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Faculty Feature: Thomas Michael Swensen

Thomas Michael Swensen researches the Americas and Native American history, as well as punk. He was born and raised in the Kodiak Archipelago and is an original shareholder in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement and a shareholder in Koniag and Leisnoi Village, while also enrolled in the federally recognized Tangirnaq Native Village aka the Woody Island tribe. He serves the Alutiiq people on the board of directors of the Koniag Education Foundation, an organization that promotes the educational goals and economy of the Koniag Alutiiq and their descendants. He is also grateful to serve on a Koniag shareholder committee.

​Thomas earned undergraduate degrees in English, Art, and Urban Planning, and master’s degrees in English and Ethnic Studies as well as a PhD in Ethnic Studies for University of California, Berkeley. Swensen is an assistant professor of Ethnic Studies and have held the prestigious postdoctoral fellowship in American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign in 2011 and was the 2017-2018 Katrin H. Lamon fellowship residential scholar at the School for Advanced Research, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. This year the University of Utah awarded Thomas the Presidential Leadership Fellowship.

Below are Thomas’ written responses to my questions about his diverse academic background, the role of punk studies in environmental activism, and the course he teaches in the Environmental Humanities Program.

Faculty Feature: Michael Thomas Swensen

  1. How does your background growing up in the Kodiak Archipelago inform your current research in Ethnic Studies, particularly in relation to environmental issues and Indigenous perspectives?


My father and I are named after my great uncle Michael who was one of the last traditional leaders in the Kodiak region. My cousin David told me once about how the man lost his life while on a boat in the tidal wave of ’64. Like my great uncle and my father, I grew up working on the ocean and living on an archipelago filled with giant bears. By the time I was a tween my mom was incarcerated and I became responsible for supporting myself. I worked at a set net site for a dollar a day on the island’s south end. That experience is one that has come to define me.


By the time I was a teenager my mom was released and I lived with her for a couple of years in Anchorage on the Alaskan mainland. In 1989, the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill wiped out the marine life in Southern Alaska. My father, who trained at a technical boarding school for Native youth, spent his career as a machinist working in canneries— particularly at East Point cannery on Marine Way in Kodiak. He worked very sparingly after the spill. The region’s natural and economic life was slow to recover. 100s of jobs vanished from the island as an effect of the natural disaster. This is why my scholarship is related to Native America and the environment.


My tribe and my ANCSA associations are the reason why I can do this interview. Without them I’d have a much different life. I have a career doing what I love. But I do exist outside the university where I have leadership positions and a kinship network among my people. I help operate a 501 (c)3 called Koniag Education Foundation that serves the educational needs of Alutiiq nation. Every year I help allocate scholarships and grants to over 160 Alutiiq students so they can follow their dreams.


  1. What sparked your interest in punk studies? What role does punk culture play in environmental activism? How does this show up in your recent work?


Punk saved my life. Before my mother was incarcerated, she was involved in narcotics distribution and the sex trade. When I was 9 years old I’d come home from school to all sorts of uncanny scenes involving controlled substances and fire arms. While I have always steered clear of that path, I didn’t end up being the most-straight kid ever. Think of a more thrash-punk version of Eddie Munson. After being kicked out of high school I went to a vocational school called “S.A.V.E.” at the MLK Career Center in Anchorage. Punk was the only thing I had back then. Punk friends, punk dating, punk music, punk revenge. All that stuff. I have a friend from childhood who, now in his 50s, still refuses to get a driver’s license. I guess he doesn’t have a faith in state authority like we might. Punks, like him, are a people that formally emerged around the world by the turbulent 1970s. He’s an example of how there are millions of people without the class and moral agendas we have here at the university. I think they have solutions.


