“If research doesn’t surprise you, it’s not worth the research” Julie Cruikshank

I would like to share with you some of the things we learned from Julie Cruikshank and other elders from the Yukon Territory to better understand oral history from the North. To search for surprising insights, to be open to challenges to our conventional perceptions, that was Julie’s most important advice to us.

Her talk centred on stories about glaciers that challenge the nature versus culture dichotomy science is so preoccupied with. Why did she invite us to dismiss this divide? Does it not serve us well at least to keep the humanities and social sciences distinct from the natural sciences?

Informal get-together with Julie Cruikshank after the meeting and ice swimming and barbecue at the Kemijoki river.
Informal get-together with Julie Cruikshank after the meeting and ice swimming and barbecue at the Kemijoki river.

We know from our own fieldwork experiences that people who live in close connection with the local environment don’t draw a clear line between nature and culture. They interact with natural phenomena in a very social way and they know very well that the beings we call nature display the ability to communicate and to interact with humans and human society.

Julie said she expected that the elders she wanted to record life stories with would talk about historical events like the gold rush and the construction of the Alaska Highway that had such a huge impact on the life of their communities. Surprisingly they insisted on telling different stories about encounters with phenomena we consider to be part of nature like glaciers and animals. The stories were about establishing relationships with different beings and about knowledge transfer and Julie could understand them as related to her own work that is based exactly on these things – the relationship with her partners in the field and the knowledge shared across social and cultural differences. These stories provided the basis for interpretation and as Claude Lévi-Strauss would say are “good to think with”.

If we skip our objectifying perception of nature we become able to listen to the message contained in stories about glaciers that hear and smell and take revenge. It will be easy then to link these stories of the risk of inappropriate behaviour in the face of powerful beings to stories about colonial encounters in life histories but a purely metaphorical interpretation of these encounters with speaking animals and listening glaciers would get the elders that tell these stories wrong.

The idea of Amerindian perspectivism developed by the anthropologist Eduardo Vivieros de Castro invites us to take the perception of non-human actors seriously. It suggests that different beings perceive the world in similar ways but from different angles and that indigenous stories reveal a sensibility to see and acknowledge these different perspectives. The idea that parts of what we call nature like animals and plants, mountains, rivers and glaciers but also invisible beings like spirits, gods and the deceased and non-animated objects like cars or oil companies have the same abilities as humans to comprehend the world but have their own perspectives, sometimes diametrically opposed to ours, is something we all experience in ethnographic fieldwork in the Arctic.

There are some important consequences of this idea we can learn from the stories that tell about the interaction of different categories of beings in a social way.

First: Humans are able to imagine the different perspectives. We can interact with different beings and visit their worlds. We are not fixed to a standpoint in accordance to our place in the world. Interaction and mobility allow for epistemological moves that enable us to understand others. That is an idea developed in an article by Terhi Vuojala-Magga in “Knowing, training, learning: the importance of reindeer character and temperament for individuals and communities of humans and animals.” It is a question of respectful behaviour to be able to avoid conflict, violence and failure in the process of interaction. We have to develop ways to deal respectfully with different perspectives, appropriate ways to keep distance and to transgress boundaries.

Second: Important are the differences in agency allocated to different beings but agency is not a property to possess. Different places and contexts reveal different power relationships. There are situations when the powerless can become powerful and vice versa. Stories tell about these encounters, failures in the perception of power, and the inversions of power relations. They tell about the possibility of respectful acknowledgement of difference and about the possibilities and inabilities to learn from each other without erasing these differences.

Third: The knowledge that beings develop out of their diverse perspectives possess different power. People we collaborate with in the Arctic experience the hegemony of certain forms of knowledge brought in by colonial institutions like science, religions and the state. Hegemonic knowledge is opposed to the ideas of perspectivism and claims it would be normal to have only one moral, one god, one identity, one truth, and one language for every human and only for humans. Forms of interaction like languages and value systems informed by traditional religion and ethics are delegitimised and sometimes even lost in the process of loss of access to land and social capital and the enforcement of capitalist economy, scientific positivism and the implementation of Christian universalism.

