In this week’s episode, host Daniel Raimi talks with Bathsheba Demuth, an associate professor at Brown University, about the history of the Bering Strait, which separates Alaska and northeastern Russia. Demuth discusses the ecosystems, peoples, and economic systems in the region and how interactions between Indigenous peoples and colonial settlers affected the local environment and social and political life around the Bering Strait.
Listen to the Podcast
- Intense commercial whaling in the Bering Strait hurt local ecosystems and communities: “This period of whaling [in the 1860s and 1870s] pushed the bowhead population from 20,000 down to about 3,000 by the early twentieth century … This produced a series of social and ecological effects. Bowhead whales, like many big whale species, are critical pieces of their ecosystems … For Yupik and Iñupiat communities that live on the coasts, the absence of whales … particularly in the 1880s, led to a series of famines and general social crises.” (7:48)
- Economic systems were foisted on Native Alaskans by the United States and Soviet Union: “The US idea was to take collectivist peoples and turn them into private property owners on the US side of the Bering Strait. The Soviet Union came in wanting to do exactly the opposite, because the Indigenous peoples of the interior of northeastern Russia owned private reindeer herds … They, too, projected all of these normative dreams about how people are supposed to live and interact with an economy through reindeer in this inverted way.” (15:30)
- Mining for critical minerals may become more important in Alaska: “As there’s increasing investment and pressure on green energy technologies (solar and wind) that require lots of different kinds of metals, there is going to be a renewed demand boom in Alaska for various kinds of resources. What that will mean for waterways and people’s lives is an active discussion.” (24:11)
Top of the Stack
- Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait by Bathsheba Demuth
- Wolfish: Wolf, Self, and the Stories We Tell About Fear by Erica Berry
The Full Transcript
Daniel Raimi: Hello, and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I’m your host, Daniel Raimi.
Today, we talk with Dr. Bathsheba Demuth, Dean’s Associate Professor of History and Environment and Society at Brown University. Bathsheba is the author of Floating Coast: An Environmental History of The Bering Strait, and I cannot recommend this book enough. The book explores the ecosystems, peoples, and economic systems of a fascinating part of the world and sheds light on how the interactions between Indigenous people and colonial settlers affected every aspect of life for people, wildlife, the environment, and more.
In today’s conversation, I’ll ask Bathsheba to share stories from the book that include the history of whaling, reindeer herding, gold mining, and much more. Stay with us.
Bathsheba Demuthh from Brown University. Welcome to Resources Radio.
Bathsheba Demuth: Thank you. It’s good to be here.
Daniel Raimi: We are thrilled to have you. Today, we are going to talk about your amazing book, Floating Coast: An Environmental History of The Bering Strait. Before we dig in, we always ask our guests how they got interested in working on environmental issues in the first place—whether your interest sprung up early in life or later. We’re curious—what steered you into this line of work?
Bathsheba Demuth: My path into writing about energy is a circuitous one. It started when I was 18, and I did not know what I wanted to study in college. I thought it was an awfully big commitment of time and money to spend four years when I didn’t know what I wanted to do.
I took what we would now call a gap year (it wasn’t remotely that institutionalized back then) and moved to a little Indigenous village in the Canadian Arctic called Old Crow. My job there was to train a sled dog team, about which I knew nothing—or less than nothing, if that’s possible. It was in the course of what ended up being several years that I spent in Old Crow training dogs and living with folks—and, as I say in the introduction to the book, learning how not to die—that the ways in which people and their ecosystems interact with each other became a lifelong preoccupation.
I was not thinking in terms of energy at the time, but it is that experience that led me to graduate school. It was in graduate school that the thinking about energy and environmental issues coalesced for me.
Daniel Raimi: As I mentioned, your 2019 book Floating Coast is an environmental history of a place that you call Beringia. We’re going to talk about Beringia in our conversation today. Can you help us get started by situating us geographically? Where in the world are we talking about?
Bathsheba Demuth: Beringia is not a part of the world that many of your listeners probably wake up in the morning thinking of, but it refers to this region in the far northeast of Russia and far northwest of Alaska, where the Eurasian continent and the North American continent almost meet at the Bering Strait.
It’s from the Bering Strait that Beringia gets its name. It’s an ecologically and geologically similar region starting from the Kolyma River, which is in Russia, to the Mackenzie River, which is in Canada.
Daniel Raimi: You’ve spent a lot of time on both sides of the border, is that right?
Bathsheba Demuth: Yes.
