Can we save the unique culture of the Arctic?

A new exhibition at the British Museum reveals the power – and the precariousness – of the Arctic. 

 

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In 2008 I travelled into the high Arctic, up the east coast of Baffin Island – now within the Canadian province of Nunavut, that country’s newest and most northerly territory. It was an extraordinary journey into a landscape like no other I have ever visited. On a ship strengthened to navigate ice we headed up through the Davis Strait and into Baffin Bay. The Arctic summer landscape was not desolate but awe-inspiring: mountains shouldering up into brilliant skies barely dimmed at night, the tongues of glaciers licking down into the sea. On shore there were carpets of grasses and herbs, dwarf willow and cottongrass; the rocks were splashed with lichens in brilliant yellows and oranges.

On one excursion from the ship we landed on Devon Island – the world’s largest uninhabited island, and a place that has been consistently used as a stand-in for Mars. But then, suddenly, the weather turned; it was time to go, and fast. The little RIB (rigid inflatable) vessels we used to zip between ship and shore struggled to get off the beach. Black-and-white waves punched against the prows, throwing freezing water over their sides as we pushed against the force of the sea. The clothing I had bought at some expense in New York City immediately proved inadequate. I was really wet, and shockingly cold. There was no shelter here for me. I did not understand this place and did not belong in it or on it. It was as profound a feeling of helplessness as I – privileged as I am – have ever known.

The memory came back to me as I stood in the British Museum’s Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery looking at a waterproof whaling suit made from sealskin, the only such complete suit in the world. It was made before 1834 by the Kalaallit of south-west Greenland. The wearer would climb into the suit through a central hole; when the hole was pulled closed, the suit was watertight. A tube in the chest allowed for inflation, bringing both buoyancy and warmth. The suit is only one of the many items of clothing on display at the British Museum’s “Arctic: culture and climate” exhibition – originally scheduled to open in May, but delayed because of a pandemic that has alerted the world to a fact which the peoples of the circumpolar Arctic have long known. We are not in control. We can only adapt.

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What this engrossing and moving exhibition displays is both the power and the limits of such adaptation. The first Arctic peoples settled in Siberia at least 30,000 years ago; the Arctic was the last place on Earth to be permanently inhabited, as humans developed ways to live in the challenging climate. Four million people now live in in the eight Arctic nations which surround the North Pole: Russia, the United States, Canada, Greenland (Denmark), Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland. Of those four million, one tenth are indigenous peoples from 40 different ethnic groups. For hundreds of years the Arctic seemed impossibly distant to “southerners” who were – and of course still are – colonisers and exploiters of the material wealth of this vast region. Yet the climate crisis brings the lives of the Arctic peoples into sharp focus; they are the canaries in the coal mine of our future.

It is alarming to consider how much of the extraordinary skill on display in this exhibition is on the verge of becoming obsolete. That sealskin wetsuit has pride of place in the show for a reason: when I ask Amber Lincoln, its lead curator, to tell me what she feels most strongly about in the gallery, she picks out the work of needle and thread. “I was really keen on stressing the importance value of seamstresses. You can’t have fishing, you can’t have hunting, without tailored, waterproof warm clothes. I think we’ve tried to explain that relationship – both domestic and economic – and show the knowledge that goes into using hides, seal gut, fish skin, to make this wonderful clothing and footwear.” (On Twitter, Lincoln’s handle is @sealgut.)

The clothing on display is both ancient and modern, though the modern always incorporates traditional knowledge: an Inupiat child’s parka from the late 20th century has a body of electric-blue cloth: but the hood is trimmed with wolverine fur, which does not absorb moisture and so will not freeze to the face. A sequence of photographs shows Sheila Katsak wearing one of the amautis she makes – the amauti is the parka worn by Inuit women, designed so that a baby can be carried in a fur-lined hood. On a pair of Swedish Sámi boots made by Kristina Utsi, the reindeer fur soles are sewn with the fur ends pointing towards the toe to create friction and stop the wearer from slipping.

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The deep knowledge needed for such work is passed down from generation to generation. Travelling in the eastern Arctic a dozen years ago, we spent time in Inuit communities like Pond Inlet – where Sheila Katsak lives – and Clyde River, and often heard about the challenges facing these communities. There were issues of substance abuse and alcoholism; young people wanted to head south, feeling there was little to keep them attached to the north. What wasn’t discussed – at least not that I recalled – was the threat of climate change. I ask Lincoln if I might have forgotten such a discussion, though I didn’t think I had: was it really possible that the climate had changed so much, so quickly, in the past 12 years that what was once not even mentioned had become an urgent concern?