The difference between knowledge production in the academic world and in local communities can give us a first hint on the power differences and the process of hegemony of one and deligitimization of the other knowledge but if we get stuck in the dichotomy between scientific and indigenous knowledge we will end up in a vicious circle. With careful ethnographic work we reveal that there is more than one form of indigenous knowledge and digging in our own scientific traditions will reveal that there are strands in European scientific thought that differ from the hegemonic naturalist or objectifying perspective.

If we’ll link local and scientific traditions of perspectivism, we will become able to see how stories – oral as well as written – can contain a polyphony of voices that have agency in our society and in our interactions with different beings as well. They have the power to transform the listener, to make him/her wonder, to call the authoritative discourse into question and to facilitate understanding.

‘Are glaciers ‘good to think with? – Julie Cruikshank in Rovaniemi

We are honoured and pleased to have Julie Cruikshank for the better part of the first week of April with us here in Rovaniemi. It won’t pay enough respect to her fame to introduce her here briefly. There is enough good praise for her work in the net, most recently through the 2012 Clio award for her lifetime achievement . She will participate in the ARKTIS graduate school annual seminar, but also spend time to talk to us about oral history theory and practice, epistemologies, and other fascinating topics on

Saturday 06 April at 12:00, in the  Borealis lecture room, Arctic Centre,

After the session, the ORHELIA project welcomes all participants to a discussion and an ‘Arctic grilling’ at a laavu. Everybody with an interest in these topics is welcome!

Abstract: The concept we now call ‘indigenous ecological knowledge’ continues to undergo transformations with real-world consequences.  Systematic use of this term appeared in Canada during the early 1990s, when its potential contributions to understanding the natural world became a topic of discussion among researchers working in arctic and subarctic regions. Concepts, however, travel. They carry and accumulate meanings that may have unexpected consequences.  In the twenty-first century, the terms indigenous and knowledge have each become contested, internationally and locally. My questions are: What is not recognized as knowledge in dominant regimes? What is lost when local knowledge in Canada is trimmed and transformed to fit the requirements of science, policy and governance? Strikingly, ethnographies from northern Canada that give weight to ontology, values, social relations and meaning are taken up and developed theoretically and in public and political forums in South America (Viveiros de Castro, Blaser, de la Cadena) with implications for subarctic regions.

Please see a full poster on our lectures & events page, more questions to Anna Stammler-Gossmann or here in the comments of this blog entry.

Human agents or resources in Arctic extractive industries?

Human Resources in Arctic extractive industries – a PhD course under the Uarctic Thematic Network “People and the Extractive Industries”

It was a small but extremely diverse group that we got together between September 10-16 in St John’s, the capital of Newfoundland, Canada. The participants to the course came from 5 different institutions and 7 different countries, to learn for a week more on a broad variety of topics related to what the economists and business studies people call ‘human resources’ and we in anthropology call ‘people’. Actually, Gertrude Eilmsteiner-Saxinger, one of the participants of the course, made a valuable comment in this respect – which is that at least for us the term ‘human resources’ totally lacks the agency of people who are involved in or affected by industrial activity. So maybe it’s better to call this next time ‘human agents’?

“It was excellent teaching, it was interesting topics, it was free, and it was fun” – along these lines Gertrude Eilmsteiner summed up the course – quite nice, thanks Gerti for the nice quote, and sorry if I don’t remember it as exactly as I wish

Ships for servicing the Hibernia oil platform off Newfoundland ‘hiding’ in the harbour from Hurricane Leslie on 11 September

Continue reading “Human agents or resources in Arctic extractive industries?”

Determining the wellness of Arctic Communities

Colleague Stephanie Irbacher-Fox from Yellowknife, NWT, Canada, sent around this call for papers for an interesting conference. Basically all topics relating to the wellbeing and viability of livelihoods in the North are welcome. They also invite contributions from the non-Canadian North. If somebody has money to go there, I’m sure it would be a rewarding experience.

The Northern Governance and Economy Conference Steering Committee invites
proposals for papers at the conference taking place October 10-12 in
Yellowknife, NT, Canada. The main conference sponsor is the Social Sciences
and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Proposals are due June 30, 2012.

The purpose of this interdisciplinary conference is to bring together
academics, community and business decision makers, and community members to
share information and create networks to spark new and original thinking
about social determinants of economic wellness and prosperity in Canada¹s
Northwest Territories, informed by comparative experiences in the
circumpolar North and among Indigenous peoples in North America. Social
determinants are conditions determining the wellness of communities:
educational attainment, strength of culture, effective governance
institutions, good health. Social determinants, and the state of communities
with respect to social issues have a significant impact on the economy.

