Ecological and Environmental Histories of the United States Island Empire

Endorsed by the Western History Association

Saturday, April 1, 2023, 1:30 PM - 3:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Environment; Science, Medicine, and Public Health


The island territories of the United States empire continue to hold ambiguous and uncertain political and citizenship statuses in the United States well into the twenty-first century. Yet, it could be argued that this uncertainty has been a defining facet of US colonial rule since the turn of the twentieth century, especially in regard to the environment. Whether it be the scientific uncertainty yet to be explored within the imperial tropics or the tropical cyclones that slammed into the territories, these island spaces of empire have their own environmental and ecological history that are essential to understanding the United States’ global power in the twentieth century. Through histories of natural disasters and ecological and botanical studies, this panel examines how the islands and peoples of the United States empire in the Atlantic and the Pacific experienced American colonial governance in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Frequently, colonial officials, including politicians and scientists, collected scientific and ecological knowledge as well as took advantage of political and economic opportunities in the attempt to make certain the US colonial power in the territories. Alvita Akiboh explores how the US federal government and imperialists were scientifically fascinated yet woefully ill-prepared for the natural disasters such as hurricanes, typhoons, and volcanic eruptions across the overseas territories. Ian Seavey examines how a 1928 hurricane in Puerto Rico created the opportunity for US imperialism to further impose itself in the territory, notably by rebuilding the colony in a way that prioritized capitalist expansion and the political, economic, and social growth of the colonial elite. Akiboh and Seavey demonstrate the long history of how natural disasters become political issues especially in the insular empire. Furthermore this panel shows how by making the exotic, familiar, colonial officials found ways to control and exploit indigenous and local ecological knowledge. Kathleen Gutierrez shows how colonial botanical knowledge production grounded in taxonomic methods simplified the complexity of Mindanaoan women’s botanical knowledge and ecological epistemologies in the Philippines. If botany exploration can highlight the intrinsic difference between colonial and local knowledge, the historical memory of natural disasters also reveal the inherently different perspectives of the imperial power and colonized. Kristin Oberiano asks how natural disasters such as super-typhoons influence notions of time and historical memory across the Pacific territories of Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands in a similar way to how colonial regimes mark historical eras. Gutierrez and Oberiano demonstrate the interplay between colonial and indigenous/local knowledge of the environment. Ultimately, this panel shows how environmental and ecological histories of the US island empire unsettle canonical narratives of United States history by transcending national, imperial, and even continental borders. These presentations reveal how the US imperial power is not simply one of colonizer and the colonized, but of the United States colonial control over (is)landscapes, seascapes, and climate across the globe.

Papers Presented

From Hurricane Alley to the Ring of Fire: Knowledge and Ignorance in Disaster Preparedness for the U.S. Colonial Empire

Since the turn of the twentieth century, the United States has governed a territorial empire of islands and archipelagos prone to frequent natural disasters—hurricanes, tropical cyclones, typhoons, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions. U.S. imperialists took these islands for a variety of reasons: these islands were strategically situated, overseas imperialism would allow them to keep expanding an imagined “frontier,” and this island empire is also what the United States was able to acquire, being a comparative latecomer to overseas imperialism. Travelogue writers wrote about these “new possessions” in great detail, paying particular attention to the climate and topography of these places—often emphasizing the risk of disasters that were exotic and unfamiliar to people in the continental United States. U.S. imperialists weighed the costs and benefits and decided that the risk of disaster was worth the potential reward. Hypotheticals soon became realities, when in the first few years of governing this colonial empire the U.S. government was already dealing with hurricanes, typhoons, and volcanic eruptions from the Caribbean to the Pacific. Whether Hurricane San Ciriaco in 1899 or Hurricane Maria in 2017, the U.S. federal government has been woefully unprepared for these crises. This is despite a wealth of knowledge, both popular and scientific, about the frequency of disasters in these places. This paper will analyze the tension between the popular and scientific narratives that exoticized the possibility of disaster with the federal and colonial government’s lack of preparedness when actual disaster strikes.