Daniel Raimi: Most of the questions I’m going to ask you are US-focused because we’re a US-based podcast, but we’ll definitely refer listeners to read the book because there’s a ton of amazing stuff on the Russian side, as well.
The first section of the book, and the first couple things I’d love to ask you about, is about whales and whaling. There’s this amazing section that talks about how whalers ended up sailing all the way from Massachusetts, down around the tip of South America and up to Beringia, to look for whales. There’s also a great discussion about how their hunting techniques differed from those that Beringian people had used for hundreds or maybe even thousands of years. I’m wondering if you could talk us through some of those differences and that history to give us a flavor for it.
Bathsheba Demuth: Whales, particularly bowhead whales, have been critical to Indigenous people living around the Bering Strait for thousands of years. There are whale-bone sites that go back several thousand years, at least, and probably further.
They’re important because bowhead whales are animals that people are able to hunt, if you have the skill. It’s difficult, because they can weigh up to 100 tons. They’re substantial animals, and they have an enormous amount of fat and meat. In the Arctic and subarctic ecosystems, they’ve been critical to people for a very long time. Whales are critical at a basic caloric level, but they’re also critical in all sorts of cultural and spiritual ways for Yupik and Iñupiat communities. That mode of whaling, which killed maybe 100 whales a year out of a population that’s well over 20,000 bowheads, is the norm for human-whale relationships in this part of the world over the long span of history.
The way that bowheads interacted with people changed around 1848, which is when the first of these ships from Massachusetts made its way all the way to Beringia. These whalers made that incredibly long, often dangerous voyage, because they were interested in killing whales—not for food and fuel, the way that they’re used traditionally around the Bering Strait. They were interested in whale oil as a commodity. If you’ve ever read Moby Dick, you probably have some sense of what whaling looks like: the gore of it, the smell of it, and the danger of it. It’s an intense job.
These whaling crews had killed off the whale populations that were closer to home. By the 1840s, they were driven all the way north through the Pacific up to the Bering Strait to try to kill as many whales as they could to bring the whale oil back to market.
Daniel Raimi: How did those activities affect the ecosystem and the population of bowheads in the region?
Bathsheba Demuth: From the historical record, I’ve sensed that whaling history has two phases. The first is right after 1848; the first whale ship goes back to Hawaii at the end of the whaling season and writes about how amazing the whaling is up in the Bering Strait. The next year, there’s a big rush. I think of it as the first Arctic oil rush. Hundreds of whale ships come north over the next couple of years and find it very easy to hunt bowheads. They call them docile and friendly and use all those sorts of adjectives.
The whales quickly changed their behavior. In the early 1850s, the whales adapted in ways that meant they started avoiding whaling ships. They became so effective at this, particularly at using the sea ice as a protective barrier between themselves and these wooden ships (captains don’t want to sail close to the sea ice), that the whaling fleet actually left the Bering Strait for a number of years. Then they came back, and, by the 1860s and 1870s, they figured out how to sail closer to the ice.
This period of whaling pushed the bowhead population from 20,000 down to about 3,000 by the early twentieth century. It was a huge drop-off. This produced a series of social and ecological effects. Bowhead whales, like many big whale species, are critical pieces of their ecosystems. There’s this phenomenon that whale biologists talk about called the whale pump, where the activities of whales in diving and surfacing move nutrients through the ocean in ways that are beneficial to all the photosynthetic life that lives in the seas. Whale activities make the oceans more productive biologically. The absence of whales changes the entire ecosystem at sea.
For Yupik and Iñupiat communities that live on the coasts, the absence of whales is intense. These are communities that are highly adapted to being able to hunt whales and find them critical nutritionally and spiritually. Their absence, particularly in the 1880s, led to a series of famines and general social crises in the communities around the Bering Strait.
Daniel Raimi: One of the things that I love about the book, and I love a lot of things about it, is not only the descriptions you have of interactions between humans and ecosystems and animals, but also interactions between humans and other humans.
Can you give us a sense of how the whalers from the United States interacted with Beringians and how those interactions changed over time? There are a million stories here, but could you highlight a couple for us?
Bathsheba Demuth: It’s hard to pick. In some ways the arrival of the whale ships is the first moment of sustained, ongoing exchange between people from outside Beringia and these Beringian communities. Many of them had been trading for a long time. The northwest coast of Alaska had been receiving goods that were traded from the interior of Russia and across the Bering Strait well prior to that. There was a lot of knowledge about what people wanted to exchange with each other, which in some cases surprised the whalers who expected to show up and be seen as foreign. It turned out that people were actually like, “We want sewing needles and knives. We know what you’re good for.”
