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December 2019

Dam Removal and Indigenous Issues in Disney's "Frozen"

If environmental scholar Peter Brewitt didn’t have his hands full with two young daughters, he could moonlight as a film critic. In this guest blog post, Brewitt explores the unexpected connections between Disney’s Frozen franchise and Same River Twice, his 2019 book on dam removal.

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Peter Brewitt(Massive spoilers ahead for Frozen 2. Also Frozen. This should be fine because, to judge by ticket sales, you’ve probably already seen them.)

I have two daughters, but for the last few years, I’ve felt like I have four: Penny and Lupin, princesses of House Brewitt, and Anna and Elsa, princesses of Arendelle. I know I’m not alone in this—Anna and Elsa have joined many, many families. The first thing my older daughter wanted to be when she grew up was an Elsa. My younger daughter has only just turned two but demanded a toothbrush with Anna on it and totes around a stuffed Olaf (the snowman) instead of a teddy bear. I know all of the songs by heart. So of course, when Frozen 2 hit theaters, we (except for the two-year-old) went to see it immediately. I really liked it, but I did not expect it to be about environmental interest groups, political framing, and dam removal. Which is to say, my book.

Quick background if you don’t know Frozen . . . Arendelle, a lightly disguised Norway, has two princesses. Elsa, the older sister, possesses the power to shoot ice out of her fingers. Anna, the younger one, has no such power but DOES have a spunky personality. Their parents die at sea (Disney trusts kids to deal with some heavy themes between catchy showtunes; Frozen is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen”), Elsa freezes Arendelle but eventually sorts out how to harness her powers and be herself, and in the end, everyone learns about love, understanding, and the importance of taking action to fight climate change.

Frozen 2 is also about love and understanding, but this time the characters come together through dam removal. The action takes us north of Arendelle, to the tribal lands of Northuldra. The girls’ dad, King Agnarr, had been part of a state visit there as a young prince, and Arendelle had built a dam to support economic development in the Northuldrans’ pre-industrial landscape. But the dam, the girls discover, was really an instrument of colonial violence—the girls’ grandfather, a nasty combination of Andrew Jackson and Otto Von Bismarck named Runeard, built the dam to destroy Northulda’s magic and open the land for conquest. What’s more, Elsa and Anna turn out to be half Northuldran themselves! They decide to destroy the dam, and they rouse Earth Giants to do just that. Elsa uses her powers to divert the uncontrolled dam release away from Arendelle, and everyone, again, lives happily ever after or until the inevitable sequel.

And it’s all true! Other than talking snowmen and ice magic. In real life, dams have been and still are used to destroy indigenous livelihoods, displace local communities, and force the dominant culture onto native people who live near the river. The Northuldrans are directly based on the Sami, the indigenous people of northwestern Europe. Norway’s dams (96 percent of Norway’s power comes from hydro) have destroyed the Samis’ traditional resources and stoked political conflict. While Disney seems to have done a pretty good job partnering with Sami people to make the movie, the magic of Northuldrans, and Arendelle’s fear of it, parallel a worldwide tendency to treat indigenous people as extra–human beings, like fairies or hobbits. Honestly, I’m impressed that Disney raised all this in a movie for elementary schoolers.

So how to deal with the industrial mistakes and limited perspectives of the past? In Frozen 2 and Same River Twice, the same lessons apply. In river politics, we’re all stuck with one another, and all stakeholders need to communicate in order to make any progress at all—there is always someone else downstream. Different people frame and value nature differently. Failure to coordinate with one another results in conflict, whether because a magical mist descends upon the watershed or because a nonmagical mist of lawsuits descends upon the United States courts. And when a dam is useless or harmful (of course some of them are useful), it should be removed. Though I have to recommend a responsible engineering approach that minimizes downstream impact; I cannot recommend the Earth Giants.

