October 2017

Homes and Homelands in Television’s Last Frontier

Our updates from the Humanities Research Seminar continue, this week with a post by Justin Rawlins, Assistant Professor of Media Studies and Film Studies at The University of Tulsa, where he also serves as faculty advisor for TU’s student-run media production lab, TUTV.

Alaska is in the midst of a 21st-century boom. It’s not the gold or copper rushes that have lured thousands of fortune seekers north over the last 100 years. Instead, it’s the state’s outsized place in US media culture that over the last decade or so has heightened Alaska’s status in the American popular consciousness. Put simply, Alaska is everywhere. Journalist Craig Medred said it best:

“The 49th state is quickly approaching a point where it has more reality shows than salmon—and there are a lot of salmon up here.”

This trend has only increased since Medred penned these words in 2014. There are currently dozens of Alaska-based shows available to TV audiences.

There are several actors responsible for bringing about the Alaska media phenomenon. The state’s Film Production Tax Credit Program offered incentives from its inception in 2009 to its premature end in 2016. Former governor Sarah Palin’s rapid ascent to the national political stage in 2008 also brought the state newfound attention (although Palin’s reality television series was among the shortest lived). These programs may have also found more interested producers and audiences in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis where, as Diane Negra suggests, the pluck and determination of white male workers represented in programs like Gold Rush offered redemption for the perceived disposability of their post-2008 labor and shored up gender instabilities by emphasizing their return to breadwinner status.

My research explores just what “Alaska” emerges in this media boom to those who call the state home and those who do not. Using “home” and “homeland” as a framework for making sense of this media construction, I argue, generates valuable questions and observations that shed light on the implications of this phenomenon for residents and outsiders.

There are many other media productions that are part of the recent boom in “Alaska” media yet diverge from more omnipresent reality TV fare. Here are a few examples: Indie Alaska / The Ketchikan Story Project / Kivalina / Attla / Kisima Ingitchuna

For spectators who visit Alaska as a televised destination, what values do resource extraction-oriented programs such as Deadliest Catch and Gold Rush project onto Alaska? What meanings do they evoke for those who call the state home? How do non-Alaskan audiences make sense of programs such as The Last Alaskans and Life Below Zero, which intentionally locate home in remote areas far from conventional communities? How do media programs produced within Alaska by Alaskans overlap with and deviate from these mainstream productions? What role does the state’s colonial history and its ongoing repercussions play in representations of Alaska as homeland, as extraction site, and as tourist destination? Given the centrality of the land and its resources to representations of Alaska, how are home and homeland mediated in relation to the Arctic’s accelerated experience of climate change? How do images such as those of Alaska Native coastal and riverside communities falling off eroding coastlines jibe with the mythologies perpetuated by narratives of triumphant gold miners?

Image from a June 2009 US Government Accountability Office report detailing a dozen Alaska Native villages considering relocation due to erosion and encroaching water.

“Home” and “homeland” are generative in part because they prompt these questions and observations, and because they invite audiences to weigh the impacts of media images and narratives regarding people and places they do not know versus those they do. These terms can therefore precipitate pauses in escapist fantasies often mapped onto mainstream “Alaska” television, and can provoke reflection on how outsiders make sense of its residents and spaces. They can spur long overdue considerations of the material impacts of the Alaska television boom—and the longer-term consequences of the region’s historical role as a colonial “rush” destination—for Alaska and those who call it home.





Compound Life

This week’s post is by 2017 OCH Fellow Keija Parssinen, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Tulsa and  author of The Ruins of Us, which won a Michener-Copernicus award, and The Unraveling of Mercy Louis, which earned an Alex Award from the American Library Association and was selected as a Best Book of 2015 by the Kansas City Star.

When people find out that I was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, their first question is usually, “What was that like?” My answer? Not as strange as you’d think. While Saudi Arabia and the United States are radically different countries in nearly every measurable way, I grew up on a compound called Dhahran, which was created by the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) for its employees and their families. Imagine a small American town plunked down in the middle of a forbidding desert landscape: Cookie-cutter homes nestled on suburban cul-de-sacs, swimming pools, baseball fields, kids careening around on bikes and skate boards. All of it enclosed by a twelve-foot chain link fence topped with barbed wire and guarded by Saudi police cradling AK-47s.

Ask any Aramco “Brat” about her experience growing up in the Kingdom, and she will likely gaze off into the middle distance, get a bit misty-eyed, and say dreamily, I had a perfect childhood. Every year, there is a “Brat” reunion hosted in some sunny, Southern locale, and the children of Aramco gather to swim, drink, and reminisce about the good old days. We are all friends on Facebook, our shared history making us members of a kind of club.

And yet, what did we know of Arabia? Many residents did not move outside the confines of their comfortable, Western-style existence and saw Saudi Arabia as a means to an end—that end being financial security and perhaps early retirement. We were expatriates, not immigrants; we didn’t learn Arabic in school. Our families were there temporarily so our fathers could provide necessary skills to a company whose homegrown work force was still developing.

