AHS Blog

Interview with Lissa Wadewitz, author of “The Nature of Borders”

Date Posted: February 6, 2013       Categories: 49 History

The Nature of Borders: Salmon, Boundaries, and Bandits On the Salish Sea is Lissa K. Wadewitz’s new book about how humans have conceptualized ocean and freshwater boundaries in the transnational context of the Pacific Northwest. The book is published by University of Washington Press. Wadewitz is an assistant professor of history at Linfield College in Oregon. The following interview was conducted by email.
Your book deals with the concept of “borders” on multiple levels (e.g., indigenous, maritime, international). Tell us what the term “border” means in the context of the fishery.
When I started writing my Ph.D. dissertation (from which this book is derived), I knew I wanted to write about how the creation of the international border at the forty-ninth parallel in 1846 (and adjusted in the 1870s among the San Juan Islands) affected fishery management practices as well as salmon fishing activity. In order to better understand the emergence of the industrial fishery of the 1890s and early 1900s, I kept delving deeper into earlier Native American fishing practices. I soon realized that the story I was trying to tell was not just about the international border, it was really about contrasting border systems. The “borders” drawn by Pacific Northwest Native peoples were essentially restrictive access customs that limited who could fish when at the height of the salmon season. The later international political border between the U.S. and Canada, in contrast, created a bifurcated, competitive market with divided regulatory jurisdictions. Since water, salmon, and fishermen move, however, this border became a line of opportunity for fishermen, smugglers, and other fishery workers. It simultaneously became an obstacle to joint salmon conservation policies and created a regulatory nightmare for government officials.
To play with the idea of borders a bit further—another series of borders that appear in the book are the social borders that fishermen and other fishery workers of varying ethnic backgrounds erected between themselves. Fishermen tended to work the same type of gear as their fellow countrymen, so they were often divided by both gear type and ethnicity. Asian, white, and Native cannery workers also rarely found ways to build alliances across ethnic lines because their suspicions about one other obstructed any larger collective bargaining effort in their negotiations with the canners.
Why the Salish Sea?
The Salish Sea is the perfect place to study the impact of border drawing on marine space and a valuable natural resource. Not only are these waters cross-cut by the international border, but they also connected the region’s Native people to one another and to their salmon. As a result, these waterways offer the ideal geographic location for looking at contrasting border practices.
As for the term itself—I initially used “Puget Sound/Georgia Basin” to refer to this series of connected waterways, but that term sounds so clinical and academic I never really liked it. I also think that using “Puget Sound/Georgia Basin” reinforces a sense of disconnection—Puget Sound on one side and Georgia Basin on the other. But these waterways are, in fact, a connected marine ecosystem. The term “Salish Sea” not only emphasizes that ecological fluidity, it also implicitly recognizes the long tenure of Coast Salish people in this region and how they likely thought about this waterscape—as one body of water that connected them to their kin and favored salmon fishing locations.
Although your book is not about Alaska, the theme of transnational fisheries management is of great interests to Alaskans. What parallels do you see between the history of the Salish Sea and Alaska waters?
From what I’ve seen in my research, I suspect that the border between southeastern Alaska and northern British Columbia presented some regulatory difficulties and opportunities similar to those that emerged along the forty-ninth parallel. It would be intriguing to compare the two border regions and tease out their differences. I also know that fish piracy—stealing salmon from salmon traps—was common in Alaska as well. (For a great book on Alaska’s salmon fishery’s history, see David F. Arnold, The Fishermen’s Frontier: People and Salmon in Southeast Alaska.)
But the real connection I see between Alaska and the salmon fisheries farther south is with the salmon themselves. Because salmon spend so much of their lives at sea and intermingle while out on the high seas, they are inherently a transnational fish. As a result, the interests of fishermen and fishery managers all up and down the Pacific coast (and indeed throughout the northern Pacific) are linked because of the salmon’s geographic reach. Historically, this has been a tremendous challenge for fishery managers. Despite the passage of the 1937 Sockeye Salmon Convention that finally brought the U.S. and Canada together to jointly manage this shared resource, the treaty waters did not match up with where people were actually catching fish. Fishermen were increasingly fishing miles offshore in order to catch the fish before their competitors, but the treaty only covered territorial waters three miles out. So from the very beginning of joint management, the area under regulation was simply too small to be effective.
How did you become interested in the topic?
I had just done a reading course in environmental history with my graduate advisor at UCLA and had become very intrigued by the field. Environmental history focuses on the relations of people to nature and natural resources in the past. As I read more, I found that several scholars had noted that although natural resources like water and animals move across international borders at will, few historians were following their subjects and crossing borders in their research. Due to my undergraduate background in Asian Studies, I already had a curiosity about international relations and issues, so I applied this interest to my new research in U.S. history. I also knew that borderlands historians had largely neglected studying the U.S.-Canada border. There seemed to be a lot of possibilities there.
Once I started investigating possible borderlands topics, I stumbled upon this shared salmon fishery between Washington and British Columbia. It seemed the perfect case study to examine the historical impact of border-drawing on a valuable natural resource. Little did I know at the time how rich and complex the story would become. When I started running across references to fish pirates, salmon smuggling, and violent interactions between American and Canadian fishermen out on the water, I knew I was on to something.
Why should people read the book?
Although I freely admit that my book is an academic history, I also worked very hard to make the book accessible to a broader audience. So there are footnotes, but there are also border bandits, fish pirates, and tales of interethnic conflict sprinkled throughout. Because my book reveals both the long history of Native American fishing practices and the serious impacts of regulatory inaction, I think it can add significantly to the general public’s understanding of our current and ongoing salmon crisis. I also think readers will be intrigued by the connections between the fishery management tactics of pre- and early-contact Northwest Native peoples and the new management practices being experimented with today.