Review of Routledge, Do You See Ice?

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Karen Routledge, Do You See Ice? Inuit and Americans at Home and Away. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018. 272 pgs. ISBN 9780226580135.

Reviewed by Heather Green.

Do You See Ice? presents a beautifully written history of cultural encounter in the Arctic from 1850 to 1920, a time when Arctic exploration and international whaling brought Inuit and Americans into close contact with each other and with new environments. The stories recounted in the book reveal how people cope with unfamiliar environments through the ideas of home, migration, and homesickness. The book closely examination the lives of several Inuit and American individuals primarily in Cumberland Sound, the High Arctic, the Eastern United States, and Greenland. It’s a gripping narrative from the first page of the prologue and Routledge masterfully draws her readers in, challenging pervasive and persisting colonial stereotypes of the Arctic from the 19th century to the present through a series of events and narratives.

Routledge engages with common tropes of the Arctic as harsh, barren, dangerous, and inhospitable that work to justify colonialism. She reminds readers that most of these stereotypes are ingrained within Northern American and Western society, though in the book itself she returns “to the time when stereotypes like these were taking hold” (xiv). Because home is the core framework for this book, it is particularly useful that Routledge not only discusses feelings of alienation and homesickness Americans felt while in the Arctic, but also discusses the attachment many whalers had to the Arctic and how many of them recorded a feeling of returning home each year in whaling season. On the other side of the coin, she describes a complex array of emotional and cultural connection to home for the Inuit as well: in these narratives, they felt at home in the Arctic, but some also felt at home in the United States, whereas Kalaallit (Inuit from Greenland) and Inuit from Cumberland Sound felt homesick while in the High Arctic. In reading these accounts, it becomes clear that a sense of home is situated within intimate environments, but that it is also an individual, and local, experience.

“Iceberg” by NOAA’s National Ocean Service. Licensed under CC BY 2.0

The book is divided into four chapters: Americans in Cumberland Sound; Inuit in the United States; Americans and Inuit in the High Arctic; and Inuit in Cumberland Sound. In the first chapter, Routledge recounts experiences of early whalers in Inuit home environments and the story of the stranding of the Polaris expedition in 1872 off the northwest coast of Greenland. This chapter generally follows more traditional scholarship on exploration or whaling in the Arctic, but Routledge frames the narrative within the five Inuit seasonal cycles, which helped to create a sense of unfamiliarity for America whalers, and a particular Inuit authority of the Arctic landscape rooted in deep knowledge.

The second chapter flips the exploration narrative by focusing on the experiences of an Inuit couple – Hannah and Ipiirvik – who traveled from Cumberland Sound to the Eastern United States with Charles Francis Hall, who they had worked with previously. This chapter offers a unique contribution to existing scholarly knowledge about Inuit ideas of home. The scholarly community knows a substantial amount about the histories of Qallunaat experiences in the Arctic, but not as much about Inuit experiences outside the Arctic during the 19th and early 20th centuries.[1] Routledge explains some factors that hindered Hannah and Ipiirvik’s ability to feel at home in America, including constant Othering, frequent illness, and devastating loss, but she also explores Hannah’s expressions of feeling connected to Connecticut and her desire to stay in the United States and not return to Cumberland Sound.

The third chapter primarily focused on the ill-fated Lady Franklin Bay, or Greely, expedition that saw high death tolls and suspicion of cannibalism. Reflecting on this expedition and Polaris, Routledge argues that such disastrous expeditions highlight the “spectacular failures in terms of local knowledge” on the part of American explorers (98).  This chapter, like the one before it, provides new insight into connections to home and homesickness. Not only did Greely’s men feel alienated from the Arctic environment, but Kalaallit did from Greenland as well. This is a significant part of the underlying theme of colonialism that runs through Do You See Ice?. As Routledge states early on, 19th-century Qallunaat perceptions of the Arctic and Inuit continue to shape the region and Inuit-Qallunaat relations today. Despite Ellesmere Island being Arctic, Greenlanders regarded it as a strange and unfamiliar place and found the darkness of the High Arctic difficult to bear. This narrative is reminiscent of the 1953-1955 High Arctic Relocations, where the Canadian state still assumed Inuit were the same across the Arctic and would easily adjust to any location.

