The Fishermen's Frontier
People and Salmon in Southeast Alaska
- PUBLISHED: October 2011
- SUBJECT LISTING: Pacific Northwest, Nature and Environment, History / Environmental History
- BIBLIOGRAPHIC INFORMATION: 296 Pages, 6 x 9 in, 24 illus.
- SERIES: Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books
- ISBN: 9780295991375
In The Fishermen's Frontier, David Arnold examines the economic, social, cultural, and political context in which salmon have been harvested in southeast Alaska over the past 250 years. He starts with the aboriginal fishery, in which Native fishers lived in close connection with salmon ecosystems and developed rituals and lifeways that reflected their intimacy.
The transformation of the salmon fishery in southeastern Alaska from an aboriginal resource to an industrial commodity has been fraught with historical ironies. Tribal peoples -- usually considered egalitarian and communal in nature -- managed their fisheries with a strict notion of property rights, while Euro-Americans -- so vested in the notion of property and ownership -- established a common-property fishery when they arrived in the late nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, federal conservation officials tried to rationalize the fishery by "improving" upon nature and promoting economic efficiency, but their uncritical embrace of scientific planning and their disregard for local knowledge degraded salmon habitat and encouraged a backlash from small-boat fishermen, who clung to their "irrational" ways. Meanwhile, Indian and white commercial fishermen engaged in identical labors, but established vastly different work cultures and identities based on competing notions of work and nature.
Arnold concludes with a sobering analysis of the threats to present-day fishing cultures by forces beyond their control. However, the salmon fishery in southeastern Alaska is still very much alive, entangling salmon, fishermen, industrialists, scientists, and consumers in a living web of biological and human activity that has continued for thousands of years.
Authors & Contributors
David F. Arnold is professor of history at Columbia Basin College, Pasco, Washington. He has also worked extensively in the commercial salmon fisheries of Alaska.
Foreword: On the Saltwater Margins of a Northern Frontier / William Cronon
Introduction: The Fishermen's Frontier in Southeast Alaska
1. First Fishermen: The Aboriginal Salmon Fishery
2. The Industrial Transformation of the Indian Salmon Fishery, 1780s-1910s
3. Federal Conservation, Fish Traps, and the Struggle to Control the Fishery, 1889-1959
4. Work, Nature, Race, and Culture on the Fishermen's Frontier, 1900s-1950s
5. The Closing of the Fishermen's Frontier, 1950s-2000s
Epilogue: Endangered Species?
This is a fine labour and environmental history of the Southeast Alaska salmon fisheries from before First Nations' contact with Europeans to the present. . . . He points out that, while the other elements of nature have agency in history, only humans self-consciously construct culturally and socially the meanings of their interactions with the rest of the natural world.- Labour/Le Travail
This is a wonderful book. Its putative subject is a deceptively narrow one: the history of salmon fisheries in southeastern Alaska. Like the best work in environmental history, however—- a class in which the book clearly belongs—- It has important things to say about a far bigger slice of human experience than one industry in one out-of-the-way place. It will be useful for teaching and thinking about the environment, Progressive Era government, Indians, the frontier, and several other general areas.- Journal of American History
. . . Admirably fills [a] critical gap in the history of world fisheries and of the maritime history of Alaska. . . .[Arnold's] lively narrative was born of an expertise developed not only through his doctoral research on the topic but his lived experience as a participant in the Alaskan commercial fishery.- International Journal of Maritime History
."Arnold’s analysis . . . provides a valuable contribution to the existing literature on the fisheries of the Northwest Coast. This is thanks in large part to its unusual emphasis on ethnic diversity and attention to the vagaries of social power. To paraphrase Arnold the story of salmon in Southeast Alaska illustrates the ways in which the 'public good' has often only ever been good for part of the public.- H-Net Reviews
David F. Arnold provides a richly nuanced, comprehensive history of the salmon fishery of southeastern Alaska. Arnold's study will be of considerable interest to scholars-to environmental historians certainly, but also to social, labor, and business historians, along with historians of the American West . . . . Fishermen's Frontier is an important book, handsomely produced with a detailed map, appropriate illustrations, graphs, endnotes, and a full bibliography. I learned a great deal from reading this study.- Business History Review
In this ambitious and multifaceted work, David F. Arnold provides a sweeping history of the southeastern Alaska fishery and the people who oriented their lives around it. This book breaks down conventional boundaries by incorporating Indian, labor, and environmental history, all the while addressing some of the most important themes in western scholarship. This is no simple story of declension. Arnold is alert to nuances of historical development, and he is particularly attentive to the persistence of cultural values amidst wholesale economic and political change.- American Historical Review
This book is a welcome addition to a growing scholarship on fisheries and ought to attract a wide readership beyond Alaska specialists.- Pacific Northwest Quarterly
Books about fish tend to be tales of decline . . . . A welcome exception is David's F. Arnold's portrait of the small-boat fishery and fishermen of Southeast Alaska. It is a fishery that is ecologically healthy, if not necessarily economically sound, and if that seems to be a paradox, that is because it is a fishing culture as varied and changeable as the fish themselves . . . . Arnold's is a thoughtful and insightful examination.- Oregon Historical Quarterly
A fascinating environmental history about the interaction between salmon and various peoples in southeast Alaska; Arnold's experience as a former commercial fisherman deepens this worthy account.- Seattle Post-Intelligencer
…A welcome addition to the growing body of literature on the environmental history of the Pacific Northwest. It should be of interest to environmental historians and anthropologists, Native communities, and natural resource managers. The latter in particular could gain important insight from the actions in the past that impact the present.- Western Historical Quarterly
As David Arnold makes clear in his marvelous book The Fishermen's Frontier, Alaska possesses a rich and problematic history as 'the self-proclaimed last frontier.'- Agricultural History
In this graceful and generous book, David Arnold shows us that salmon are not only good to eat, they are good to think with. By focusing on the history of the people in Alaska who have brought salmon to the table, he puts salmon at the center of an incredibly tangled set of human relationships—political, economic, and social. He illustrates quite wonderfully how much looking at people at work in the natural world can tell us about human society.- Richard White, Stanford University
A carefully researched, sprightly, and balanced account of complex interactions over time among different peoples, social customs, and the environment.- Norris Hundley, professor emeritus, University of California, Los Angeles
Arnold does a great job on the background and cultural history of the Tlingit and their relationship with the sea and salmon fishing.- Andy Ebona, Alaska Native Brotherhood, Camp 2
Arnold has presented a complete story, chronologically, topically, and historiographically. He has managed to give the reader a unified grasp of an extraordinarily complex and often contentious element in environmental and regional history. This book is really a tour de force.- Stephen Haycox, author of Alaska, An American Colony
Because The Fisherman's Frontier looks beyond the classic role of the fishery in Alaska and, instead, tells a story of fishermen and how their relationship with the natural environment changed over time, Alaskans as well as the many folk who make their living fishing northern waters will appreciate this book.- Katherine Johnson Ringsmuth, author of Snug Harbor Cannery: A Beacon on the Forgotten Shore, 1919-1980