Papers are invited which address the following topics:

– Indigenous economies and economic paradigms;
– Social determinants of economic opportunity and development;
– Factors for/economic successes in Indigenous communities;
– Partnerships between Northern and/or Indigenous communities and business;
– Political institutions and economic wellness;
– Capacity building for economic success;
– Colonization impacts: challenges and solutions;
– Resource extraction impacts and Indigenous peoples;
– Resource governance and social, cultural and economic wellness;
-Environmental and economic sustainability;
– Land claims, self government, and economic development.

Applicants should send a biography and abstract for consideration no later than
June 30, 2012. Paper abstracts should be up to 250 words in length,
submitted in .doc or .docx format to the Steering Committee at
NGEC2012@gmail.com. Final versions of papers must be provided to panel
chairs by October 01, 2012.

For more information please go to: http://ngec2012.com/call-for-papers/

News on Arctic extractive Industries

Some news on extractive industries, indigenous people and impact studies in the Arctic have piled up recently, which I would like to share here. Most of these works are related to members of our Extractive Industries Working Group (EIWG) of IASSA, which you are welcome to join if you work on such issues.

Old Drill rigs in East Yamal, Sabetta, to be used in a new joint venture between Novatek, Gazprom and Total

1) Mark Nuttall announced a special volume of “The Polar Journal” with articles on extractive industries: http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/rpol20/current.              I guess the contributions by Mark Nuttall, Arthur Mason and Hannah Strauss are most relevant for our interest.

2) WWF Russia published a book critically looking at government support for oil and gas development. It claims to be a comprehensive analysis of subsidy for fossile fuels and highlights this approach as inadequate at times where humanity needs to search for alternative sources of energy. It also identifies three gaps that still inhibit Russia to go down that road: a governance gap, a knowledge and science gap, and a gap in the technical capacity for oil spill response.

3) If somebody is interested in a big wall-map of all oil and gas activities in the Arctic, this link provided by EIWG member Arthur Mason may be of interest: The Arctic Frontiers Oil & Gas Activity Map To 2017  Note that this is not related to the conference with the same name that is held annually in Tromso!
The second link that Arthur offered is a economic analysis, markets, technologies etc, called Offshore Arctic Oil and Gas Market Report To 2017

4) Arthur also shares the link to an unusually elaborate New York Times report on Shell’s plans to drill offshore Alaska in the Arctic Ocean – a plan that has a long history of indigenous and environmental opposition, but was backed recently by the Obama administration of the USA. I wonder if anybody with Alaska experience can share views on how this is discussed in Barrow or the North Slope Borough in general.

5) Has anybody information on the Extractive Industries Transparency initiative? It seems to be a major initiative, and it would be interesting to know which Arctic countries have subscribed to implement it.


City moose in Anchorage, Alaska

This is Sara Komarnisky, PhD student at UBC, currently in Anchorage doing fieldwork with Mexican migrants and immigrants here. One thing about life in Anchorage that is funny and fits very much with clichés about Alaska are all of the MOOSE!

Just like on TV

There are moose all over the city, all year, but they are especially noticeable in the fall and winter. They eat Halloween pumpkins and nibble on tree branches in front yards, and I have been prevented from leaving my house twice already due to a moose in the front yard! Moose amble down city streets and park paths, they sleep in deep snowbanks in front yards, and some neighborhoods see the same moose make its rounds day after day. About once a week, an email is sent to my entire university department informing us that there is a moose in the parking lot. One even went inside a local hospital using the automatic doors!! Recently, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game gave permission to a group of conservationists called the Alaska Moose Federation to start feeding the moose, in an attempt to keep them off of roads and sidewalks and prevent collisions and confrontations between moose and people.

My neighbourhood moose

Moose are managed by the state of Alaska for “abundance” – that means it’s a state goal to make sure there are lots of moose for hunting and ultimately, for food. Actually, I went to a talk a while ago about bear management in Alaska, and how recently hunting regulations on predators like bears have become more relaxed in order to increase numbers of moose. The idea is that bears prey on baby moose, and limiting the number of bears by increased hunting should lead to higher numbers of moose for local hunters.

