Defending the Arctic Refuge

A Photographer, an Indigenous Nation, and a Fight for Environmental Justice

By Finis Dunaway

344 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 35 color plates, 1 map, notes, bibl., index

  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-6110-0
    Published: May 2021
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-6111-7
    Published: April 2021
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-5980-8
    Published: April 2021

Flows, Migrations, and Exchanges

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Awards & distinctions

2022 Spur Awards for Best Contemporary Nonfiction, Western Writers of America

2022 Alanna Bondar Memorial Book Prize, Association for Literature, Environment, and Culture in Canada

2022 Hal K. Rothman Book Prize, Western History Association

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.

About the Author

Finis Dunaway is professor of history at Trent University.
For more information about Finis Dunaway, visit the Author Page.


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


"Dunaway . . . has written a terrific book that contributes to the history of environmental activism by focusing squarely on the grassroots. . . . The book’s other significant contribution is its discussion of the sometimes powerful, other times fraught, alliances between Indigenous peoples and mainstream environmental groups that were almost always led by non-Indigenous whites."—H-Environment

"A remarkable story of dedication and resilience. . . . Dunaway advances a form of scholarship that not only bridges scholarly and popular writing, but which is accountable to those who appear in the book and who worked closely with Kohm. That friends of Lenny Kohm can read and enjoy his story, which is also about them, will undoubtedly be appreciated by those who knew him."—Western Historical Quarterly

“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?

“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