Cowboys and Indians in the Arctic

inuit

Yesterday, I attended a talk by Dr. David Pinder, Reader in Geography at Queen Mary, University of London, at Cambridge University’s Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities. His presentation was entitled, “Fluid cities: circulation and the politics of mobility.” Dr. Pinder touched on a number of ideas related to mobilities, such as fixities versus flows, verticality, access and urban design, but the one I want to connect to the Arctic is the dichotomy between nomadism and sedentarism. The state generally prefers that people live in territorially fixed settlements. Nomads are seen as threatening to the power of the state. They are primitive and backwards; the modernist architect Le Corbusier called Paris the “eternal gypsy encampment” before Baron von Haussman razed and rebuilt it with wide open boulevards. In the Arctic, indigenous peoples like the Inuit were historically nomadic. Some Sami in Fenno-Scandinavia and many Nenets in Russia still follow the movements of reindeer. But over time, the state has displaced them and encouraged them to forsake their traditional ways of life for a more sedentary lifestyle. In theory, the Westphalian state is predicated on fixity of borders and boundaries, of territories and populations.

Yet at the same time, neoliberal flows seek to break down these very borders to allow for free circulation of goods and money. Thus, the market state depends on a certain type of nomadism and movement to survive. Capitalism necessitates the constant movement, flow and circulation of investments to new places in order to sustain itself. Nowadays, parts of the Arctic, generally those home to a wealth of natural resources, are attracting new investments. Just as the forces behind capitalist expansion have historically evicted certain nomads, namely indigenous peoples, from the places they frequent, they have simultaneously imported skilled laborers to these sites. The Globe and Mail cites a 2008 study from Chatelaine magazine implying that “more than half of the Fort McMurray area’s 25,000 migrant workers are from Atlantic Canada.” 2,000 to 3,000 people commute from New Brunswick to Fort McMurray for work. They are Canada’s “cowboy nomads” – a figure first mentioned in a letter to a 1969 edition of the magazine, Supplement.

The cowboy nomad is someone who wanders and roams, attempting to escape the mundane nature of middle-class suburbia while at the same time living off the very technologies that enable that suburbia: readily accessible food, electronics, and oil, for example. He chooses to be highly mobile. In “From Counterculture to Cyberculture,” Fred Turner draws a comparison between the cowboy nomad and Gurney Norman’s “Long Hunter” (p. 87). The long hunter is someone who engages in a period of “long-learning, in which modern frontiersmen gain the individual competence that allows them to do the necessary, practical things. Indians were the original teachers. They are with us still, their ways and attitudes remain as models, to emulate and learn from.”  Ultimately, the long hunter is “willing to range beyond the settled places in search of education and adventure” (Norman, 1970, in Turner, 2006, p. 87).

It is interesting to transpose these romanticized figures of cowboy nomads and long hunters to the Arctic. Western society valorizes the men who tough it out in extremes, braving sheets of snow and brazen polar bears to drill for oil, drive massive trucks across precarious ice roads, or simply test the limits of the human body. Just think of recent TV shows such as Ice Road Truckers or the Guardian’s op-ed praising Ranulph Fiennes’ attempt to walk across Antarctica in the dark of winter, despite the fact that he has had to withdraw due to frostbite. These are the cowboy nomads of the north and south poles, for their endeavors would not be possible without modern technology. Furthermore, at least in the Arctic, they are not really ranging beyond the “settled places,” which the region continues to be categorized as despite the thousands of years of indigenous inhabitance. Since many of these indigenous peoples were nomadic, the state did not see their mobile form of inhabiting spaces as legitimate. Complicating matters more, even when the Inuit travel across land, they do not lay down asphalt, stones, or iron to make their tracks permanent. Instead, they ephemerally etch their paths into the snow each year for them only to disappear when summer arrives.

