The Nature of Place: Integrating Social and Environmental History in Regional Identity

AHA Session 36
Thursday, January 3, 2013: 3:30 PM-5:30 PM
La Galerie 5 (New Orleans Marriott)
Craig E. Colten, Louisiana State University
The Audience

Session Abstract

This panel integrates social and environmental history to investigate the concept of ‘Place” from the perspective of local regions that differ in fundamental ways from their surrounding environs. The papers address several interrelated questions, including: How does a place develop along different racial and/or ethnic lines, establish different economic patterns, and follow different cultural trajectories than more “normative” surrounding regions? How are people’s lives shaped by these unique or unusual environments, and how in turn have people altered those environments to create a distinctive sense of place?

The first two papers examine distinctive rural, agricultural regions. Mark Hersey investigates Alabama’s Black Belt. Set apart by distinctive soils, the region faded into an economic backwater after the Civil War, its former prosperity and influence giving way to a profound and abiding poverty. Hersey probes this understudied region to explore important connections between land use, race, and historical memory. An examination of the ways in which poverty was naturalized and landscapes defined in racial terms in a quintessentially southern place, Hersey argues, sheds light on both the southern and American experience.

Philip Garone explores California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Formerly a vast wetland region, after statehood the Delta was reclaimed for agriculture, largely by Asian immigrants. The Delta borders the San Francisco Bay area, but it is a world apart from that bustling metropolitan region. Garone explores the myriad reasons for the Delta’s distinctive identity, and interrogates why that identity has been overshadowed and rendered invisible to outsiders by the region’s importance as the linchpin in California’s hydraulic infrastructure, through which irrigation and drinking water is conveyed from northern to southern California.

The next two papers turn to regional identities associated with the harvesting of natural resources. Valoree Gagnon brings an ethnographic approach to Lake Superior’s Keweenaw Bay Indian Community. This Ojibwa tribe continues to rely on traditional fishing practices and maintains traditional environmental values to a degree that sets its people apart from other non-tribal surrounding communities in the Great Lakes region. The Ojibwa today face numerous threats from fish contaminants, which pose dilemmas to the tribe’s harvesting decisions and the future of its fishing culture. Gagnon demonstrates how environmental policies shape community stories and identity.

Jeff Johnson addresses how nineteenth-century Asian entrepreneurs in New Orleans and coastal Louisiana developed a thriving trade in dried shrimp that linked the Gulf Coast with transpacific markets and laid the foundations for industrial-scale harvesting in the Gulf of Mexico. Johnson’s paper extends the narrative of the Gulf South beyond consideration of commodities such as cotton and other agricultural staples, and highlights an overlooked dimension of Gulf culture that was grounded in Filipino and Chinese communities that looked toward the Pacific, rather than in Atlantic-oriented creole communities.

By interrogating the formation of distinctive regional identities and highlighting the significance of those identities in larger geopolitical and economic contexts, this panel will appeal broadly to those interested in regional history, ethnic history, and, more broadly, the linkages between social and environmental history.

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