While attending a talk by the distinguished environmental historian William Cronon during his first year of graduate school, Trent History professor Dr. Finis Dunaway had a scholarly epiphany.
“[Cronon] gave a critique of the wilderness ideal in American culture based on literary texts, but the whole time he was talking, I was thinking about visual images and the role they play in shaping ideas of wilderness, nature, and the environment. That led me to wonder if I could combine these two interests,” he says.
Fast forward to today and Professor Dunaway is an award-winning historian, renowned for his work setting a new standard in establishing visual analysis as an important aspect of environmental history.
Recognition of Research Impact
Prof. Dunaway is also this year’s recipient of Trent’s Research Impact Award, which recognizes the originality of his research, particularly how his approach to publishing has reached a considerably larger audience than traditional academic publications and amplifying the impact of environmental history.
“In my research, I try to emphasize the role that images play in history, not just as passive mirrors of the past, but as active agents in shaping popular attitudes towards politics and values, and ways of being in the world,” he says. “It was quite a surprise and certainly a tremendous thrill and honor to be recognized this way for work that I enjoy doing.”
Prof. Dunaway is the author of three books, including 2015’s Seeing Green: The Use and Abuse of American Environmental Images. The book received multiple awards, and its arguments have been featured in a wide range of media outlets, including a recent episode of the HBO show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.
Latest book focused Indigenous activism in northern communities
Published in 2021, Prof. Dunaway’s latest book, Defending the Arctic Refuge: A Photographer, an Indigenous Nation, and a Fight for Environmental Justice, is the winner of three different awards, including the 2022 Spur Award for Best Contemporary Nonfiction Book by the Western Writers of America.
It’s a story about Lenny Kohm, a former jazz drummer turned grassroots activist who travelled across the United States and northern parts of Canada to rally opposition against proposed oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This area is home to many vulnerable species of wildlife, including the Porcupine caribou herd, which the Gwich’in communities in Alaska, the Yukon, and Northwest Territories rely on. Lenny listened to and learned from the Gwich’in about how the caribou were vital to their food security and cultural survival. He became a trusted ally in their fight to protect the Arctic Refuge.
It’s also a story of the power of images in generating interest in a subject, rallying support for a movement, and, ultimately, affecting change.
“What’s quirky is that Lenny used old-school slide projectors, loading them up in his car, and driving around the United States for two decades giving slide shows in church basements, university lecture halls, and public libraries, often with Indigenous spokespeople accompanying him,” says Prof. Dunaway. “To me, it was a completely different and surprising way to think about how images could have this power and agency to build a grassroots political movement.”
As Dunaway worked on the book, that movement faced one of its biggest threats ever. In 2017, President Donald Trump signed legislation allowing fossil fuel lease sales in the Arctic Refuge.
Linking research to contemporary environmental and social justice debate
Prof. Dunaway, who interviewed many of the Indigenous people who knew Lenny, now felt a responsibility to link his research to the contemporary debate.
Over the past few years, he has written about the Arctic Refuge for the Washington Post, The Hill, and Truthout, and developed a public history website to share his research with others. He also tracked down a large collection of Lenny’s slides, digitized them, and returned them to the Heritage Department of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation.
“These images, many leaders hope, will have important value for intergenerational knowledge sharing in their communities,” Prof. Dunaway says. “I’m enormously grateful to the Gwich’in and many others across the continent who generously shared their stories and knowledge with me. They helped me understand this history differently—and, indeed, encouraged me to rethink the purpose of historical research. My name may be on the cover, but there’s no way I could have written this book without their participation.”