Anyway, all of the moose and the politics around it got me thinking about life in a northern city and of human-animal relations. Urban experience always includes wildlife – but usually that means squirrels, pigeons, maybe rats or raccoons. Not moose. Also, I am starting to see how saving the moose is tied up with state plans to maintain high populations of moose for people to hunt and to eat. Finally, moose are a stereotypical but important symbol of life here – one that is taken up by my research participants and that travels with them to Mexico. I wonder what everyone thinks about this. Are there similar large urban animals in other northern cities?

Resource extraction in the Arctic: ReSDA

“When we talked to the communities about their research priorities, climate change wasn’t mentioned a single time”                                   Chris Southcott, ReSDA project leader

In November Yellowknife is a nice fairy-tale winter town, the administrative centre of the North West Territories in Canada’s North, with around 20 000 inhabitants smaller than Rovaniemi. It hosted the first annual ReSDA workshop – a project worth knowing about in the Arctic! It is coordinated by sociology professor Chris Southcott of Lakehead University in Canada.
ReSDA translates asResources and Sustainable Development in the Arctic”.

The parliament hall of NWT, Yellowknife. In case HM the Queen decides to join, she has a throne to sit always reserved for her.

Funded by Canada, it is one of the biggest Arctic Social Sciences projects, running an impressive 7 years between 2011-2017 with 2.5 million core funding, plus additional funding by partners.  It includes 51 researchers from 20 universities in 9 countries. The project has a quite simple but tremendously important goal:
to reduce the negative impacts and costs of extractive resource development for Arctic residents, and increase the benefits for them.

Continue reading “Resource extraction in the Arctic: ReSDA”

Report from the Field: Looking for Alaska…in Mexico

Hello everybody, this is Sara Komarnisky, phD student from British Columbia, Canada.
I would like to share some impressions from the field here, comments are welcome, particularly concerning “the North in the South”, and vice versa, as well as migration in the North

This summer I began fieldwork for my PhD dissertation in a town in the Mexican state of Michoacán, near the capital city of Morelia. My project explores the historical and ongoing connections between Alaska and Mexico and how and why those connections have been obscured or ignored. I hope to show you a little bit about how and where Alaska can be found in this town – and how I have gone about looking for and documenting the connections between the two places.

Alaska in Mexico: images from the North in an icecream shop in the South

Continue reading “Report from the Field: Looking for Alaska…in Mexico”

Research partnerships & indigennous peoples

The anthropology research team invites everybody to a lecture and discussion about research partnerships of indigenous peoples with scientists!

Monday, 22 August, 14:00
Thule meeting room, Arktikum building

The occasion is a visit by Jill Taylor-Hollings from the Department of Anthropology of the University of Alberta, who will give a talk on

Learning about the Ancient Ahneesheenahbeg: Archaeological and Ethnoarchaeological Research Partnerships Between Pikangikum First Nation, Woodland Caribou Provincial Park, and Archaeologists in the Boreal Forest of Northwestern Ontario, Canada

Continue reading “Research partnerships & indigennous peoples”

Thursday, April 7, 2011 at 10pm in Thule room, presentation of Jodie Asselin, from University of Alberta

We would like to invite you to a presentation by Jodie Asselin (University of Alberta, Canada) that will take place on Thursday, April 7, 2011 at 10pm in Thule room. Jodie Asselin is an anthropologist who is working on perception and use of forest by different interest groups in the Yukon Territory, Canada.

Talk Title: Addressing the social nature of forests in the Yukon Territory.

My central area of inquiry is how multiple use issues are dealt with and understood on a social level among Euro-Canadians, and how forests are socially constructed in different ways in Canada’s north. This talk will concentrate on the importance of addressing place-specific forest perceptions and histories when considering forest management and use. I will first discuss a case study of a grass roots forest-values organization and how its members and work have been perceived by Yukon residents. I suggest that unaddressed issues of user-group stereotypes and forest management history undermined what was otherwise a successful example of community consultation. Second I will consider the impact of removing forest-extraction activities from public view. A situation that has erased the forest industry from the public’s understanding of Yukon forests and aided in the uptake of the wilderness narrative.

Everybody is welcome to come to the Arctic Centre and discuss with us about the relevant topics that Jodie will propose the audience!