Tales of the unexpected: Inuit shepherds in Greenland


Workers during a break in Qaqortoq. Photo: Mia Bennett

In Greenland, there’s a joke that if you go out to dinner with a Greenlandic people, there’s five people: mom, dad, the two kids, and an anthropologist. Be that as it may, many social scientists who study the Arctic have never been to Greenland given its relative remoteness. It’s only possible to fly to the world’s largest island from Denmark and Iceland, and flights cost a pretty penny. Climate change scientists receive millions of dollars to study the Greenland Ice Sheet, which covers 80% of the country’s surface and has the potential to dramatically raise global sea level should it continue melting as models predict. In contrast, social scientists just don’t have as many opportunities to research Greenland’s 56,000 inhabitants and the many issues that affect them.

So it should come as no surprise that when the Arctic-FROST research network decided to hold its annual meeting in Qaqortoq, a settlement of about 3,000 people in southern Greenland, I jumped at the chance to apply. Arctic-FROST is a National Science Foundation-funded project based out of the University of Northern Iowa that aims to build an international, interdisciplinary collaborative network of environmental and social scientists, local educators, and community members from all eight circumpolar countries. While I had attended a previous Arctic-FROST workshop in St. Petersburg, Russia, I was over the moon when I found out I was accepted to the workshop in Qaqortoq, whose theme focused on community sustainability in the Arctic while importantly taking place in a small, northern settlement. A few months later, I found myself standing with 17 other eager polar researchers at the airport in Copenhagen, meeting each other at the gate before boarding our ruby red Air Greenland plane to Kangerlussuaq. 


Air Greenland’s sole Boeing 757 awaiting passengers on the tarmac at Copenhagen Airport. Photo: Mia Bennett

As some of you might remember, I traveled to Greenland in August 2014 to assist with hydrological fieldwork on the ice sheet. With my research group from UCLA, led by Professor Laurence Smith, we were studying the turquoise blue rivers that form each summer on top of the ice as temperatures rise. It was an otherworldy feeling to walk on top of the part of Greenland that is still marked as “unexplored” on contemporary maps of the country. Yet spending most of my time either on the ice sheet or in the aviation and research hub that is the town of Kangerlussuaq meant that I didn’t get the chance to experience life in a larger Greenlandic settlement with a history that predated World War II.


Qaqortoq, with a cruise ship in the harbor. Photo: Mia Bennett

The past week in Qaqortoq with Arctic FROST changed all that. While our experience was still admittedly far from that of the average Greenlander – staying in a plush hotel, enjoying elaborate dinners, and having an espresso machine on demand throughout the workshop – we had many chances to learn from locals and hear what issues really matter to Greenlanders. One big takeaway was that even though our theme was sustainability, this isn’t an issue that is put front and center in municipal meetings. People in Qaqortoq seemed focused on issues with a more pressing timeframe, like supporting and strengthening residents’ mental health, improving children’s educational outcomes, and halting outmigration to Nuuk, Copenhagen, and beyond.


Ewes, and a lone ram, after being separated from their lambs at a farm in Qassiarsuk, Greenland. Photo: Mia Bennett

Up the fjord in nearby Qassiarsuk – the very location where Viking Erik the Red established his seat of power at the end of the 10th century – the most urgent issue on the late summer day in September when we visited was rounding up the lambs for slaughter. When most people think of the hunting and eating patterns of the indigenous Inuit of Greenland, whales, seals, and fish come to mind. They don’t imagine Inuit successfully raising hundreds of sheep on the same lands where Norse colonies, which also had sheep and other animals like cows and pigs, died out hundreds of years ago. Even more mind-bogglingly, the lambs they raise are eventually herded onto a small vessel which sails up an iceberg-filled fjord to a nearby town with a sleek and sterile government-sponsored slaughterhouse.

Video kindly provided by Thorvald Bernhardtsen. All rights reserved by him.

Those were just a handful of eye-opening experiences I had over the past seven days, which I will be writing about over the coming weeks. Stay tuned for more – including my second time trying Thai-Greenlandic fusion cuisine.


Trudeau’s Yukon plan: Funding another road to nowhere


Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Whitehorse, Yukon over the weekend. Photo: Office of Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada

The past few years have been good for the Canadian road-building industry in the Arctic. In 2011, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper approved a $300 million, 75-mile long highway between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk. “Tuk,” as locals refer to it, sits on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. Once the highway opens later this year, it will be the first public road in North Amer ica to the reach the water at the top of the world.