The “special relationship” between America and Saudi Arabia touted by politicians was, at its heart, transactional. The Americans, starting with a few hearty and adventuresome geologists in the early ‘30s, provided expertise and technology to the emergent Kingdom. In return, King Ibn Saud granted the Americans a concession to vast swaths of the desolate Eastern half of the country, which would later prove to hold the world’s largest oil reserves. The Americans paid for the concession in gold bullion, and so Ibn Saud and his heirs grew rich, solidifying their shaky hold over the nascent country. Within a few years, World War II broke out and the United States found itself in desperate need of these newfound resources. 

Despite its benefits, the partnership with the Americans was a thorn in the side of the monarchy, which had to continuously justify the presence of thousands of non-believers to the religious establishment that helped bring the Al Saud to power, and who feared that the Americans would sow moral corruption in the heart of the Muslim holy land. To placate the clerics, the royal family assured them that there would be little to no cultural cross-pollination between expatriate employees and Saudis. Though the children of Saudi employees once attended Western-style Aramco schools, in the mid-80s the company removed all Saudi students to proper Saudi schools so that they could receive religious teaching, learn Arabic, and most importantly, stop fraternizing with their American counterparts.

As children, though, we Aramco Brats knew nothing of the politics underlying our families’ presence in the Kingdom. We knew nothing of our parents’ unrest and boredom. We could not yet define neo-colonialism or terrorism. But we knew the quickest way to the Third Street Pool, the best flavor of slushie to buy at the snack bar. We knew the grit of sand in our teeth during shama’al, the sound of thousands of locusts beating against our windows during plague-like infestations, and how to fall asleep on a trans-Atlantic flight. We knew the smokey flavor of chicken shwarma on our tongues and the sound of the call to prayer. We knew all of these things, and we loved them with an unquestioning, adamant child’s love. Despite its controversial place on the world stage, despite the fact that it didn’t really love us back, Saudi Arabia was only one simple thing to us: home.

Homeland, Immigrants, and Sanctuary

This week’s blog post is by OCH Fellow Betsy McCormick, Associate Clinical Professor and Associate Dean for Experiential Learning at the TU College of Law. In addition to teaching students in the Immigrant Rights Project Clinical Program, she also teaches Immigration Law and International Refugee and Asylum Law.

What do you think of when you hear the word homeland? If you are an immigrant or an immigrant advocate, you might think of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the federal department responsible for enforcement of U.S. immigration laws. Created in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, DHS combined the work of more than twenty different federal departments and agencies into a single department “whose primary mission is to protect our homeland.”[1] Not surprisingly, post-September 11th, a critical part of the new DHS’s protective mission was the control of immigration to and non-citizens within the United States. The Homeland Security Act of 2002 created three new federal immigration agencies within DHS – Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP). While national security concerns have long played a role in shaping U.S. immigration law and policy, after September 11, and increasingly since then, the debate around immigration and immigrants has been framed as an issue of national or homeland security first and foremost.   Indeed, in the context of this debate, immigration is very often viewed as a threat to national security and the relationship between immigrants and the idea of homeland has become more fraught than ever.

Most dictionaries define homeland as “native land” or the country where a person is born.[2] Consequently, to the extent that homeland refers to the place from which a person originates, their native place, then immigrants will always be outsiders and can never be “at home” in their new countries. On the other hand, if homeland is instead seen as a place where one has a sense of belonging, comfort and security, then the possibility that an immigrant could make a new home exists, though is far from certain, especially in our current political climate.

Immigrants to the United States abandon their homelands for a variety of reasons, including flight from persecution and other life-threatening conditions, the pull of family ties, and aspirations for better opportunities for themselves and their families. But for many immigrants, especially those who enter or remain in the United States without legal authorization, the dream of establishing a home in the United States remains elusive. This is true because of a legal regime that creates significant, if not insurmountable, barriers to immigration. There are very limited avenues for legal migration to the United States and these are narrowed further by quotas and substantial backlogs that can delay entry to the United States by years or even decades. Those without legal immigration status live in the shadows, the antithesis of the protection and belonging represented by homeland.

In addition to an outmoded and overstressed legal regime, immigrants are often unable to feel at home in the United States because of hostility and other barriers they encounter in the communities in which they settle. Undocumented immigrants are unable to work legally so are vulnerable to exploitation. They may be afraid of interaction with law enforcement so don’t come forward when they are victims of crimes and, as a result, are frequently targeted by criminals. Language barriers leave them isolated and without access to critical information about health care or education services for their families.

Since Donald Trump’s inauguration, efforts by his administration to enlist the cooperation of state and local law enforcement in immigrant policing have further undermined the sense of security and safety in immigrant communities. Many local governments and law enforcement agencies are refusing to cooperate, arguing that doing so creates mistrust in the immigrant community and has a negative impact on public safety and overall well-being.