I have a piece about how punk in Alaska during the 1980s was emblematic of U.S. expansion and extractive projects, it’s called “The Monument: The Anchorage Scene as Colonial History.” The piece confronts punk as a tool of the state, I guess. Punks and Native Americans are often held up as symbols of resistance. Other Native American scholars have pointed out that it’s sort of racist to think that Native Americans are only Tonto sidekicks to the Lone Ranger’s itinerary. That’s the same with punks. The volume that piece is in is now being published in Spanish by a Peruvian press.


  1. Your educational journey encompasses a diverse range of disciplines, from English literature and art to urban planning and ethnic studies. How do you believe this multidisciplinary background informs your approach to research and teaching within the fields of Ethnic Studies and Environmental Humanities?


From 4th grade to 12th grade I was in compensatory education, closed up in backrooms away from the broader student body. I never prepped with Archie and Veronica to gain admission into a university. I was closer to my 30s when I began enrolling in a few community college classes because I was curious. I remember taking Biology 101 that was a 3 hour course once a week. The teacher fell asleep while lecturing. I was like one of the last people to leave tiptoeing out the room while he slept.


I’m driven by academic inquiry instead of by the borders of fields or disciplines, like the Crass motto No Authority But Yourself. That makes me unique in the type of scholarship I produce and the courses I teach. I can also be vulnerable to the forces that drive the academy due to my Native American and class background. I try to keep the wolves at bay by remaining true to myself and my material commitments to Native America. My graduate training is from Cal Ethnic Studies, a program with a long standing interest in questioning traditional disciplines. That fit me pretty well. My aim is to instill that sense of independence in graduate student work. Like be proud of your ideas, don’t let someone bully you.


  1. Could you discuss the class, or classes, that you teach in the Environmental Humanities Program? What key themes, readings, or activities do you incorporate to engage students in critical discussions about the intersects of Ethnic studies and Environmental Humanities?


 I love teaching undergraduate classes because students come from so many backgrounds and have a wide variety of interests. I enjoy the thrill of being nervous before walking into a classroom. I think it’s awesome that students are fresh eyes to enduring problems. Every semester I learn from them. At this university in the undergraduate level I teach Native American film, policy, and history courses. I am a  humanist where all of my courses have an underlining theme of environmental concerns and that humans can make a difference in the world.


In the Environmental Humanities graduate program I have taught a course that studies the natural world during the colonial era in the Americas. We read across many fields in that seminar, which is probably sacrilege to any well-meaning North Americanist. The students in that seminar always delightfully surprise me. My favorite book from that course is by a historian named Pablo Gómez called The Experiential Caribbean: Creating Knowledge and Healing in the Early Modern Atlantic, which crosses between race and          the environmental humanities. It’s about how people in the Caribbean forged scientific knowledge about the human body and the environment amid the 1600s. 


I believe graduate school training in the humanities and social sciences should instill a reliance on producing original work. A student in a painting MFA program is required to be inventive, so that’s what I encourage in students that take my courses. I plead with them to stay clear of “fan fiction” type scholarship. I think it’s risky to teach students to rely on trendy key terms or follow a contemporary movement. Look what happen to Zombie Formalism. That type of work became popular and then it disappeared except for as an example in conversations like this. Recently one of the main artists in that    movement began turning out fake Raymond Pettibon pieces to pay the mortgage.


  1. Are there any projects on the horizon that you are particularly excited to start? If so, could you tell us a little bit about it?


Right now I have a draft of a second book manuscript that argues how Native America can learn about sovereignty from punks and that in turn Native America can help articulate punk personhood. Also, I’m writing a novel about a murder in the heart of Colombia’s beautiful coffee region called Death in the Cafetal that involves the killing of a novelist and the legacy of the country’s long term Civil War. My family through marriage are Colombian so I’m terribly lucky to spend a portion of my time in such a biodiverse place that is downright gorgeous. I’m also trying to earn a certificate in Financial Planning. It’s hard. I might not pass the tax course I’m taking now. ¡Qué boleta! You really learn what your successes are when you fail.

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Last Updated: 4/26/24