Harper was a Conservative politician who tried to resurrect a strategy of muscular Arctic sovereignty in the Canadian North. His philosophy towards demonstrating Arctic strength was one of “use it or lose it”, manifested in big-ticket projects like the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway and the Canadian High Arctic Research Station, also opening later this year. In this way, he resembled an earlier postwar predecessor, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. That leader, of a different conservative ilk, sought to build “roads to resources” across Canada’s North, too, where he saw the nation’s destiny lying.

After Harper’s fall from favor came Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: young, Liberal (with a capital L), and, based on appearances, a world apart from the rigid Stephen Harper. Where Harper staunchly supported the oil industry and cracked down on climate scientists, Trudeau views himself as an environmentalist, and Canada as a leader in sustainability.

Yet over the weekend, Trudeau took a page out of Harper’s playbook by cozying up to mining interests. The only difference was that he dressed his decision in the language of community development and putting indigenous peoples first. During his first official trip to the Yukon a few days ago, the Liberal Prime Minister announced over CAN $360 million in funding to road improvement projects in the territory. Road access will be enhanced in two areas rich in mining potential: the Dawson Range in central Yukon and the Nahanni Range Road in southeastern Yukon. On paper, these two projects satisfy the government’s aim to build “strategic and trade-enabling infrastructure” across Canada. The federal government will contribute two-thirds of the funding (CAN $274.4 million), while the Yukon territorial government will kick in one-third (CAN $112.8 million).

The roads are being promoted under the Yukon Resource Gateway Project (YRGP), which is all about turning the territory into a world-class mining province. The territorial government’s submission to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance said that YRGP “holds very little risk and great economic potential.” This statement, however, flies in the face of the Yukon’s severe downturn in recent years, largely due to a mining crunch. In 2015, the territory’s real GDP contracted by 6 percent – the largest of any province or territory in Canada. It has been forecast to shrink another 7.7% this year, again the “bleakest” outlook in Canada.

The Yukon government has spun this downturn on its head, claiming that the current lows in commodity cycles actually offer a good opportunity to sink more money into mining infrastructure. But if anything, one would think this would be an ideal time to diversify away from mining, which accounted for 10% of GDP in 2015. Instead, the government has chosen to sink money into the Nahanni Range Road, which terminates at the Cantung tungsten mine, closed since 2015 (see the route on Google Maps). The head office of the mine’s operator, North American Tungsten, has also been shuttered since 2015. It entered into court-ordered protection after declaring that it could not pay back the $79 million it owed to more than 200 companies and after laying off dozens of employees. Unsurprisingly, government inspectors recently found that the bankrupt, abandoned mine is illegally leaking discharge into surrounding waters and lacks proper erosion controls.


The Nahanni Range Road after a washout in summer 2012. Photo: Yukon Department of Highways and Public Works.

Given that an abandoned and leaking mine lies at the end of a road that the federal and territorial governments are spending millions to improve, it seems absurd for Trudeau to claim that the road investments will be “an investment in Yukon’s people.” Nobody lives along the road or in the abandoned mining town of Cantung at the end of it, although fishing for Arctic grayling in the area is supposed to be good. The territorial government, too, has claimed that the Yukon Resource Gateway Project will lead to “economic growth and employment opportunities in Yukon First Nations and communities.” But when the mining operators based in distant cities like Vancouver find it all too easy to abandon ship when the going gets tough, they leave a wake of environmental and economic destruction in their trail that hurts local communities most. North American Tungsten isn’t even the only Yukon mining operator to have gone bankrupt in 2015. Yukon Zinc Mine, whose parent company is Chinese-owned, closed the Wolverine Mine that year, too, leaving many local companies high and dry. At a tense meeting in Yellowknife in 2015, creditors called the company’s actions ” “shameful, absolutely shameful.” Yukon Zinc owes one local trucking company, Sidhu Trucking, over half a million dollars.

Mining companies certainly do create jobs when times are good, and they can also help fatten the pocketbooks of locals who aren’t directly employed in digging out the gold, lead, and tungsten. But when mining companies simply declare bankruptcy and leave a wake of environmental destruction and meaningless IOUs to hard-working local companies, the government should think twice about giving them what is essentially a handout in the form of taxpayer-funded road improvements.

Follow the ice: From Alaska to Hawaii


Lanikai Beach. Photo: Mia Bennett, 2017

Last week, I attended a conference about the Arctic in Hawaii. It might seem completely out of place, if not totally out of touch, to talk about a faraway, frozen place on a tropical island. But there are a surprising number of linkages between the Hawaiian islands and the Arctic, and they start with ice. The clear, cold solid forms the basis for one of the most famous desserts in the Pacific, “shave ice,” and was once one of the most lucrative exports from north to south.