In response to such resistance, the Trump administration has pursued an aggressive “anti-sanctuary” agenda seeking to punish state and local governments and agencies for implementing policies that are welcoming to or inclusive of immigrants, or resisting involvement in immigration enforcement. Federal courts have so far blocked the administration’s attempts to deny federal funding to so-called sanctuary jurisdictions.[3] However, during four days in late September, ICE carried out raids in ten locations around the country identified as sanctuary jurisdictions, including Philadelphia, Boston, Los Angeles, Denver and Portland, Oregon. [4] Operation Safe City led to a total of 498 arrests and was designed to send a clear message to these jurisdictions that their refusal to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement efforts will have consequences.

The battle between the Trump administration and the sanctuary cities and states offering protection and welcome to their undocumented immigrant residents is a struggle over who gets to make a home in our communities and, ultimately, who gets to be a part of the American homeland. It is a struggle that will not be resolved without thoughtful, meaningful reforms that focus limited enforcement resources on serious threats to public safety and national security, while providing some solution for those millions of unauthorized immigrants living in and contributing to our communities who pose no threat.

[1] Proposal to Create the Department of Homeland Security, June 2002, https://www.dhs.gov/publication/proposal-create-department-homeland-security.
[2] See Merriam-Webster.com; dictionary.com; and en.oxforddictionaries.com.
[3] Jason Meisner and John Byrne, Judge rules in city’s favor on sanctuary cities, grants nationwide injunction, Chicago Tribune (Sept. 15, 2017), http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-chicago-sanctuary-cities-lawsuit-met-20170915-story.html; Alan Neuhauser, Federal Judge Blocks Trump Executive Order on Sanctuary Cities, U.S. News and World Report (April 25, 2017), https://www.usnews.com/news/national-news/articles/2017-04-25/federal-judge-blocks-trump-order-cutting-funding-to-sanctuary-cities
[4] Miriam Jordan, Immigration Agents Arrest Hundreds in Sweep of Sanctuary Cities, New York Times (Sept. 28, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/28/us/ice-arrests-sanctuary-cities.html?_r=0.

How a Roommate Makes a House a Home

This week’s post is by 2017-2018 OCH Fellow Kristi Eaton, an independent journalist and a native of Tulsa. She is the author of the book “The Main Streets of Oklahoma: Okie Stories from Every County.” She recently completed a fellowship with the International Reporting Project, reporting on women’s rights issues from India.

I think about the idea of home a lot. I consider myself a roving journalist, meaning I report from different areas of the United States and the world. I’ve lived and reported from the Northern Mariana Islands, Cambodia, India, Nashville and points in between. But something about Tulsa always brings me back. It’s my home. It’s where I grew up. I remember learning the names of the major streets as a child. Something about the city, particularly in the summertime, brings me comfort when I need it most.

At the same time, I often seek ways to reject it, looking for opportunities outside of the state and even the country. I think it’s the comfort and simplicity Tulsa offers after I’ve satisfied my need for new experiences that my childhood home now represents for me. Much of my career has been about chasing the opportunities. Instead of deciding which place I wanted to make my home and then looking for career opportunities, I used the opportunities to decide where my home would be based. That meant spending two years living and working in South Dakota, one year in Oklahoma City and short stints in San Francisco and Indonesia.

I’m now back in the Tulsa area, and I find one of the things that has made the transition easiest has been enjoying the people around me. Friends and family can make or break a community and a home. My home right now includes a roommate, Jessica. At 32, I never thought I would be living with a roommate, but I find that I enjoy it quite a bit.

In fact, in America, we seem to value solitude when it comes to living arrangements. Outside of marriage and kids, a roommate is often looked down upon, a crutch used to feel better.

In fact, just 4 percent of Americans aged 30 to 34 live with a roommate, according to this story, which highlights data from the Current Population Survey. Eric Klinenberg, author of “Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone,” says there is a stigma attached to living with a roommate in your 30s.

But experience with a roommate has made my home life richer. I initially moved in with my friend upon returning to the area from abroad and wanting to save some money, but over time, I’ve realized that I quite enjoy living with someone else. I now have a built-in friend, confidante, and trusted advisor. We share what happens during our days, gossiping about our lives over a glass of wine. We also take turns with the house chores, alternating washing the dishes and taking out the trash. As someone who works from home alone most days as a freelance journalist, I spend a lot of time alone during the day. Having a sounding board and trusted friend to bounce ideas off at the end of the day is nice.

According to “How We Live Now,” by Bella DePaulo, a study from AARP asking women 45 and older to explain the appeal of a sharing a home with friends found that nearly 90 percent listed companionship as the most attractive quality. Affordability and safety were also factors.

People sometimes ask if we ever get into fights over living arrangements. In fact, that was one of Jessica’s worst fears about me moving in: that our friendship would suffer. But we have a system where we basically just talk about everything and share the expenses when it comes to items like toilet paper, paper towels and trash bags. I pay her rent every month, and she pays the landlord. We don’t allow strangers into the apartment; we both need to know the person in order for them to be allowed to stay at our place.

Jessica is more than just a roommate to me now. She’s a good friend. We hang out on a regular basis outside of the apartment, visiting the fair, going on trips to places like Branson and attending local events. Jessica has taught me what it means to be selfless, carefree yet determined, inquisitive and friendly. It’s made my home fuller and more fun, which I think anyone can support.