Right away there was a relationship of exchange between whalers and communities around the Strait. Often, if these whaling ships wrecked, which happened not infrequently, the whalers were dependent on whichever Indigenous community they wrecked near.
There’s a case of a ship’s captain named Thomas Norton. His ship wrecked in the ice, and he had to overwinter on the Russian side of the Bering Strait. The whalers talked directly about the incentives to be good partners with native peoples from the region, because they understood that they might be directly dependent on them, often for months at a time if they wrecked their ships.
By the later part of the whaling period, that dynamic shifted because, particularly in the 1880s, there was a general productive crisis around the Bering Strait. There were not enough whales because of the commercial whaling. There were not enough walruses because there had also been commercial walrus hunting. This was a moment of real decline in caribou and reindeer populations, and animals that people ate from the interior of the continent were less available. There aren’t as many ptarmigan. Everything seemed to be at a low ebb.
A few people, particularly men from Indigenous communities, signed on to whaling ships as hired whalers. They took their expertise, which many of them had for generations, and used it in exchange for food and wages to compensate for the calories that had been removed from their world by this commercial venture.
Daniel Raimi: There are amazing photos of people on ships, including Native Beringians on ships. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like back then, but the photos provide a fascinating glimpse into those moments.
You mentioned walruses, and there are entire sections on Arctic foxes. I would love to talk about them, but I’m going to jump ahead and ask you about reindeer or caribou. To start this conversation, I’d love it if you could read a little from the book from page 171, a section that summarizes some of the interesting economic issues that surrounded reindeer and caribou in the context that you write about.
Bathsheba Demuth: That part starts, “Yet, in using reindeer to reap energy from the northern land and discipline its people, adherence to market growth and the collective plan alike embedded their economic ambitions in a world made from the wills of other species and the undulations of climate, in time that moves in cycles as much as forward.”
Daniel Raimi: I’d love it if you could talk a little more about that sentence and what it tells us about the ways in which white settlers arrived on this scene and how the US government sought to use reindeer to shape the economic present and the future of the Native Alaskan people that they were interacting with.
Bathsheba Demuth: One of the things that was striking to me as I was working through the archives and other kinds of sources for this book was the ways in which government officials, people from the Bureau of Education and people from outside of northwestern Alaska coming in, were concerned that the landscape did not conform to agricultural expectations.
I have a colleague named Jen Rose Smith, who has this amazing phrase. She calls it “temperate normativity,” where if you come from a temperate place and you show up in the far north, you’re aghast that there are no amber waves of grain and no forests. All of the productive things that people interested in assimilating Indigenous populations thought were the correct economic forms are not present. There’s a lot of hand-wringing in the archives about, “How are we going to make Yupik and Iñupiat people citizens if we cannot turn them into farmers?” That had been the model on the Great Plains, and an incredibly violent model.
They hatch this plan that, if they can bring domesticated reindeer, which have been used by Indigenous peoples in Eurasia for hundreds of years, and import them to Alaska, they can essentially use them as a form of economic pedagogy—to turn Indigenous peoples in Alaska into Jeffersonian yeoman reindeer herders or people who own property and participate in the market through their reindeer herds.
In a set of ironies that seemed almost too good to be true as a historian, the US idea was to take collectivist peoples and turn them into private property owners on the US side of the Bering Strait. The Soviet Union came in wanting to do exactly the opposite, because the Indigenous peoples of the interior of northeastern Russia owned private reindeer herds. Coming in as stalwart Marxists, this was a real problem. They wanted to make people collectivists. They, too, projected all of these normative dreams about how people are supposed to live and interact with an economy through reindeer in this inverted way.
In doing so, both the United States and the Soviet Union put a great deal of time, effort, and resources into trying to transform people and to try to make the tundra as agricultural as possible. It doesn’t work, because, ecologically, reindeer are animals that fluctuate, population-wise, through time. Their populations will go up, and then they often crash—sometimes quite dramatically. Then they will go up again, which of course, if you have very linear dreams of economic growth, is not what you want. Part of what interested me about tracing the ways in which both the United States and the Soviet Union interacted with these animals as colonial tools is that they ended up running into forces that were far beyond even the two superpowers of the twentieth century.
Daniel Raimi: Can you give us a sense of how that not-totally-successful attempt to encourage Native Alaskans to raise these herds affected people? What were some of the ultimate effects on the people who engaged in this type of new herding activity?
