Notes from the Field: Back to the Future

Another column from News North, from the fall of 2010:

Until we manufacture Deloreans, studying History may be our best vehicle to the past.  Join me, then, in a journey across 100 years in the next 500 words.

Unlike modern transportation, this trip will be long on time and short on distance.  We will remain fixed to one location, the Yukon North Slope. Standing there, we watch the scenery change through three episodes of the region’s past.

We arrive in 1894 at the dawn of the commercial whaling industry in the Beaufort.  Inuit occupying the Slope have traded for centuries with their neighbors to the east and west by this point.  Yet powerful tools, like rifles, became available only through trade at whaling centres like Herschel Island. Herschel was a life-saver, both for its safe harbour and its stock of fresh meat, provided by local hunters. Through exchange, Inuit converted their knowledge of the land into tea, flour, schooners, and shotguns.  These arrangements persisted until the 1930s, making possible the continuation of Inuvialuit subsistence economies despite the collapse of bowhead whaling and disease epidemics in the early 1900s.

Blink an eye and it is 1946.  After the Great Depression, independent traders could no longer muster  funds to operate on the Slope. The Hudson’s Bay Company found the ice-choked route too risky.  Many families occupying the Beaufort coast moved to Aklavik and Tuktoyaktuk, returning in summer for whaling and social gatherings.  Despite their presence, government officials from Ottawa and Washington looked to this region as a “no-man’s land”:  an unpeopled, vulnerable region that should play a strategic role in defending North America from Soviet Power. From this bureacratic perspectve flowed the construction of DEW line sites and other mid-century defense projects.

In another instant, it is 2005.  The Bi-polar world became Circumpolar, the continentalism of the Cold War era disentegrated, and the Slope is now officially managed by federal and aboriginal governments.  In recognition of the importance of the region, these governments created a protected corridor from Alaska into Canada through three national parks.  By doing so, they preserved the rich histories of the place as well as the precious cultural and natural resources there.

Today, northerners and visiting scholars look to the Yukon North Slope as a testament to Inuvialuit cultural resiliency.  The people, lifeways, and traditions have survived incredible changes in game populations, global economies, governmental intervention, and more.  What I find interesting about this view is how starkly it contrasts with sojourning bureaucrats and scientists who visited the region in the first half of the twentieth century.  Rather than seeing the Inuit as survivers,they wrote about the disappearance or extinction of Inuit ways of life there—and used that view to legitimize certain schemes for devleopment.

Such a contrast is worth investigating, and it may only be visible to us by travelling in time.  What do we see change in ideas, culture, governance, and the land if we study the past?  And if we accept the notion that this change exists, we discover another riddle for tomorrow:  how will ways of knowing and governing the Arctic change in the future?


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