Claudio Aporta has carried out some fascinating research (subscription required) using GIS, GPS, and Google Earth to map the network of Inuit trails. He concludes that Inuit culture is “better understood in terms of moving as a way of living” and that the Inuit have made “systematic use of the Arctic environment as a whole,” traveling from Greenland to Alaska and back. Their trails are not just efficient routes from A to B. Whereas in the West, the purpose of flight is to transport a person as quickly as possible from one spot to another, Inuit tracks often pass through fertile areas where they would hunt and exchange goods and news with others.

Like many places in the world, however, cities are becoming the dominant form of settlement in the Arctic, eroding the importance of such traditional travel networks and generally reterritorializing the north. Iqaluit’s population is growing rapidly with an 8.3% upsurge in 2011. Tromsø grew by 3.8% last year. By contrast, Russia’s northern cities, are shrinking. Residents are not fleeing for the rural countryside or for nomadic lifestyles, but rather for the big city in the south – Moscow. I like this infographic from RIA Novosti of population in the Arctic, as it’s well-designed and shows where the major concentrations of people are.

arcticmap

uspop

But a dotmap like the above of the United States, generated by MIT graduate student Brandon Martin-Anderson, depicting settlements in the Arctic would be enlightening. It would better show the distribution of people without regard to the boundaries of municipalities, counties, or countries, as the Russian one does. Of course, the complicating factor is that not all of the residents of the north can be tied to one place. Nomads defy definition as points of population on a map, unless the map is only representative of a moment in time. Thus, to truly grasp the usage patterns of the Arctic by reindeer herders, whale hunters, and the like, it is perhaps better to rely on maps of their travel networks across tundra, taiga, and ocean, as Aporta does.

This 1996 map of Inuit mapped by census subdivision does a better job than the RIA Novosti infographic of illustrating Canada’s population pattern. We can see that people tend to settle on coastlines and lake shores rather than in the interior. I imagine this pattern would replicate itself across much of the modern Arctic — and, in fact, across the world, as 44% of people live within 150 kilometers of the sea (U.N.). Yet it’s important to remember that the interior is not always “barren” and uninhabited: To those who know where to look, there are resources to be found and news to be gathered. Climate change is adding yet another dimension to the reterritorialization of the Arctic, as both indigenous peoples and commodities extractors alike are having to adapt their routes to changing landscapes — and possibly move more inland from the coast as sea levels rise.

InuitpopcanadaCensus

So in essence, we have an Arctic in which the state forced many of the nomadic peoples to permanently settle during the 20th century, sometimes under the guise of modernization projects. Settlement and cities are seen as emblems of progress, even though within them, freedom of movement — whether by automobile, foot, or bicycle – is crucial. People are more easily controlled when they are in one place. In the Arctic then, the question is more than just nomadism versus sedentarism. Rather, it is, “Who can be nomadic?”

The oil sands in Athabasca are not exactly in the Arctic, but as a site quite far north, they still lend themselves to a similar analysis of flows of people, capital and transportation networks. The oil sands workers from the Maritime Provinces are northern cowboy nomads, traveling thousands of miles a week between their sites of home and work. They are embedded within the dominant flows of capital and commodities, so such nomadism is permitted and even encouraged. A map of WestJet’s flight routes, which serves Calgary, the main hub airport near Fort McMurray, shows the patterns of travel commuting from various towns and cities in Canada and making getaway vacations to places in southern California, Mexico, and the Caribbean. This is where the oil sands workers go to spend their generous paychecks. Despite their northerliness, these workers are highly mobile.

Many impoverished indigenous peoples in the Arctic cannot afford to be as footloose. Traditional nomadism is discouraged while the new form of roaming is encouraged. In the Arctic, the modern wayfarer, flying between distant sites of work, home, and recreation, replaces the traditional wayfarer, to use the term from Piers Vitebsky’s book, Reindeer People. The WestJet flight map shows one dimension of the new paths in and out of the north, which are reshaping the territorial connections of the Arctic both within itself and to the rest of the world. Western eyes view the blank spaces on the map not filled with points of population as empty, whereas the Inuit might see them as integrated into their larger travel networks regardless of whether anyone permanently resides there. Thus, the Inuit and the West have divergent ways of conceiving of territorialization, nomadism, and “use” of land.

WestJet_YYC

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