Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland

Isbjorn says six more weeks of winter. Photo: T. Loo

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by Tina Loo

Apart from an epic visit to the ABBA Museum, one of the memories I have of the recent Northern Nations, Northern Natures workshop in Stockholm comes from the first day, when many of the participants introduced themselves by forswearing any expertise about the north – and then proceeded to talk about it, at length and insightfully.

I can’t remember this happening at any other workshop I’ve attended. It speaks to how scholars have used the north to learn about globalization and climate change, the meanings of imperialism, nationalism, and colonialism, and the relationship between knowledge and power – almost anything but the place itself! For all the attention it has received, the north remains elusive: it’s not that there’s no “there” there, more that there’s so much that it makes it hard to see what northern history or northern environmental history is.

Sometimes it seems that they’re one in the same: research on the north is automatically environmental history; the former collapses into the latter. Broadly speaking, both explore how people adapted to and shaped the physical environment and how it in turn has shaped them.

My offering to the workshop certainly treated the north as a physical obstacle, a set of hard limits and scarcities that had to be overcome. I argued that one way to frame a comparative environmental history of the north might be to ask how governments dealt with the challenge of sustaining populations in environmentally marginal places. For my purposes then the north was a frontier of human habitation. I made my case by comparing the Canadian welfare state’s efforts to put two different regions of Canada, the Keewatin (Kivalliq) region and Newfoundland, on an environmentally and socially enduring footing in the postwar period. From this, I made some observations about the politics of sustainable development, the ideological and political work it carried out.

I wasn’t alone in equating the north with the environment: climate historian Dagomar Degroot showed us how the Little Ice Age manifested itself differently in different years, suggesting that weather, more than climate, shaped sixteenth-century Dutch imperial aspirations in the arctic and their search for a Northeast Passage. Geographer Matt Farish gave us a fascinating talk about how the US military simulated northern environments in places far from Ellesmere, training “Arctic warriors” for a cold (and Cold) war. The military wasn’t the only power capable of mobilizing northern environments for particular ends. Communications scholar Rafico Ruiz revealed how the market circulated the north as a commodity: entrepreneurs turned icebergs into bottled glacier water, capitalizing on a notion of pristine nature and climate change – the process that’s contributing to increased calving, putting more potential “product” in the water from which profits can be wrangled.

I’m sure everyone would agree there’s more to northern history than the environment. But is there more to the northern environment? Is it more than a frontier, a place onto which outsiders projected their aspirations? Is it only an obstacle to be overcome, a commodity to be extracted and exploited, a resource to be managed?

Approaching the north as a frontier of empire, state power, science, and capital, as many of us do, has been illuminating. But I wonder if there aren’t other ways to think about the north, perhaps as home – still a field of power, but one in which different aspirations were projected by different actors.

Kirsten Thisted’s presentation exploring “what is indigenous?” in the context of Greenland’s transition to self-government got me thinking about this, as did Dolly Jørgensen’s paper on animal re-introductions and the remaking of Nordic nations, Anna Varfolomeeva’s proposal for a comparative study of Sami and Veps peoples in Karelia, and Jonathan Luedee’s work on the Porcupine caribou herd.

What would it mean to think of the northern environment as as a modern homeland, one created by Greenlandic Inuit “pioneers” and Veps possessed of a “mineral identity,” to name a few, as well as other animals? To see the north as David G. Anderson does, as a region “densely populated … by creatures rich in intentionality, history, and connection” to each other and the place around them? What would we see if we redefined the places we study to include “other peoples, other lives”?[1] For Donald Worster, doing so isn’t just an academic exercise. “What’s at stake is nothing less than the notion of community we want to nurture.”[2]

This post was originally published on the Northern Nations, Northern Natures website.

[1] David G. Anderson, “Reindeer, Caribou, and ‘Fairy Stories’ of State Power,” in David G. Anderson and Mark Nutall, eds., Cultivating Arctic Landscapes: Knowing and Managing Animals in the Circumpolar North (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2003), 2-3.

[2] Donald Worster, “Other Peoples, Other Lives,” in his An Unsettled Country: Changing Landscapes of the American West (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994), 90.

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Tina Loo

Professor at University of British Columbia
Tina Loo teaches Canadian history and environmental history at the University of British Columbia. She's written on wildlife management and the social and environmental impacts of hydroelectric development. Her current project is an examination of forced relocations in postwar Canada.


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