A Tundra of Sickness: The Uneasy Relationship between Toxic Waste, TEK, and Cultural Survival

Joslyn Cassady


In 1992 an abandoned federal radioactive waste dump was discovered in Arctic Alaska. The discovery of this site, a byproduct of the Atomic Energy Commission program known as Project Chariot, sent shockwaves throughout Iñupiaq communities and ignited a heated controversy over the health effects of subsisting on a “tundra of sickness.” Drawing on thirty months of ethnographic research in Arctic Alaska, this paper explores a host of environmental, social, and moral uncertainties sparked by toxic waste. Anthropological claims regarding the extent to which “traditional ecological knowledge” will empower local communities and foster self-determination are challenged. Ultimately the paper argues that TEK has been conceived in such restrictive terms that it misrepresents the dynamic, emerging, and at times contradictory responses to toxic waste in the Arctic today. Moreover, there is dire need for a more materialist, as opposed to discourse-based, approach that acknowledges the very real threat of toxic waste to physical, and therefore, cultural reproduction.

  • Joslyn Cassady, Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, New Jersey 07940