Book & Author

Defending the Arctic Refuge

Tucked away in the northeastern corner of Alaska is one of the most contested landscapes in all of North America: the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Considered sacred by Indigenous peoples in Alaska and Canada and treasured by environmentalists, the refuge provides life-sustaining habitat for caribou, polar bears, migratory birds, and other species. For decades, though, the fossil fuel industry and powerful politicians have sought to turn this unique ecosystem into an oil field. Defending the Arctic Refuge tells the improbable story of how the people fought back. At the center of the story is the unlikely figure of Lenny Kohm (1939–2014), a former jazz drummer and aspiring photographer who passionately committed himself to Arctic Refuge activism. With the aid of a trusty slide show, Kohm and representatives of the Gwich’in Nation traveled across the United States to mobilize grassroots opposition to oil drilling. From Indigenous villages north of the Arctic Circle to Capitol Hill and many places in between, this book shows how Kohm and Gwich’in leaders and environmental activists helped build a political movement that transformed the debate into a struggle for environmental justice.

In its final weeks, the Trump administration fulfilled a long-sought dream of drilling proponents: leasing much of the Arctic Refuge coastal plain for fossil fuel development. Yet the fight to protect this place is certainly not over. Defending the Arctic Refuge traces the history of a movement that is alive today—and that will continue to galvanize diverse groups to safeguard this threatened land.

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“Inspirational reading for environmental crusaders of all walks of life.”

Library Journal

“It’s hard to think of a more timely book, since the fight for this great land is at its zenith; and it’s hard to think of a more useful book for anyone interested in saving anything, since it lays out a remarkable story of care in a careless world."

— Bill McKibben, author of Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?

"An especially important and timely story that explores the complex intersection of environmentalism,
Indigenous sovereignty, and the politics of climate change."

Keith Makoto Woodhouse, author of The Ecocentrists: A History of Radical Environmentalism

"This is a wonderful book by an outstanding scholar and excellent writer, with a critical set of Indigenous advocates
at the center of the history instead of on the periphery."

Andrew Kirk, author of Doom Towns: The People and Landscapes of Atomic Testing

“For decades, our people have been fighting to protect the sacred land of the Arctic Refuge. Lenny Kohm became a true friend and ally of the Gwich’in Nation because he understood what was at stake: our culture, our food security, and the caribou that migrate through our lands. He listened to and learned from our elders and took incredible photographs of our people. Defending the Arctic Refuge tells the true story of how we worked with Lenny and other allies to build a larger movement. It is a powerful, respectful history of a fight that continues to this day.”

Norma Kassi (Vuntut Gwitchin), original member of the Gwich’in Steering Committee and co–research director, Canadian Mountain Network

Defending the Arctic Refuge reads like a compelling movie plot in which the typically prominent—environmental celebrities, national newspapers, and Beltway politicians—fade into the background, while the overlooked—an unsung photographer-activist and Arctic Indigenous leaders—take center stage, joined by a larger cast of characters who contributed to this struggle. It is a book that I’ve long hoped to see: a people’s history of the longest-running multispecies justice campaign in North America. Written by a master storyteller and meticulous scholar, this is an inspiring and empowering book.”

— Subhankar Banerjee, editor of Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point

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Defending the Arctic Refuge received the 2022 Spur Award for Best Contemporary Nonfiction from the Western Writers of America, the 2022 Hal K. Rothman Book Prize for Best Western Environmental History from the Western History Association, and the 2022 Alanna Bondar Memorial Book Prize from the Association for Literature, Environment, and Culture in Canada.

Get the Book

All author royalties for Defending the Arctic Refuge will be donated to the Gwich’in Steering Committee to honor & support their vital work.

About the author

Finis Dunaway is professor of history at Trent University, where he teaches U.S. history, environmental studies, and media studies. His previous books include Natural Visions: The Power of Images in American Environmental Reform and Seeing Green: The Use and Abuse of American Environmental Images. Seeing Green received the John G. Cawelti Award from the American Culture Association/Popular Culture Association and the History Division Book Award from the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. In addition to writing for scholarly journals, his work has also appeared in popular media outlets, including a piece about “The Crying Indian” for the Chicago Tribune. For more on his Arctic Refuge writings, see the “Events & Writings” page.

Articles about Book

The Little Slide Show That Could

by Andrea Cooper, Carolina Alumni Review, November/December 2021.

Refuge Defenders: Sonoma Activists’ Role in Preventing Oil Drilling in the Arctic Refuge

by Will Carruthers, North Bay Bohemian, April 5, 2022.

Author photograph by Zoe Dunaway.