Presented By
Alvita Akiboh, Yale University

Constructing Catastrophe: The 1928 Caribbean Hurricane and the Motivations of American Disaster Policy

On the night of September 13, 1928 and continuing into the morning of 14th, a vicious hurricane referred to as San Felipe battered the island of Puerto Rico. After displacing over 500,000 people from their homes in Puerto Rico, San Felipe trudged on and struck the east coast of Florida on September 17, claiming the lives of some 2,500 people. This storm highlights how the imposition of a political, economic, and social status quo was paramount in the relief efforts undertaken by the U.S. government and emblematic of the pre-Depression 1920s that prioritized unfettered capitalist expansion. By 1928, U.S. disaster relief policies were institutionalized and favored partnering with local elites to maintain economic control of the sugar industry. This policy emerged from earlier relief efforts that excluded Puerto Ricans and African Americans from political processes, championed agricultural production instead of industrialization, and reinforced a rigid social hierarchy with limited upward mobility. These entrenched policies further constructed vulnerability among Puerto Ricans and African Americans in Florida because of an insistence on maintaining the status-quo- colonial dominion in Puerto Rico and Jim Crow segregation in Florida- rather than addressing long-term structural problems like poverty, disease, and infrastructural sustainability.

Presented By
Ian Seavey, Texas A&M University

Weaving the Disciplinary Limits

In the history of science, the role of craft knowledge has been under-theorized but has been gaining more prominence in the historiography of the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. Embodied knowledge, material culture, and artisanal know-how have become important locations for scholars to discover how historical actors understood, made sense of, and transformed nature. For the history of U.S. imperial botany, in particular, craft material offers a promising avenue to uncover local colonial plant knowledge obscured by metropolitan herbaria, published tomes, and bureaucratic archives. This paper excavates the botanical knowledge embedded in Mindanaoan textiles and weaving implements from the U.S. colonial period in the early twentieth century. In the colonial Philippines, fibers, textiles, and weaving technologies revealed botanical knowledge held largely by female actors, who transformed plants into finished cloth. Colonial botanists often disaggregated weavers’ information on plants, creating indices that deconstructed their craft into constituent parts. I read these indices alongside extant textiles, tools, and records of weaving practice to trace a vernacular epistemology of plant life that confronted botanists’ preoccupation with singular, isolated species for systematic study. From this confrontation, I argue that U.S. colonial botanists entrenched their philosophical commitments to “pure” taxonomic botany vis-a-vis economic or ethnobotany to which the work of weavers had become relegated. Such a move would consign the botanical knowledge within the craft to the realm of indices unsuited to capture the more complex vernacular within it.

Presented By
Kathleen Cruz Gutierrez, University of California, Santa Cruz

Typhoons & Time: The Environment and Historical Memory in the Marianas Archipelago

Two U.S. territories—Guam and the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI)—comprise the Mariana Islands, an archipelago located in the Western Pacific. Despite the fact that the two territories have different imperial histories, they share common environmental experiences of war and natural disasters. It is not uncommon to hear time discussed in terms such as “before the war” or “after the war” to discuss the events of World War II and “before Typhoon Pamela” and “after Typhoon Yutu” to refer to not only of the storms themselves, but as time markers closely related to significant events, such as births, deaths, marriages, migration, among others. Through a combination of oral histories and local newspaper reports, this presentation will highlight how the people of Guam and the CNMI experienced several super-typhoons in the latter half of the twentieth century and early twenty first century—Karen (1962), Pongsona (2002), Yutu (2018)—to underscore how they understood environmental transformations in the (is)landscapes and how doing so influences archipelagic notions of time and historical memory.

