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SPRI Review 2011: Polar Social Sciences and Humanities

Polar Social Sciences and Humanities

Words and silence: Nenets reindeer herders’ conversion to evangelical christianity

As the first ethnography of religious conversion in the contemporary indigenous Russian North, this is a major contribution to anthropological debates about the globalisation of Christianity. Analysis focused on the introduction of a new language ideology based on an ideal of truthful speakers who use words to reflect their ‘inner’ selves. Christian language not only offers tools for radical self-refashioning but also provides novel ideas and dispositions about agency, authority, morality, personhood, and time. Conversion offers a distinctive path to global forms of modernity. Unlike almost every person in the Soviet Union, these particular small Nenets nomadic communities remained outside state institutions like school, army and the collective farm, and it was only in the post-Soviet period that they were registered as citizens at all. The missionaries also have their own history of martyrdom and persecution by the state, and bring an alternative regime of obedience and claims of universal truth which promises to change the herders on the spiritual level. Thus, the herders are led to burn their ancestral sacred items and abandon ‘devilish’ practices like drinking reindeer blood. Vallikivi’s research was funded by the Gates Foundation and the Estonian government.

Laur Vallikivi and Piers Vitebsky

Loneliness and opportunity for Greenlandic students in Denmark

Janne Flora took her ongoing study of relatedness and loneliness in Greenland in a novel direction, by conducting fieldwork among Greenlandic students who move to Denmark for the political purpose of eradicating Greenland’s reliance on imported Danish professionals. By distinguishing cultural ideas of more- and less-desirable forms of separation and solitude, her study reveals a stark contrast in ideas according to social circumstances and regional origins. Young people, often male, from remote villages cite fear of displacement from land, separation from kin, and loneliness as reasons for not travelling to Denmark. But young people from the capital, Nuuk, usually female, are keen to go there in quest of anonymity and ‘freedom’ from intricate local kinship obligations.

These findings have important implications for demography and mental-health policy, and resonate closely with Olga Ulturgasheva’s recent research contrasting indigenous youth brought up in more and less remote locations in Siberia. Here, too, attachment to land and kin keeps young people at home, and girls are more oriented to a distant metropolis than boys. This continuation of SPRI’s longstanding research programme on family dynamics in the Arctic underlines the need for policy to be based on painstaking fieldwork and analysis at the community and family level. Flora’s research was funded by the Carlsberg Foundation.

Janne Flora, Olga Ulturgasheva and Piers Vitebsky

Dog teams and sledge on the sea ice in northern Greenland

Dog teams and sledge on the sea ice in northern Greenland

Halibut drying in the isolated NW Greenland village of Qaanaaq

Halibut drying in the isolated NW Greenland village of Qaanaaq

Walking with reindeer: place and movement in Siberia

Evelyn Landerer completed 15 months of fieldwork in Irkutskaya Oblast’ in Siberia. In this region, Evenki hunters do not ride reindeer but walk around the taigá forest, using reindeer only for carrying baggage. By walking with them every day over thousands of miles and learning their forest skills, Landerer studied how hunters conceptualise, perceive and order their movements, and how this influences their attachment to places. Developing Vitebsky’s work on Eveny reindeer migration and Basso’s classic work on Apache narrative, she relates the good performance of skills to concepts of morality. To understand the functioning of winding paths in dense forest, she also develops comparable work from the tropical rainforest, which shows how distant places are known from their sound rather than by being seen from afar. Both space and morality are changing rapidly, however. The hunters’ narrow winding paths are now being crosscut by the wide clearcut tracts of geologists and oil prospectors. When following these tracts, hunters cannot look far ahead as they find the sheer straight perspective intimidating and alientating. Landerer’s approach is phenomenological, but its strong empirical base and her own embodied experience allows her to critique as well as build on Ingold, Cresswell and other theoreticians of space.

Evelyn Landerer and Piers Vitebsky

Indigenous security and sovereignty in the Arctic

Governance held by Inuit in, and on behalf of, Nunavut settlements in the eastern Arctic region of Canada takes multiple forms. This research takes direction from the multiple ways the term ‘wellness’ is used to express Inuit notions of security and sovereignty in the Arctic. The term offers a practical insight into how governance is understood from multiple orientations. For the purposes of this research, wellness can be understood from the perspective of everyday experience. The term also provides a space in which the multiple readings of nationalism of Nunavut and Inuit can be explored. Research suggests that the term wellness is central to understanding the multiple tensions that exist around governance with and within Nunavut. These tensions are the result of the multiple political communities, and nationalisms; therefore, what is required is a fuller articulation and critique of the dominant pathways between nationalisms across regional, territorial, national and international scales. Drawing heavily from feminist discourse, this research has revealed notions of space and place understood from the outward global-focused perspectives of Inuit populations who, with self-determination, continue to live within vibrant Nunavut settlements.

Jackie Price

The Inuit Northwest Passage Project

The Northwest Passage is an integral part of Canada’s territory and identity. Its place in the geographical imagination is, however, as a highly complex construction. Originally conceived by Europeans as a utopian space, it has been the subject of competing cultural, historical and legal understandings. Whereas Europeans viewed the waters of the Arctic archipelago in terms of narratives of sovereign and national power, and of sea ice as an obstacle to navigation, the Inuit conceived of the Arctic and its waters as their homeland, and of sea ice as a surface that, attached to the land, allowed for travel and extended access to food. The project is a unique study of the Northwest Passage because it focuses on the philosophical understanding of these waters and their practical use by Canada’s Inuit. Through ethnographic and historical research, the investigators are trying to establish how far Inuit in the Pond Inlet area were historically involved in the use and exploration of the Arctic. Fieldwork was carried out in summer 2011 in collaboration with Pond Inlet elders to map key traditional routes or trails across the strait and connecting with other Inuit groups in all directions (including northern Greenland). The findings will be a first step towards understanding to what extent Inuit identity, with its known links to places of birth and occupancy in the Baffin region, extend much further into other Inuit regions along the Northwest Passage. A key aim is to establish the cultural significance of such a network, taking into account that trails have been used at different times by different peoples, and never integrated into a standardized cartographic system. The empirical fieldwork proposed here represents only a first step in acquiring and weighing the evidence in support of this hypothesis. The project is based at SPRI and Carleton University, and is co-directed with Claudio Aporta. We also wish to acknowledge the invaluable work of the Inuit Land Use and Occupancy Study as well as the recent work of Canadian colleagues.

Michael Bravo and Claudio Aporta

Hearing the Aurora Borealis in nineteenth-century Arctic exploration and science

In western scientific traditions the Aurora Borealis has been a fiercely contested site of inquiry with little agreement as to its nature until the twentieth century. In this research, a survey of the history of auroral science up to the nineteenth century posed a set of research problems about traditional indigenous/ western dichotomies regarding supernatural or anomalous experiences. Important sources were occasions when nineteenth-century Arctic explorers, scientists, and other travellers became enchanted by the Aurora Borealis. When explorers and scientists engaged with first-hand accounts of auroral sounds gathered in the field from local informants, they attempted, though with difficulty, to disenchant certain claims through scientific observation. However, if this is looked at through the lens of cycles of re-enchantment, rather than sudden disenchantment, the position of the scientific observer becomes disturbed, destabilised, and subject to historical unpacking. This research contributes to rethinking how the tensions and ambiguities inherent in western approaches to the supernatural should be understood.

Shane McCorristine

Fishing boats in the frozen Ilulissat harbour, West Greenland

Fishing boats in the frozen Ilulissat harbour, West Greenland