Illustrator M. L. Herring: Exploring Oregon with Ellie and Ricky

In today's blog post, coauthor and illustrator M.L. Herring gives a glimpse into the progression of a few of her illustrations featured in the Ellie and Ricky series (co-written with Judith L. Li). She also shares some of Ellie and Ricky’s various adventures throughout the series and highlights the ways their journeys have been integrated in the classroom and beyond. 



After four books covering four seasons, four regions, and four fields of science, our fictional eleven-year-olds, Ellie and Ricky, have completed their exploration of Oregon.


It’s been quite a journey for these intrepid kids, and for me and my coauthor Judy Li. Ellie’s Log began this adventure, as Ellie and Ricky explore the old-growth forest of the Oregon Cascades. The log, of course is not just a toppled old tree. The log is also Ellie’s journal, where she records what she and Ricky discover after a snowstorm delivers 220 feet of vertical life down to eye-level. The John Burroughs Society honored Ellie’s Log, the first time the society ever awarded a book of fiction.


Ellie’s Log struck a chord. It was clear that Oregon kids wanted to explore their own backyards and teachers needed engaging ways to meet new learning standards for science and the humanities. The OSU Press realized the importance of building a pipeline for future scientists and communicators. So the series was born.


Ricky’s Atlas allowed us to showcase Ellie’s friend Ricky, the son of Mexican immigrants, whose point of view expands Ellie’s world. In this summer story, Ricky invites Ellie to join him on a visit to his uncle’s ranch in Eastern Oregon. It’s fire season, and the kids see firsthand what wildfire means to people living in the West. Their journey gave us the chance to illustrate how fire continues to shape our arid lands and communities.

You have
to be quick to sketch wild animals. Sometimes you can draw only a few lines that you later develop into a realistic picture of what you saw.

Ricky, as it turns out, loves maps, and the atlas he creates during his visit is a playful exploration of time and space at multiple scales. However lighthearted, Ricky’s map-making follows the standards for geographic education established by the National Geographic Society. Ricky’s Atlas won the AAAS/Subaru award for the best hands-on science book of 2017.


In Ricky in the City, Ricky and Ellie travel to Portland on a school exchange in October. There they hone their skills of scientific observation to help monitor urban wildlife. Going beyond curiosity-led exploration, Ellie and Ricky are now working side-by-side with natural area managers on a citizen-science project to map wildlife connections throughout the metro area.


Ricky in the City gave me the chance to draw animals of the Willamette Valley, including these river otters, a common sight on Sauvie Island and on our farm. 

This gave Judy and me the chance to dive into the region’s many conservation organizations. We illustrate how the world is expanding for Ellie and Ricky, with new friends and new experiences in an urban setting familiar to half of Oregon’s kids.


And finally, Ellie’s Strand records one single winter day, when Ellie and Ricky travel to the coast to volunteer for a beach cleanup. By now, our two Oregon explorers are becoming adept at observation of the natural world around them. But the edge of the Pacific Ocean challenges them on a global scale.


Their day at the beach reveals amazing coastal creatures bathing in tidepools, hidden in beach wrack, and frolicking offshore. This was, of course, a joy to write and illustrate. But as they collect trash from their strand of beach, Ellie and Ricky soon realize the global scale of ocean pollution that threatens those creatures. It’s a feeling that is familiar to all of us who know and love the ocean, and we wanted especially to show how Ellie and Ricky rise to the enormity of the task. They realize the superpower of collaborative work, a recognition that is empowering children around the world.


I sketch what I see, and that means that I often sketch what’s in my hand. This is a drawing of California mussels for Ellie’s Strand 

The adventure continues. Judy and I are now at work with OSU Press to expand ways to encourage kids to explore nearby natural areas. Oregon Sea Grant has adopted Ellie’s Strand as a centerpiece for the Coast STEM Hub teacher training. Ellie’s Log and Ricky’s Atlas are used by the Oregon Natural Resources Education Program and OSU Extension Service for outdoor education. And the newest book, Ricky in the City, is quickly gaining a following among kids and teachers in Portland and beyond.


