Groups in Political and Economic Life, Callon.

  8. All great stuff, Bennet! And though I have a bee in my bonnet about the historical agency of nature, your point about not anthropomorphizing is definitely taken!

  9. Lots of attitudes about his project and interesting to see this one..
    Lloyd Binder
    Canadian Reindeer