Absolutely, she says: that’s how fast the change has happened. “I was in Pond Inlet last summer,” she tells me, “and the seamstresses are talking about it now”. But other parts of the Arctic have been hit harder for longer; in Alaska those conversations were going on since she was a student in the 1990s. “What is so tragic,” Lincoln says, “is that people are turning back to the land now; there’s a real desire to share their skills, to get sewing, to do these historic activities where you learn not only technical skills but also how to be a good person – you learn patience, you learn self-esteem. You gained all of these things – but here we are, as they are doing that, the land is changing.”

She points to the work of the Inuit activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier, whose 2015 book The Right to Be Cold: One Woman’s Fight to Protect the Arctic and Save the Planet from Climate Change was a bestseller in Canada. Watt-Cloutier’s words are mounted on a wall of the exhibition: “To live in a boundless landscape and a close-knit culture in which everything matters and everything is connected is a kind of magic. Like generations of Inuit, I bonded with the ice and snow.” Now that bond is being broken, and that is, as Lincoln says, a bitter irony.

In a sense, none of this is news: and yet the news keeps coming. The main “nursery” of Arctic sea ice is in the Laptev Sea in Siberia: this year, for the first time since records began, the sea was yet to start freezing by late October. Last year’s sea ice declined unusually early; ocean temperatures in the region recently climbed to more than 5˚C above average. Last summer, 40 per cent of the Milne Ice Shelf, a 4,000-year-old formation on the north-western edge of Ellesmere Island – off the north-west coast of Greenland – caved into the sea, marking the end of Canada’s last fully intact ice shelf. At the same time the St Patrick Bay ice caps on the island disappeared completely.

A section of the British Museum’s exhibition traces the changing climates of the past 30,000 years: but this natural variation cannot be compared to the manmade climate change of today, which has occurred within a single generation, or less. As Inuit elder Delano Barr explains in a film, communities’ survival depended on a deep understanding of the weather and its historic patterns. “When things started changing due to global warming, that messed up everything,” he states simply.

The exhibition’s design carves intimate enclaves out of the chilly grey expanse of the gallery; it is a space that’s hard to love, but Amsterdam-based design studio Opera has done its best. Threaded throughout are themes of colonisation and resistance: the Sámi were the first Arctic people to have sustained contact with Europeans beginning in the 13th century; as elsewhere all over the world, eventually the Arctic was divided up into colonial states, and religion was used to convert indigenous peoples into “ideal citizens”. Last summer, Inhabit Education Books, a Nunavut-based educational publishing company, created “Qinuisaarniq”, which means “resiliency” in Inuktitut: a programme intended to teach Nunavummiut about residential schools, which for decades removed Inuit children from families in order to strip them of their culture.

The work of contemporary Arctic artists flows through the gallery: as museum collecting practices (thankfully) change, such works will become increasingly important acquisitions across the world. Near the entrance to the exhibition is Kenojuak Ashevak’s gorgeous lithograph Nunavut Qajanartuk from 1992: it commemorates the in-principle signing of the Inuit Land Claim Agreement of 1990, which would create Nunavut (“our land” in Inuktitut) in 1999. Within its circular shape are all the elements of Arctic life – hunting, fishing, living on the land, family – its shape reflecting the nature of that life. Large-scale photographs by Alaskan Iñupiaq Brian Adams from his “Disappearing Villages” series light up the walls; Jessie Oonark’s boldly coloured graphic wall-hanging puts women’s faces into the crescent shape of ulu knives – the graceful, efficient tool of Inuit women.

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The British Museum’s exhibition is sponsored by Citi. On the day I visited the museum, black-clad protestors stood in the Great Court in front of the entrance to the exhibition: “Citi: 3rd largest investor in fossil fuels”, read one of their banners; “stop Arctic oil extraction” another. The Citi investment figure comes from the Rainforest Action Network’s “Banking on Climate Change: Fossil Fuel Finance Report”, published this year. In the spring, the Citi updated its environmental and social policy framework, with commitments that included no project-related financing for oil and gas exploration and production in the Arctic Circle. It is too little, too late: as early as 2035 the Arctic’s summer sea ice could have completely disappeared. What will happen to these people, these cultures, as the ice melts, and a future exhibition like this one reflects not a lived reality but artefacts from a vanished past? The real question is: what will happen to us all? 

“Arctic: culture and climate” runs until 21 February. The British Museum is temporarily closed

Erica Wagner is New Statesman contributing writer. A former literary editor of the Times, she has twice judged the Man Booker Prize. Her most recent book is Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge.

This article appears in the 06 November 2020 issue of the New Statesman, American chaos

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