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SPRI Review 2004: Polar Social Science and Humanities

Polar Social Science and Humanities

Cambridge Canadian Studies Initiative

Michael Bravo, in collaboration with several other university departments and museums, launched the Cambridge Canadian Studies Initiative, based at the Scott Polar Research Institute. Its purpose is to promote research and teaching in Cambridge about Canada. This cements SPRI's longstanding and close international ties with Canada. Funding from the Foundation for Canadian Studies and the Government of Canada has enabled us to support postgraduate travelling scholarships and begin a new series of annual public lectures. The first lecture, "The Idea of Canada in the 21 st Century" was delivered by Thomas Berger, retired Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of British Columbia and former Chair of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Enquiry (1973-1975). He began by recalling the 1973 Calder Case, which recognised the place of Aboriginal rights in Canadian law. He developed this theme around the 1982 Charter of Rights and Canadian Constitution, and argued that the diversity that defines Canada today, defies a single idea of nationhood - a price, he concluded, well worth paying for lasting social justice.

Michael Bravo

Environmental history of the polar oceans

In the Arctic, the phenomenon of "improvement" was no less important in transforming the maritime world than the terrestrial. A capital-intensive whaling industry (1780-1820) quickly decimated the population of bowhead whales in the seas around Greenland, while it also contributed important new scientific discoveries about the natural history of the oceans. The attempts of missionaries to impose agrarian improvement on the Inuit of Greenland also illustrate this point clearly. In "Mission Gardens: Natural History and Global Expansion", Bravo demonstrates that when the Moravian missionaries arrived in 1733, they were forced to adapt their agrarian way of life to the dominant local fishing economy, while still attributing symbolic value to tending gardens at their settlements. This research was undertaken during tenure of a Huntingdon Library Howard Kemble Fellowship.

Michael Bravo

The Russian settlement of Barentsburg, Spitsbergen
Image as described adjacent

Social processes and the formation of local identities among settler populations in the Russian Far North

This research aims to address the imbalance in the anthropology of this region, which has traditionally focused on indigenous peoples. Following Elena Khlinovskaya Rockhill's recent doctoral thesis on childhood and family dynamics in Magadan, Niobe Thompson spent a year in Chukotka (Chukchi Autonomous Okrug), studying the process by which Russians and other transient migrants develop rooted northern identities. He worked in both the regional capital Andyr and remote settlements, and also spent a further two months interviewing former residents of Chukotka resettled in the southern regions of Russia under a World Bank programme. The extreme conditions of Chukotka have allowed him to distinguish three phases of identity formation. During the Soviet period, the northern settler formed a distinct and superior class in the Soviet hierarchy of privilege, based on a combination of transience and colonial agency. With the post-Soviet economic collapse of the 1990s, Chukotka suffered an exceptional crisis of governance, in which local administrative elites employed their patronage powers to enrich their own departure from the North. Yet, despite high out-migration, those who were unable or unwilling to leave developed a deeper local identity. Abramovich's election as governor in 2000 brought a massive campaign of investment and modernisation, yet this was met by many with resentment. Thompson shows for the first time why this is so, by analysing the social distance between local settlers and newly imported "experts" who challenged the legitimacy of the settler in local domains. His research reveals a social texture of "two solitudes", in which old settlers and new technocrats define their mutual boundaries to reinforce their separate identities. His research reveals how white settlers in the Arctic may appropriate a position traditionally occupied by indigenous populations and make claims through discourses and practices of rootedness.

Piers Vitebsky

Time and social suffering in indigenous self-government negotiations in Canada

Stephanie Irlbacher Fox analysed attempts in Canada over the past 30 years to reconcile Aboriginal rights and title with Canadian sovereignty. Using case studies from her own experience as a negotiator, she examined relations between indigenous and federal levels of government and the nuances of both structure and process within such negotations. Canada's aboriginal policies often interpret symptoms of suffering as signs of a "dysfunction" arising internally among indigenous peoples, rather than as a consequence of the country's social, political and economic order. Developing Veena Das' idea that the state makes and unmakes the meaning of suffering, thereby perpetuating its own reproduction of social inequality, she shows how the diagnosis of dysfunction - the "dysfunction theodicy" - constitutes a denial of history, particularly of history as systemic injustice. She argues that the pathogenic element in this situation lies not within indigenous society itself, but in the absence of any space for the acknowledgement and expression of this injustice, and thus for a practical attempt at reparation.

Piers Vitebsky

Reindeer at Hornsund, Spitsbergen
Image as described adjacent

Reindeer migration and nomadic sacred space

The interplay between the repeated annual migration of reindeer and the sense of space among the herders who accompany them has been studied in the Russian Far East. Reindeer movement is tied particularly to the bottlenecks of spring calving grounds and winter pastures containing lichens, but the animals' instinct towards cyclical repetition is also tempered by their subtle responses to changes in the environment such as weather variability, predator populations and human politics. Among the Eveny of northeastern Siberia, studies of cases in which animals and herders are transferred for administrative or personal reasons between herds and landscapes, show parallel processes of confusion and adaptation among both animals and humans, as newcomers are socialised into the group and the opportunities and limitations of an unfamiliar environment are explored. The experiential nature of the herders' indigenous knowledge is seen to resemble the behaviour of the reindeer themselves, in being characterised not simply by detailed knowledge of a specific terrain, but also by a flexibility which can be applied to new locations. This openness is reflected in the nomadic sacralisation of space as part of the process of knowing it. Each place becomes habitable for a few days through the act of pitching a tent, lighting a fire, and making an offering to the local spirit. In contrast to sedentary societies, which build permanent temples or cathedrals to draw pilgrims and worshippers to a central point, reindeer herders progress around an unending succession of places, taking the potential for knowing places and perceiving sacredness wherever they go. There is no focal destination and their intense involvement with each place fades as the pressure of the animals' onward migration forces them to move on.

Piers Vitebsky

Management of environmental risk in the Arctic

The Alaskan Arctic Ocean coast is the location of rich deposits of oil and gas. The development of these resources has mainly been through the extraction of oil from onshore installations at Prudhoe Bay. The development of commercially viable reservoirs occurs from pads constructed from locally mined gravel. These pads insulate the heat generated by the industrial activity from the permafrost that underlies the meagre surface covering of the Arctic wetland, preventing settling and other thermal damage. Arctic gravel roads may be used to link production pads to the existing road network, or for linking pads together in local field developments. They are structures that have the potential to bring about significant damage to the terrestrial and biological environment, and remediation is both expensive, and problematic. However, alternative forms of transport, such as aircraft, tundra vehicles, hovercraft and barges all have shortcomings and environmental impacts of their own. By contrast, roads can be used in all but the most extreme Arctic weather, and this is important when unlikely but potentially catastrophic risks require management; events such as blowouts, fires, and emergency medical evacuation. The aim of this project is to determine from the perceptions of various stakeholders the comparative environmental risks of developing oil prospects on the North Slope of Alaska with either gravel roads, or with alternative communication methods such as ice roads, aircraft, barges or tundra vehicles. The study is an attempt to understand the relationship between risk perception and the decision-making process, chiefly as it is conducted in the environmental impact assessment and government permitting systems.

John Ash