We hope that for years to come, young readers across the state will go outside with Ellie and Ricky to explore and record their own place in Oregon.




M.L. Herring lives on a peach farm in the Willamette Valley in Oregon, where she writes and illustrates works of science. She is an associate professor emeritus of science communication at Oregon State University.



Preview of Thomas R. Cox’s "The Other Oregon"

The Other Oregon Book CoverIn The Other Oregon, Thomas R. Cox explores the complexities of Oregon east of the Cascades with a thorough, multidisciplinary eye. He focuses on the interactions between environmental history, cultural and physical geography, natural resource management, and the people of the region. Here, an excerpt from his preface reveals a bit more about his background and approach.


Growing up in Redmond in the 1940s and 1950s, my friends and I used to bewail the inattention to our section by the state’s politicians and the metropolitan press. Eastern Oregon ought to be a separate state, we argued. And when I arrived at Oregon State as an undergraduate, I was both surprised and pleased to learn that classmates from Ontario, on Oregon’s eastern border, had engaged in the same discussions. Meanwhile, various and sundry fraternity brothers chided me for being from the “great desert,” to which I responded that I would rather bask in the sun like a lizard than be a “moss-back” from “the great swamp.” The stereotypes on which these exchanges were based, like most such, were oversimplifications. Vast stretches east of the Cascades—south from Bend, between Klamath Falls and Lakeview, and in the Blue and Wallowa Mountains—are forested, and north of the Blues mile after mile of onetime bunchgrass steppe now sport highly productive wheat ranches. Nor is the Westside a vast swamp; major portions of the Willamette, Rogue, and Umpqua Valleys receive so little rain they have never been forested in modern times. Yet, all in all, west of the Cascades is a well-watered land, while relative aridity dominates east of the range.

Thus stereotypes persist, and they are not limited to the fantasies of teenagers or rivalries of undergraduates. An old prospector, scouring the sun-drenched Pueblo Mountains in far southeastern Oregon, long ago commented on Western Oregon and its people: “Too many trees,” he opined, “It gives them a narrow vision, and they can’t see out.”

One can accept that the prospector had touched on a basic truth without falling into the maw of environmental determinism. As nineteenth-century historian Theodor Mommsen reputedly said, “Don’t speak to me of environmental determinism. Where once lived the ancient Greeks now live the Otooman Turks!” The relatively dry, challenging environment east of the Cascades presented opportunities quite different from those of the Willamette Valley; this harsh land drew people of a different sort, people who brought with them values and attitudes that shaped the economy, society, and outlook of the area and thus laid the foundation for the east-west divisions that, in spite of an ongoing influx of outsiders, have continued to the present day. The region’s identity remains shaped by the land and the ways that people have survived—and even prospered—on it. And for those who have not prospered, a certain pride remains in simply having persevered in this challenging place.

More lies behind these differences than relative levels of precipitation: the contrasts are cultural as well as environmental. Some years ago Dorothy Johansen, in her presidential address to the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association, sought to explain the palpable differences between Oregon, Washington, and California—although her “Oregon,” like that of my daughter’s roommate, clearly lay west of the Cascades, particularly in Portland and the Willamette Valley. Echoing Louis Hartz’s fragment thesis, she argued that original settlers set the tone for each of the three states and thus shaped their societies in the years that followed. In his bicentennial history of the state, Gordon Dodds took much the same position—as did I some years ago in trying to delineate the sociopolitical differences among Oregon, Washington, and Idaho through a study of the state parks movement in each. All of us reflected the earlier argument of Earl Pomeroy, that settlers of the American West brought with them cultural baggage that shaped what they did and what they built. Experience in its varied forms reinforced the mix.

Excerpt from The Other Oregon: People, Environment, and History East of the Cascades by Thomas R. Cox, copyright © 2019.
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