Scholars have often thought about the Arctic through three major concepts: wilderness, frontier, and homeland. Each of these concepts gestures to a set of questions about nature and culture, questions that help organize our understanding of the Arctic’s past, present, and future.
Wilderness is a place of sublime nature–the vast open tundra, the majestic mountains of the Brooks Range. It is a place “untrammeled by man,” where people do not go. In fact, to exist, wilderness cannot have human history. Because it presents us with an untouched place, it must be untouchable, it must be preserved. Wilderness is the question of conservation and preservation (Do we protect this place?)
The frontier is the place of pioneers, of stampeders. It is the zone of collision among cultures and languages. It is one end of one spoke of the industrial economy, where the extraction of natural resources fuels human history. The frontier is nothing less than the spot where the American identity is formed. The frontier is the question of political and economic expansion (Do we settle and develop this place?)
The homeland is the place of native history. It is the field of indigineity, of sovereignty, of the deep engagement with the land. By invoking the homeland, we call into being a division between insiders and outsiders. The homeland is the question of justice and of cultural difference (Who gets to decide how we treat this place?)
Scholars have often thought of these concepts as in conflict. The most common is conflict between wilderness and the frontier, or conservation and development. Do we protect this place or develop it? One can see this conversation run throughout Arctic history in the United States and Canada, all the way through to the present day. It is the conversation of sustainable development and globalization. It is the conversation of environmental history.
Recently, some scholars have helped us see that this conversation is awfully one-sided. Wilderness protection and economic development are both forms of control over the land imposed by outsiders. This brings us to the conflict introduced by the homeland concept. How can there be a wilderness and a homeland? By putting these two concepts together (Who gets to decide how we treat this place? Do we protect this place?) we see wilderness as an instrument of power, just like natural resource extraction. Those who live on the land have to be removed in order for it to be untouchable. Human history has to be concealed for wilderness.
When we put homeland and frontier together, we see a story of invasion, but we also of ownership. if we think of the north as an edge of an American frontier abutting an Inuit homeland, it is hard not to see story of clash of cultures. If we see the north as a global frontier and Inuit homeland, it is easier to see Inuit as leading economic development on their own territory.
As rich as these concepts are, I think there is one that is left out of much thinking about the Arctic: natural laboratory.
The Arctic has been a scientific space since the acquisition of northern territories in the 1860s. Polar explorers. Scientific expeditions. Bureaucrats introducing scientifically-managed reindeer husbandry economies. Building a radar fence across the continent’s rim. Environmental impact statements. Global Warming. Co-management of wildlife resources. Bioprospecting and oil prospecting. Pipelines and utilidors. By ignoring the Arctic’s history as a natural laboratory, we ignore questions as big as those related to wilderness, homeland, and frontier.
The natural laboratory is the place where science happens, either because the “natural” conditions are perfect to study a particular question or phenomenon, or the conditions can be manipulated to test a new idea or scheme. Like the (unnatural) laboratory, it is a place where the means of access are largely patrolled and the process of creating knowledge is never-ending. Through the natural laboratory, scientists understand nature; use this knowledge to ascertain basic truths about the region and its connection to the world; and apply this knowledge for the purpose of administration and development. The natural laboratory is the question of knowledge, of epistemology, of experimentation (On what basis do we make decisions about the Arctic?)
When we put the natural laboratory in conversation with wilderness, frontier, and homeland, interesting and unexplored tensions emerge. Wilderness is itself a natural laboratory for science–it offers an untouched place, a place with which to create a “baseline” or comparative landscape that allows us to measure human impact or change over time. ANWR, the north’s most famous wilderness space, was shepherded through Congress partly on the basis of its character as a natural laboratory. But if wilderness is a place without people and without human history, but a place where scientists can best understand nature, what does that say about scientists? Are they somehow less human?
The connections between natural laboratory and frontier are multiple and competing, largely depending on the political culture around economic expansion. In the early 1900s, the expanding frontier allowed geographers and naturalists to explore more of the north, to find new territories, to collect more fragments of nature and culture. But it also filled them with fear about the impacts of globalization on “vanishing races” and endangered species. In the interwar period, scientists looked to apply their theoretical studies to practical ends, helping governments and businesses craft intensive development schemes on the basis of scientific data. There is no better example than the introduction of reindeer from Asia and northern Europe into Alaska and Canada for the purpose of manufacturing animal husbandry economies among Inuit. Scientists also helped engineer the frontier in the 1950s, when new energy demands placed a premium on oil and Cold War geopolitics required new mechanisms of continental defense. In the natural laboratory/frontier divide, scientists play competing roles: they are activists, civil servants, experimentalists, consultants. Here we see tensions between development and science–either creating a pathway to expansion or trying to block it; either serving the state or private industry; or serving neither or both.
The connections between natural laboratory and homeland may be difficult to see beyond the north, but they are clear there. In a natural laboratory, knowledge is created through experiment, a scientific method. In a homeland, it is created through deep engagement, experience over time and continued cultural practice. Interestingly, the language of science was a platform for indigenous land claims in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Geographers and archaeologists worked with indigenous leaders to map cultural resources and articulate land occupancy through time, to show federal governments that they had used the land throughout recent history and thus were the land’s rightful owners. Now we see natural laboratory and homeland meeting up in many other themes: the co-management of resources; in indigenous corporations working with scientists to help enumerate and develop resources; and in scientists performing environmental impact reviews to help make decisions on mega projects like the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline. The tension here unfolds from the questions of Who gets to decide how we treat this place? and On what basis do we make decisions about the Arctic? Scientists and indigenous leaders often talk about (and seek to resolve) these tensions by gesturing to “two worlds”–or the fundamental differences between science and another kind of knowledge that is local/native/traditional, but no less ecological.
All four of these concepts are in tension when we think about globalization, climate change, territorialization, sustainable development, and the “New North.” It is important that we recognize the natural laboratory, that we identify science and scientists as having such unique roles in northern history. Scientists have created some of the very ideas that frame our thinking about the north. Science has served a variety of competing interests at the same time and over time. Thinking with four key concepts (instead of three) doesn’t solve any of our issues, but it gets us closer to developing solutions, because we have a more complete vocabulary with which to talk about the big questions we face together.