DEW Line Passage Project Summary

This is a dissertation project in cultural anthropology that proposes a comparative, interdisciplinary study of the impacts and legacies of the development, implementation, and decommissioning of the western half of the Distant Early Warning radar line (DEW Line) in northern Alaska and Canada’s western Arctic.  Understanding the localized social and environmental impacts of global militarization is a critical task for anthropology and one that coincides in the North with the need to gather histories from Inuit perspectives. This study’s purposes are to elucidate how the global phenomenon of militarization penetrates and brings about change in small communities and to determine whether local attitudes towards security, the environment, industrialization, and political participation can be traced to the policies of the Canadian and American governments during the construction, operation, and clean up of the line.  Ethnohistorical research and pilot studies in communities adjacent to radar sites have provided background for the project.  Personal narratives of arctic residents and employees, combined with documentation of the radar stations and remnants, will be collected during a multi-season voyage along the western half of the DEW line.

This project’s intellectual merits correlate to a growing understanding that anthropology is particularly well-suited to investigate more holistically issues that have largely been restricted to the domains of political science and history.  Several scholars of militarization have made explicit calls for ethnographic investigations into the impacts of bases on indigenous lands (e.g. Johnson 2005).  These analyses must consider a hybrid of cultural, social, economic, and political processes – requirements of any relevant study of globalization.  The transformative qualities of this project include research questions and an innovative fieldwork plan that respond to those needs: the study is regional, multilocal and transnational to provide for a broad comparative understanding, while still relying on local narratives and ethnographic detail as evidence.  Techniques of repatriated ethnography which guide investigations into the role of western assumptions and cultural practices are also incorporated into this research plan.  Each aspect has particular relevance for the larger context of indigenous communities living with the military around the globe and for anthropological understandings of militarization. 

            This project’s broader impacts for the knowledge of arctic cultural and environmental change are clear: the geopolitical significance of the Arctic is increasing in terms of climate change, natural resource development, and sovereignty issues.  The social and environmental history of the DEW Line is a subject largely ignored within American academic circles, yet which could inestimably enrich our understanding of and planning for future arctic change.  In particular, knowing which aspects of arctic militarization contributed to health, resilience, and sustainability and which aspects were detrimental to those areas will be vital information in the coming decades.

            The DEW Line was completed in 1957, coinciding with the last IPY.  This anniversary signals that it’s time to analyze the legacies of this transformative arctic event which is so closely connected to arctic science.  By its completion, the DEW Line had resulted in over 40 new airfields and helicopter landing sites and a major hydrographic survey of the entire arctic coastline.  Construction of the line created infrastructure that supported research and industrial development in the Arctic and enabled the advancement of northern science and technology. The 1957-’58 IPY inspired the superpowers to transcend national security restrictions in the spirit of international cooperation.  A newly informed and adaptive vision of the Arctic also requires the power of interdisciplinary efforts, including ethnographic study.