Bathsheba Demuth: In Alaska, the reindeer-herding experiment has an interesting legacy. Initially, there was this moment of real keenness on trying to use reindeer in this way, but it does not have a consistent legislative or policy force behind it. Sometimes people pay attention to the reindeer, and sometimes they don’t. This opened up a lot of space for native communities to use reindeer as they saw fit. They brought reindeer in if they were useful and could be incorporated as part of other activities that were meaningful and made sense.
Reindeer herding continues. There are some folks all over Alaska who still have herds, but it did not turn into the three-million-strong commercial reindeer farming of the whole state that had been the initial idea.
Daniel Raimi: I’m going to ask you about another commodity that people from all over the world flocked to Alaska for, which is not oil, but gold. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, you tell stories about people coming in particular to the Seward Peninsula in search of gold.
Can you give us a sense of the chaos that surrounded the staking of mining claims and how mining for that gold affected the local environment in the decades that followed?
Bathsheba Demuth: The Nome Gold Rush, which is the last in this series of nineteenth-century gold rushes, hit this beach off the coast of the Seward Peninsula almost overnight in the way that gold rushes often happen. It goes from a place that has a mostly Indigenous population in the low thousands to a place that has tens of thousands of people flocking in. Part of what draws this prospector community initially is that the beach around Nome was seeded with gold. The way that gold was eroding out of the mountains behind Nome and down through the creeks meant that this beach had fairly substantial flakes of gold in the sand to quite a depth.
It was a place that, with very low-technology tools, you could come and pan gold out of the beach very fast. Because of the ways that private property laws work in the United States around bodies of water, the beach couldn’t be subdivided, owned, and claimed in the way that interior land could. If you could get to Nome, set up a tent, and have a gold pan, there was a decent chance that you could make money in that first summer. The huge rush of people completely rearranged the beach.
One of the ways in which gold was processed in this period was to use mercury to access it. That process can be incredibly polluting to the water and damaging to the people doing the work.
Then, the miners faced this moment where they mined out the beach to where there was only so much gold that they could get to by hand. They started looking in the creeks further up outside of Nome. That mining requires significantly more technological investment. There’s some that you can pan out of the rivers, like the stereotypical image of the gold prospector, but a lot of it needs gold dredges and investment.
It was at this moment that a lot of people came north, because they wanted to get money so that they could stop working for wages, which was a very fraught thing in the late nineteenth century. People talked about being wage slaves. This is a period of huge economic boom-bust instability. If you didn’t own your own property or your own business, you were really at the whims of a market that could let you go at any time. Workers were trying to escape that. Many of them ended up working for large mining companies. There’s an interesting moment, both of absolutely unbridled capitalist boom and then, right on its heels, some of its major adherents becoming quite critical of it.
Daniel Raimi: You mention in the book that there are reality TV shows that currently exist that follow people who are mining for gold today in that same area. Is that right? How are they mining for gold? Can you give us an update on the modern-day gold mining there? Is it still the individual entrepreneurial system, or are these people working for large conglomerates?
Bathsheba Demuth: Alaska has this whole cottage industry of reality television. If you spend time there at all, you’ll run into somebody who is on the Discovery Channel or National Geographic. There’s one show that’s specifically focused on these small-scale miners. They’re not doing hard-rock mining for the most part; it’s a lower-tech version.
Around Nome, a lot of them are trying to access the parts of the Nome Beach that are underwater. That area of sand that is heavily seeded with gold goes out into the ocean. They’re using these Dr. Seuss–looking contraptions with long hoses that you can put down on the seafloor; you suck the sand up and filter the gold out. Many of them go down in full diving rigs. It’s an interesting continuation of the Nome Gold Rush. Apparently, there was an uptick in this kind of mining after 2008. As the price of gold went up, people’s employment prospects went down, resulting in a boom in this artisanal mining.
Daniel Raimi: One last question on the gold mining. You mentioned the use of mercury in gold mining, and we’ve done podcasts where we talked about the use of mercury in gold mining in the Amazon in Brazil. I hope there are better regulations on mining these days. Have you followed that issue? Are there regulations in place to be more protective of the environment today?
Bathsheba Demuth: Today, you can’t go buy large jugs of mercury and just use them on the beach. That’s definitely changed.
When you’re accessing gold that’s more embedded in hard rock, which is where a lot of mining now takes place, it tends to be near deposits of other kinds of metals and pollutants. There’s often a lot of arsenic that comes up with gold.
