A Lab at the Top of the World: Circumpolar Health and Indigenous Politics in Cold War Alaska

imageTess Lanzarotta is a PhD candidate in the Department of History of Yale University. In 2015-16, she was a Research Fellow of the Consortium. Read about her Consortium-supported research below. My dissertation focuses on the history of the Alaskan circumpolar health movement during the Cold War. Members of the circumpolar health movement, a loose coalition of public health officials and biomedical researchers, formulated definitions of health and ideas about what it meant to live healthfully in the Far North that were profoundly shaped by the Cold War political contexts in which they worked. Today, the International Union for Circumpolar Health, the field’s major research organization, maintains that the movement was founded to bring together the interests of biomedical scientists and health officials working in in the Far North with those of Arctic indigenous populations. Such a characterization is perhaps an accurate representation of the priorities of circumpolar health today, but it does little to explain how the interests of Alaska Native peoples came to be seen as central to the agenda of circumpolar health. How did Alaska become a site for so much sustained activity in Cold War biomedicine and public health? And, how did this activity give rise to something called circumpolar health that framed the pursuit of biomedical progress and of indigenous rights as complementary goals? In exploring these questions, I have begun to trace how biomedical researchers working in Alaska explained the scientific value of Alaska Native peoples’ bodies. In the 1950s, as Alaska emerged as a site of Cold War strategic importance, biomedical scientists visited newly-established research laboratories to study Alaskan indigenous populations. Driven by the goals of the American military, which funded much of this early research, the study of human physiology in cold climates emerged as a central scientific preoccupation. If Alaska Native peoples had adapted to the harsh Alaskan climate, could white American soldiers learn to do the same? The American military hired Kaare Rodahl, a prominent Norwegian specialist in physiology and nutrition, to head a research team at the Arctic Aeromedical Laboratory, just outside of Fairbanks. Rodahl and his research team secretly administered radionuclides to Alaska Native individuals, who were told that they were enrolled in a nutrition study, in an effort to locate the “unique racial endowment” which allowed Alaska Natives to live comfortably in the Far North. As a research fellow with the Consortium, I was able to learn more about this study and its consequences through the Jay Katz papers at Yale University Manuscripts and Archives. Katz, a bioethicist and law professor, was named to the federal Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments in 1994; his papers provide valuable detail on the study itself and on the broader investigation into radiation exposure amongst Alaska Native peoples. Beginning in the 1950s, biomedical researchers also framed Alaska Native peoples as useful “isolates,” populations whose relative genetic homogeneity made them valuable “natural laboratories” for various kinds of biomedical research. While at Yale’s Manuscripts and Archives, I worked with the papers of John Rodman Paul, an epidemiologist who visited the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory in Point Barrow. Paul enlisted the local Inupiat population to give samples of blood for his research, which at the time was focused on poliomyelitis. Most interesting for me was discovering Paul’s anxieties about this process - he hoped that the indigenous residents of villages near the laboratory would not become overstudied “experimental populations.” He also noted that he had offered local residents medical care as compensation for their participation in his work. Such personal reflections shed light on the relationships that developed between researchers and the Alaska Native communities they visited. Researchers developed a sense of concern and obligation towards the people they studied and Alaska Native peoples, in turn, developed expectations about what researchers had to offer them. Bearing that in mind, I have also begun to consider how Alaska Native political organizations understood the potential value of biomedical research and public health infrastructure for the communities they represented. After Alaska’s transition to statehood in 1959, Alaska Native political activism became increasingly powerful and organized, culminating in the passage of the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, the largest land claim in American history. Alaska Native political organizations took lessons they had learned from this political work and found various ways to reconstitute public health and biomedical research as sites from which to seek out solutions to the health problems their communities had identified as most urgent. This form of activism had, I think, an impact on the shape of the circumpolar health movement; it pushed researchers and health officials to reconsider who should have a voice in setting the agenda for health research in Alaska. My project deals fundamentally with the history of ideas - tracking how they move from one place to another and attempting to identify the consequences of these circulations. At the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, I was able to look through the records of the Indian Rights Association, an influential advocacy group dedicated to lobbying for changes in American Indian policy. Through this collection, I began to piece together the connections between different groups of indigenous activists in Alaska, across the United States, and internationally. This challenged my thinking on the pathways that ideas about indigenous rights had moved along and has led me to question my assumptions about which groups of actors will appear in my project. My fellowship at the Consortium came at an early stage in my writing process and I am sure that what I learned through my research will continue to shape my thinking as I progress further. In addition, my brown bag lunch was enormously helpful; the community at the Consortium were welcoming, generous with their time, and offered me a number of useful suggestions and challenging questions to consider. I am grateful to the Consortium for granting me such valuable opportunities for research and reflection.

Tess Lanzarotta