Presented By
Kristin Oberiano, Wesleyan University

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: JoAnna Poblete, Claremont Graduate University
JoAnna Poblete is a professor of history at Claremont Graduate University. She earned a BA in History from UC Davis and an MA and PhD in History from UCLA. She was a Carolina Postdoctoral Fellow at UNC-Chapel Hill for two years and taught at the University of Wyoming for six years. Her research interests connect studies of colonialism and empire, migration and labor, oral history, comparative ethnic studies, Asian American and Pacific Islander studies, Caribbean Studies, indigenous history, environmental history, identity, and twentieth century U.S. history. Poblete’s first book, Islanders in the Empire: Filipino and Puerto Rican Laborers in Hawai‘i, received the Best Book Award in History from the Filipino Section of the Association for Asian American Studies in 2018. Her second book, titled Balancing the Tides: Marine Policies in American Sāmoa, became available as an open-access, free PDF in 2019 and paper copies were published in March 2020 by the University of Hawai‘i Press. Poblete also has articles in American Quarterly, the Pacific Historical Review, Cambridge History of America in the World, and Women, Gender and Families of Color, with forthcoming essays in the Journal of Energy History and the Filipinx American Studies anthology. Poblete’s current book project focuses on the role of women in relation to the oil industry on St. Croix, part of the unincorporated territory of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Presenter: Alvita Akiboh, Yale University
Alvita Akiboh is an assistant professor of history at Yale University. She is a historian of the U.S. colonial empire, and is currently at work on two book projects. Her first book, Imperial Material: Objects and Identity in the U.S. Colonial Empire, under contract with University of Chicago Press, examines the role of everyday objects with national symbols like flags, money, and stamps in the overseas territories of the United States. Her newest research focuses on the history of natural disasters in U.S. overseas colonies. She is also writing about the relationship between U.S. postal service and empire, and fraud and scandal in U.S.-occupied Cuba.

Presenter: Kathleen Cruz Gutierrez, University of California, Santa Cruz
Kathleen Cruz Gutierrez is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she teaches courses on modern Southeast Asia, the Philippines, science, and the environment. Presently, Dr. Gutierrez is completing a manuscript, Sovereign Vernaculars in the Philippines at the Dawn of New Imperial Botany, that examines domains of colonial botany as they were upbraided, challenged, or enhanced by vernacular expressions of plant knowledge. Her recent anthology contributions include a genre- bending meditation on the Imelda Marcos toad lily in The Mind of Plants: Narratives of Vegetal Intelligence (Synergetic Press, 2021) that opens the possibility for plant agency in the study of contemporary Philippine history and an essay on the personal impact of COVID-19 and its intersection with contemporary Philippine politics in Qui Parle. She has published previously in the Journal of Asian Studies, Asian Review of World Histories, and Philippine Journal of Systematic Biology. For 2021–2022, she is a Humanities Mellon Fellow at the New York Botanical Garden and will be an Interdisciplinary Residency Fellow at the Oak Spring Garden Foundation to finalize her book project for peer review.

Presenter: Kristin Oberiano, Wesleyan University
Kristin Oberiano is Assistant Professor of History at Wesleyan University, whose research examines the United States empire in the Pacific. Kristin’s research project, Territorial Discontent: Chamorros, Filipinos, and the Making of the United States Empire on Guam, explores the evolution of the political, social, and cultural relations between the Indigenous Chamorro people and Filipino migrants/immigrants under the multiple iterations of the United States military empire on Guam over the twentieth century. Territorial Discontent engages in frameworks of race, settler colonialism, militarism, and migration within empire.Her work has been supported by the Fulbright Program in the Philippines, the Harvard Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, the Harvard Center for American Political Studies, among others. In addition to her academic roles, Kristin is the Secretary of Guåhan Sustainable Culture 501(c)(3), a non-profit organization dedicated to food sovereignty on Guam. An islander living on the East Coast, Kristin was born to and raised by Filipino immigrant families in Guam

Presenter: Ian Seavey, Texas A&M University
Ian Seavey is a PhD candidate in the department of history at Texas A&M University. His research examines U.S. relations with Puerto Rico through the lens of disasters. His dissertation seeks to tell the story of Puerto Rico’s disaster history while foregrounding it in the broader history of American disaster policy. He will also demonstrate how evolving ideas of disaster relief fundamentally shaped the imperial relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico. He has two articles scheduled for publication in 2022, one in the Florida Historical Quarterly and the other in the Journal of Advanced Military Studies. He has presented his work in various venues including the annual meetings of the Organization of American Historians, the Society of Historians of American Foreign Relations, Society for Military History, the Rocky Mountain Council of Latin American Studies, and the American Society of Environmental History.