“Ivoire gravé inuit (Montréal, Canada)” by dalbera. Licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Finally, chapter four once again counters the common trend within northern scholarship to focus on southern narratives that emphasizes Arctic peoples and landscape as foreign. Instead Routledge refocuses on Inuit experiences with Qallunaat foreignness (like their material possessions) in Inuit homeland. The information in this chapter comes almost exclusively from contemporary Inuit knowledge and this, along with its structure, does well to set a different tone in the writing that might be more relatable to Inuit readers and less easily followed by Qallunaat readers.

The book makes a number of important scholarly contributions. In examining the experiences of Americans and Inuit at home and away, Routledge examines Inuit and Qallunaat histories together, not separately. We see how the experiences of each was shaped profoundly by their interactions with different peoples, cultures, and environments. Do You See Ice? also offers an examination of the intimate aspects of colonialism. As Routledge argues in the prologue, she wanted to study “the unmaking and remaking of homes that is the beating heart of colonialism” (xv). This offers a nuanced way of bringing together social histories of colonialism in the private life and the home, of which some scholars of the North have published[2], and the environmental history and historical geography scholarship on Indigenous land dispossession, the creation of reserves, and relocations. Routledge argues that within environmental history there is surprisingly little scholarship on the idea of home, a concept that she believes is deeply rooted in place – both being present in it and being distant from it – and urges environmental historians to expand our understanding of home beyond the domestic realm to include the elements of environment that shape the construction of home.

Willem Barentsz Arctic Map, 1598. The Public Domain Review.

Routledge is a storyteller. She masterfully blends the archival record with oral history and current Inuit knowledge. She brings Inuit voices into the stories, while being careful to clarify this was not a community-based project. The empathetic consideration Routledge gives to the historical figures in the book demonstrates great care within the writing process. The writing feels like it was gently approached and many of the insights deeply pondered. Routledge doesn’t shy away from being honest with her readers regarding what she knows, what she doesn’t know for certain, and what she knows only from others. She very directly and openly situates herself in relation to her study – she states early on that she is a Qallunaat indebted to the Arctic peoples and environments who helped shape her learning journey. I greatly appreciated the short methodological essay included as an appendix, where Routledge not only encourages readers to seek out Inuit voices, but answers the question “What do I think I have learned so far?” she poses in her epilogue (151).

Do You See Ice? was truly a pleasure to read and a model for the role of empathetic consideration in historical research. Routledge succeeds in challenging pervasive and persisting stereotypes about the Arctic environment and people. This is a must-read work for scholars of northern/Arctic history and those interested in Inuit-Qallunaat cultural encounters, but it has a much wider audience among environmental history. Framing this study around the concept of home – in emphasizing both its rootedness and its fluidity – offers us new ways to think about relationships between humans and place and allows us to dig deeper into the emotional aspect of those connections. This book also has something to say about migration and immigration both past and present. In the book, readers see the attempts of Qallunaat Americans and Inuit attempting to create a semblance of home and a connection with different people and new places, and one can’t help but think these experiences are timeless.

Feature Image: “Surrounded by Icebergs.” Arctic Experiences Ed. E.V. Blake (NY: Harper & Bros., 1874). British Library 014871256.


[1] Two works that do discuss Inuit experiences outside of the Arctic include Mini Aodla Freeman, Life Among the Qallunaat (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2015), and Eddy Weetaltuk, From the Tundra to the Trenches (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2017).
[2] For example, Jan Hare and Jean Barman, Good Intentions Gone Awry: Emma Crosby and the Methodist Mission on the Northwest Coast (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2006); Myra Rutherdale, Women and the White Man’s God: Gender and Race in the Canadian Mission Field (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2002).
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Heather Green is an assistant professor in the Department of History at Saint Mary's University. She is interested in the intersections of environmental and Indigenous histories, histories of Indigenous and Settler Relations, and mining history, particularly in the Canadian North. You can connect with her on twitter @heathergreen21.

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