One of the discussions that’s currently unfolding in Alaska is, as there’s increasing investment and pressure on green energy technologies (solar and wind) that require lots of different kinds of metals, there is going to be a renewed demand boom in Alaska for various kinds of resources. What that will mean for waterways and people’s lives is an active discussion. I don’t think there are any conclusions at the moment.
Daniel Raimi: I could ask you about the Pebble Mine, but I won’t, because that’s a whole other ball of wax.
So, Bathsheba, one more theme I’d love to explore with you before we ask you to recommend something that’s on the top of your own reading stack is that the book says that it’s an environmental history of the Bering Strait. It certainly is that, but it’s also a fascinating economic history. As we’ve already discussed, there’s this recurring theme about how the United States and the Soviet Union took different approaches and encouraged, or in some cases forced, Beringians to adopt their preferred economic systems.
We’ve talked about this in terms of caribou, but I’m wondering if you could, using other examples or diving deeper into caribou, help us understand these two different approaches and how they have affected people over time.
Bathsheba Demuth: When I started this project, I rather naively expected to find many points of departure, given that the United States and the Soviet Union cast themselves as such ideological opposites and spent a large part of the twentieth century organizing geopolitical life around being polar opposites. When it comes to the process of assimilating Indigenous populations, they actually have a lot in common. The idea that you need to transform people’s economic lives is one example. Both states go about this.
The Soviet Union was more willing, in the case of their far northeast, to use violence than the United States was in Alaska. For example, direct sending-in-the-army violence. That’s something that the United States, of course, does with many other parts of its Indigenous conquest, such as moving west across the Great Plains. But, by the time the United States is operating in Alaska, there is less of that direct military conflict there than there is in the Soviet Union.
The core similarity that both states have is a desire to create people who are similar to each other. They want to create Soviet or American citizens who believe and participate in the Soviet or American economies in recognizable ways. That set of pressures comes with things such as compulsory education, which is one of the most forcible transitions in both Alaska Native and Russian Native lives. These pressures create new sets of incentives within communities, often for people to settle in particular areas rather than being nomadic or partly nomadic. They produce incentives for people to move to cities because of economic opportunities. Those dynamics look quite similar on both sides of the straits.
Underneath all that is a general desire to not deal with the fact that Indigenous peoples in these places have sovereign claims to land. The United States eventually settled with the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in the 1970s. It recognizes the fact that the people who had been living there prior to Europeans have a legal claim to land. The Soviet Union and the Russian Federation have still not done anything equivalent to that. Underneath this process of economic assimilation is actually a motive to erode, ignore, or erase sovereign claims so that the United States or the Soviet Union can say, “This land is ours.”
Daniel Raimi: That’s so fascinating. The book is wonderful, and I really encourage people to check it out, because obviously we’re just scratching the surface today, as we often do on the show. Again, it’s called Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Straits by Bathsheba Demuth.
Bathsheba, we’d love now to ask you to recommend something that you’ve read, watched, or heard recently that’s related to the environment, or even just tangentially related to the environment. We’re not that picky.
Bathsheba Demuth: One of the books that I’ve most loved this year, which was just published this past Tuesday, so it is literally hot off the presses, is called Wolfish by Erica Berry. It’s hard to classify. It’s a mix of history and memoir and a cultural examination of humans’ relationships with wolves and, through that, how we understand fear and our relationship with the environment more generally. It’s a wonderful read.
Daniel Raimi: That sounds fantastic. One more time, Bathsheba Demuth from Brown University. Thank you so much for coming on the show. Thank you for writing this wonderful book, and thank you for sharing it with our listeners on Resources Radio. We really appreciate it.
Bathsheba Demuth: Thank you. It’s been such a pleasure.
Daniel Raimi: You’ve been listening to Resources Radio, a podcast from Resources for the Future. If you have a minute, we’d really appreciate you leaving us a rating or comment on your podcast platform of choice. Also, feel free to send us your suggestions for future episodes.
This podcast is made possible with the generous financial support of our listeners. You can help us continue producing these kinds of discussions on the topics that you care about by making a donation to Resources for the Future online at rff.org/donate.
RFF is an independent, nonprofit research institution in Washington, DC. Our mission is to improve our environmental, energy, and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement. The views expressed on this podcast are solely those of the podcast guests and may differ from those of RFF experts, its officers, or its directors. RFF does not take positions on specific legislative proposals.
Resources Radio is produced by Elizabeth Wason, with music by me, Daniel Raimi. Join us next week for another episode.