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CRG Thursday Forum:

Retracing, Repurposing, and Reimagining:
Critiquing Contemporary Engagements With Colonial Expeditions

(Re)imagining Race, Nature, and the Colonial Frontier in Northern Spaces through the Harriman Alaska Expedition and the Harriman Retraced
Jen Smith, Ethnic Studies

(Re)presenting Race and Land:
Constructions of Nature, Culture, and Ecology in The Confluence Project in the Columbia River Gorge
Ashton Wesner, Environmental Science, Policy and Management

Creative representations of colonial histories have the potential to contest dominant narratives of erasure and modernization, as well as reinscribe them in new ways. The retracing of original colonial events reveals continuity in the elision of alternative epistemologies and the obfuscation of positionality. We examine two historical retracings to critique the narrative power of environmental ethic and its link to the nation’s purposeful production of race and other forms of difference. The Lewis and Clark and Harriman Alaska Expeditions (HAE) are cases of vaunted masculinist colonial endeavors that expanded American landscapes geographically and ideologically. The contemporaneous repeated journeys of The Confluence Project (TCP) and Harriman Retraced intersect with current anxieties regarding climate change, as the Pacific Northwest and the Arctic operate as environmental strongholds in the national imaginary.

TCP is a collaborative project in the Columbia River Gorge with the goal of exploring intersections of environment, culture, and regional history at eight points along the river through building ecological parks with art installations and interpretive materials inspired by passages from Lewis and Clark’s documentation of each location. As a social and political process that produces both a material place and immaterial narratives run-through with power relations, TCP not only (re)tells and (re)imagines the history of the Gorge but (re)shapes the land with built memorials that may unintentionally continue to solidify and naturalize settler colonial violences.

The HAE of 1899 was an academic pilgrimage of the era’s predominant intellectuals, including John Muir, John Burroughs, and Edward Curtis. During four months, HAE taxonomized thousands of flora and fauna, and procured dozens of Tlingit cultural items from Saanya Kwaan village site. The HAE was retraced in 2001, and the written documents, photographs, and maps from the maiden voyage served as guiding narratives for a contemporaneous coterie of elite academics, repurposing a set of literature that has yet to be critically examined. Documenting a century of environmental change, the HAE Retraced privileges environmental concerns as benign and seemingly universal. The team commits a mistake similar to their forefathers by producing an environmental ethic that separates itself from violent colonial histories.

We aim to generate discussion surrounding how histories of colonial exploration, enacted by the HAE and Lewis and Clark, can be engaged in a contemporary moment such that narratives of manifest destiny and moderniziation are undone. In retracing an imperial expedition, how can we trouble the maintenance of whiteness inherent in these repetitions? What are the possibilities of retracings and what kind of politics, methods, and collaborations are necessary to cultivate liberatory potential?