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SPRI Review 2001: Science and Development Research Group

Science and Development Research Group

Dr M.T. Bravo

Dr V. Alia, Professor H. Brody, S. Maher, R. Powell

Self-determination is widely recognised as a principle of great importance for aboriginal societies around the world, including those in Canada, Greenland, Alaska, New Zealand, and Australia. As these societies attempt to negotiate the devolution of state powers, the need to understand the precise meanings and extent of 'self-determination' across a range of institutional frameworks increases.

The projects of the Science and Development Research Group this year share in common the goal of understanding transformative forces in northern societies. To understand the implications of political self-determination for an envi-ronmental knowledge economy (Dr Michael Bravo, Richard Powell), the economic organisation of communities in relation to their environments (Sean Maher), cultural expression through media and broadcasting (Dr Valerie Alia), and historical narratives of colonisation (Dr Bravo, Professor Hugh Brody), is complex. In place of common but crude distinctions between modernity and tradition, or western and indigenous values, we are seeking to define and articulate a more useful and critical set of concepts. Moving beyond these distinctions will result in more subtle and practical analytical tools, but to do so requires redefining key concepts across a range of disciplines. The Group's work necessarily involves working with northern peoples on a collaborative or reciprocal basis. Taking research ethics seriously has been important in thinking through our Group's role and has therefore been an essential part of building the Institute's presence in the Arctic.

Self-determination is implicitly a historical concept because it is predicated on the notion of resolving histories of colonisation. Dr Bravo's recent work has critiqued strictly nationalist and disciplinary histories, arguing instead for complex transnational processes. The changing religious geography of northern societies has been critical in this regard. Evangelicalism is now being recognised as having exercised at least as powerful a force in transforming the Arctic world as the nationalist interests of individual states. Dr Bravo has examined the effect of evangelical attitudes in transforming perceptions of the Arctic as a place of Christian virtue where salvation could be earned through economic doctrines of atonement. Working collaboratively with Sverker Sörlin, Dr Bravo has co-edited Narrating the Arctic: a cultural history of Nordic scientific practices (2002). The study demonstrates the nearly insurmountable problems in producing a unified 'Nordic' history of Arctic science because of the irreconcilably different relationships between science and religion. The key contrast we discovered was between the Swedish history of state-sponsored nation-building where indigenous Sámi were colonised through bureaucracy and particularly taxation, and the Danish history of missionary-led colonialism in which Christianity played a key role in legitimating Danish sovereignty over Greenland. We believe that the differential pace and processes of trade, evangelicalism, and colonisation are significantly responsible for the complexity of the circumpolar world today.

The production of knowledge, and particularly the field sciences, continues to be invoked in debates about self-determination. Yet the reasons that specific kinds of research (but not others) about northern peoples and environments have been fostered, while other possible areas have been sidelined, is anything but self-evident. The historical contingency of knowledge production and the conditions where it is open to public scrutiny are central to the group's work as a whole. In this vein Valerie Alia has turned her longstanding studies of northern media to issues of tolerance and ethics in relation to self-determination. Dr Bravo has been investigating how historical intersections between scientific travellers and indigenous groups in Greenland and the Yukon, respectively, have transformed language and experience of 'the environment.' Richard Powell has initiated a doctoral study drawing on a combination of archival work and two seasons of field research based at Polar Continental Shelf Project at Resolute Bay in Nunavut, to investigate which kinds of environmental research topics have become the locus classicus of Arctic science in Canada, and why.

As northern peoples construct increasingly professionalised and bureaucratised apparatus for self-determination, their changing relationship to their environments is evident in the complexity of mixed economies where subsistence hunting and trapping are increasingly linked to waged labour. Sean Maher has been carrying out sociological and anthropological studies of indigenous economies at the household level. Now doing fieldwork in Fort Chipewyan in northern Alberta, he has recognised that classic anthropological studies of hunter-gatherer economies have focused on subsistence resource harvesting at the expense of wage labour. In the course of his fieldwork he has developed concepts to understand how the choice of economic activities relates to the extension of economic activity beyond community boundaries to cities and distant markets, as well as to the proximate land.

This year the group began a new project in the arts called 'Writers in conversation.' Its purpose was to give circumpolar writing a more public face by holding public conversations with writers and artists about their work. This year we were fortunate to be able to start the series with Professor Brody, whose works on self-determination, land claims, language, and economics have inspired much discussion about the Arctic world. Professor Brody's most recent book, The other side of Eden: hunter-gatherers, farmers, and the shaping of the word (Faber 2001), in part a retrospective memoir, is an eloquent testimony to the threats to the unique linguistic and spiritual world of hunting societies in the face of ever-increasing encroachment by agriculturally driven states. One of the book's significant achievements is that it takes themes relating to Arctic indigenous peoples and extends them to other parts of the globe; for instance, to the San of the southern Kalahari and the Etosha region of Namibia, an indicator of the extent to which the agenda of self-determination is being played out on a global scale.