Notes from the Field: Continuity and Change

Here’s a field note I wrote myself, in the form of a column for News North, while doing research in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, Canada between August 2010 and June 2011.

I jotted a mental note: The idea of a “new North” is itself not new. I had spent only two months sifting through ten decades of historical writing—both the dusty papers of governmental archives and history books—and I had read time and again about the Arctic’s new-ness. For every warning about an unprecedented transformation was a prophecy about rich, yet untapped potential. Like contemporary visions of global warming, historical glances North seemed taken with fresh eyes, focused on what has changed, yet losing sight of what persists in time.

Consider what has been written about the whaling era on the Beaufort coast. Paging through literature on Herschel Island we meet Joe Tuckfield, enshrined by historians as the American whaler who “discovered” the bonanza of Bowheads east of Barrow, Alaska. Just years before dreams of gold lured thousands of southerners across the Chilkoot to the Klondike, hordes of whalers from all corners of the globe rushed to the Arctic island in hopes of striking it rich. In 1889, Tuckfield declared the mouth of the Mackenzie River was “as thick as bees” with whales. In 1911, international markets for baleen and whale oil dried up, the Bowheads seemed to have disappeared, and as many historians have noted, the whaling era screeched to a halt.

Or consider histories of exploration. In 1912, a year after the “death” of the whaling industry, the North was born again. Explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson reported to the Canadian government discoveries of vast copper deposits and “uncontaminated” Inuit cultures just east of the Delta. Stefansson’s descriptions catalyzed federal investment in the North, including the Canadian Arctic Expedition, a five-year scientific survey of the natural and human resources that Ottawa bureaucrats hoped would help remake the Arctic “frontier” into a humming industrial hub.

These narratives of the past are attuned to change—and for good reasons. From 1889 to 1918, the North experienced several transformations: fur economies replaced the whale industry; diseases ravaged human populations; Alaskans migrated eastward; and, underlying many of these shifts, caribou numbers declined. As important as these historical episodes are, what would this period look like if we sought out tales of continuity?

If we pay attention to persistence, we notice different actors, different stories, and thus, different lessons. For instance, there were many whalers who stayed behind following the boom and bust of the whaling era, continuing lives and livelihoods far after baleen was profitable. Beyond the Mackenzie Inuvialuit and Gwich’in who were native to the region, there were American whalers, Inupiat deckhands, and foreign businessmen who planted roots in the permafrost, starting families and companies in the early 1900s that flourished until the Great Depression. Like C.T. Pedersen, a Norwegian whaler who operated a “floating post” and brought flour, sugar, and tobacco to temporary settlements and private camps in exchange for furs and skins. When the Canadian government made trade on American vessels illegal, Pedersen created a joint Canadian-American company and constructed his own posts. He is remembered as a newcomer who worked with native northerners through difficult economic times.

There’s also Natkusiak, or Billy Banksland, one of Stefansson’s guides during the explorer’s travels in the Arctic. Beyond helping Stefansson survive and find his way in the North, Natkusiak was a successful traveler himself. Migrating to the region from Alaska, Natkusiak became an expert hunter in the Beaufort-Delta. Utilizing firearms and the schooner Stefansson gave him as payment for his guiding services, the Mary Sachs, Natkusiak and several others moved to Banks Island in the 1920s, trapped foxes and other animals there, and created the community of Sachs Harbor. The settlement’s name is only one legacy of the early twentieth century—family histories and the landscape itself also bear witness to this past.

Trying to see both continuity and change in history is like reading one of those 3-D puzzle books—the kind where you squint at just the right angle and hold the paper just far enough from your hands and the hidden picture reveals itself. Like the still-scrambled image, there is more shape to history than what can be seen at first, or what focusing on change brings into view. Put another way, while conditions may vary with time, the North is never entirely “new.” Continuities from the past are reminders about who stays and what carries on; they are lessons about the legacies of interactions among northerners, newcomers, and nature. Looking for what lasts, we find the resiliency of local people, the staying power of migrants, and vibrant relationships between them—important additional dimensions of northern history.

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