Review of Pratt and Heyes, Memory and Landscape

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Kenneth L. Pratt and Scott A. Heyes, ed., Memory and Landscape: Indigenous Responses to a Changing North. Athabasca: Athabasca University Press, 2022. 448 pgs. ISBN: 9781771993159.

Reviewed by Heather Green.

In many cultures around the world, identity is connected to human relationships with our lived and perceived environments. How we identify our place in the world is influenced by the cultural significance of land, memory, and history. This is particularly true for Indigenous cultures and in areas most at risk to the effects of a warming climate. The authors in Kennth Pratt and Scott Heye’s edited volume Memory and Landscape: Indigenous Responses to a Changing North explore this theme in rich detail by examining the interwoven web of language, land, and identity in the circumpolar North. Studying Arctic and Subarctic Canada, Alaska, Greenland, Siberia, and Russia, the book offers a timely analysis of how northern populations have adapted to new relationships with the land in a time of rapid environmental change. The climate crisis and 20th and 21st century industrial exposures have forced northern populations to shift their engagement with landscapes and environments, but the authors in this collection remind us that northern peoples have maintained their cultural identity while facing these forces of disruption.

How have northern Indigenous populations maintained cultural identity? The twelve chapters in this volume argue that the persistence of memory embedded in landscape was a critical factor in cultural retention. The authors in this volume come from diverse backgrounds – anthropology, geography, history, cartography, landscape architecture, archaeology, linguistics, and community scholarship – making this a truly interdisciplinary study that works to amplify Indigenous voice and centering Indigenous languages and place names. The collection does this quite successfully. Reading this volume, it has a “northern” feel to it, a sense that the book was produced by authors, editors, and community collaborators who have spend considerable time in the places of study, learning from the land, from the past, and from people. It is an admirable blend of academic scholarship in conversation with Indigenous knowledge.

The collection is organized into three related yet distinct sections: Indigenous History and Identity (Part 1), Forces of Change (Part 2), and Knowing the Land (Part 3). Each of these sections opens with words and images from Indigenous elders about their firsthand experiences with the subject at hand. There is little distinction between Parts 1 and 2 and most of the chapters from each section could have been placed in the other. There is a much clearer disciplinary and thematic distinction in Part 3.

The volume lends attention to the colonial project in the North. Along with environmental transformations, the people of the North faced the colonial suppression of Indigenous language, the erasure of Indigenous place names, and the disruption of significant and traditionally used lands. For example, in Murielle Nagy’s chapter “Inuvialuit Ethnonyms and Toponyms,” she examines Inuvialuit efforts to preserve language in the 1990s, an act particularly important as accelerated language loss resulted from residential schooling. Nagy argued that the Inuvialuit returned to old camps where physical presence in these spaces ignited memory held within the land and helped in the preservation of heritage in the territory that is no longer used, but historically and culturally significant (66). The Inuvialuktun Language Project kept a record of language for future generations through oral history, traditional knowledge, and place names and has been an important local effort at combating colonial disruptions. Though the collection is not specifically a history of colonization, it remains constant in the background of many of the chapters in the volume, particularly those in the first eight chapters.

The chapters in Indigenous History and Identity engage with toponyms (place names), language, migration history, creation stories, and oral legends. These works demonstrate that in Indigenous interactions with land, the non-human occupation of land of that same space is considered essential, including animals, plants, water, and spirits. I found Martha Dowsley, Soctt Heyes, Anna Bunce, and Williams Stolz’ chapter “Berry Harvesting in the Eastern Arctic” particularly enlightening. Here, the authors explore women’s identity as connected to berry picking as an act intricately tied to memories, knowledge, and relationships with specific places out on the land. In this study, the authors place the importance of berry picking on par with that of hunting, but remind readers that, as a primarily female pursuit, berry picking “may have been relatively invisible to, and possibly also of less interest to, early ethnographers, who were for the most part male.” (119). The authors also make a call for more research on women and human-environmental relationships in Northern settings (143).

black and white image of two women with berry tins in their hands.
“Innu Women Picking Berries,” 1930-1940, Judith Pauline White, Alika Podolinksy Webber fonds, Library and Archives Canada, e011307802.

For environmental historians, Forces of Change is the strongest section in which the authors, individually and collectively, analyze how Indigenous communities in the North have adapted and responded to changing environments, landscapes, and ways of live. These transformations are the result of global processes like climate change, globalization, and colonialism. Chapters focus on ecosystem and landscape change in the Yukon Delta, on maps and colonization along the Copper River, on built environments of the North, and on disappearance and absence. Mark Nuttall’s chapter on Greenland is particularly strong for environmental historians, where he warns us against the tendency of scholars to define the Arctic by what has been lost and to avoid equating disappearance with a doomed cultural or environmental future. He argues that the Arctic is not only remade by anthropogenic climate change, globalization, and extraction, but also by narratives of precarity, fragility, and absence. His insists that a long history of Arctic adaptability indicates a hopeful, if different, future for Arctic inhabitants.

The final section, Knowing the Land, includes chapters that focuses exclusively on place names and language. While this section is not as much environmental “history” as the previous section, it does provide lessons and insight to close connections various Indigenous groups in Canada, Alaska, and Russia have with land as demonstrated in their place-naming processes.

Memory and Landscape is a beautifully illustrated collection with rich cartographic materials that familiarise readers with the vast expanse of northern regions discussed throughout the book. It can be difficult to unite chapters that differ in disciplinary practise, but Pratt and Heyes provide a solid collection that examines memories, identity, language, and landscapes in various cultural contexts. Students of environmental history will see great value in the collection’s demonstration of how external factors (like climate change, colonization, and global industrial expansion) have historically and presently influenced and disturbed not only northern environments but also long-standing cultural relationships with the land in ways that led to loss but also in ways that led to cultural retention and heritage preservation through the efforts of local communities.


Feature Image: Arctic Landscape. Photo by mdburnette from the WordPress Photo Directory.
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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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