After swimming in the warm and prismatic waters off Lanikai Beach on Oahu’s windward shore, I craved nothing more than an ice cold drink. This wouldn’t be hard to find. Oahu is an island where every town has shops selling smoothies, ice cream, soda, and shave ice. This last dessert is the precursor to the snow cone’s, dessert of choice of every kid at every state fair on the mainland. When President Obama would come home to Hawaii during his vacations, he would indulge in shave ice at his favorite shop, not too far from Lanikai Beach.



President Obama enjoying shave ice with his daughters in Kailua, Hawaii. Photo: Pete Souza, 2010/U.S. Government Work

Although frozen desserts on Hawaii are basically ubiquitous, their prevalence on this remote chain of jungle-covered volcanoes in the Pacific is pretty much just as bizarre as an Arctic conference taking place in Hawaii. Hi‘ilei Julia Hobart, who researches Indigenous peoples and food studies at Northwestern University, has written about the history of ice as a commodity in Hawaii. In a recent paper in Food, Culture & Society, she explains that American and European settlers’ taste for chilled drinks encouraged the creation of an “infrastructure of coldness” in Hawaii. Features like air conditioning and refrigeration contrast with the “infrastructure of warmth” that can be found in Arctic communities, from over-ground heating pipes in permafrost-laden Russia to geothermally heated sidewalks in Iceland, which melt the snow on top of them.


Shave ice in Hawaii. Photo: _e.t/Flickr 2.0 CC License

In nineteenth-century Hawaii, colonial energies were directed at keeping things cold. Starting in the 1850s, various companies began exporting ice to the booming port city of Honolulu. Newspaper advertisements, as Hobart describes, extolled the virtues of “a quantity of that greatest of luxuries in a tropical climate — ice.” In 1854, anticipating the start of a regular ice trade, local ship dealers Swan & Clifford built an ice house. The first delivery of ice to Hawaii, comprising some 500 tons, hailed from Sitka, Alaska.

At the time, Sitka was the hub of the Russian-American Company. The state-sponsored joint-stock company was chartered by Tsar Paul I in 1799 to carry out colonization efforts in Alaska, which was then Russian America, by means of exporting natural resources like furs, fish, and ice, and establishing settlements. The most important of those settlements was Sitka, which was established in 1799 by a Russian trader named Alexander Andreyevich Baranov. He named it Novo-Arkhangelsk (New Archangel), after his hometown, which was an important port city in the Russian Arctic on the White Sea.

Sitka was set up on land inhabited by the Tlingit people for thousands of years. In fact, the Tlingit were employed to stack the ice for shipment to faraway places like California and Hawaii. Thus, it is very possible that the first ice which arrived in Hawaii – ice from a town in Alaska named after a Russian city in the Arctic – was stacked and put into the ship by Alaska Natives.

After his successes in Alaska, Baranov sought to expand Russian America to Hawaii. In 1815, he sent a representative to the islands to establish a way station for Russian ships sailing from Alaska to China with lucrative furs. However, neither the Russian government nor navy supported Baranov’s aspirations, and Baranov’s delegate was forced to leave Hawaii, with the Russian trading posts abandoned.

The 1850s saw a boom in trade between Alaska and Hawaii. Besides ice, Alaskan wood products, timber, fish, and some Russian manufactured goods were exported south in exchange for Hawaiian sugar, molasses, and salt, according to anthropologist Lydia Black. Many Alaskan goods were traded to San Francisco, too. The burgeoning City by the Bay was in the throes of the gold rush and had a big appetite for ice. With the commodity going for $75 a ton, ice became the most profitable trade along that route.

While ice kept relatively well in the year-round cool and foggy climate of San Francisco, it did not hold up in Hawaii’s hothouse climate. Despite early excitement around promises of regular importation of ice, consistent deliveries from Alaska never really took off. It was hard to make a profit on a commodity that melted rapidly in the heat. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, ice machines came to take the place of empty ice houses.

The lack of success of ice imports in Hawaii mirrored another, more calamitous failure on the islands that originated in the Arctic: Captain Cook’s third voyage, from 1776-1780. The British explorer’s fateful sailing to the Hawaiian archipelago originated in the Alaskan Arctic. At the northernmost point of their three-year voyage – a little over 70 degrees north, just west of modern-day Wainwright, Alaska – on August 18, 1778, HMS Resolution encountered the edge of the Arctic sea ice. Captain Cook wrote in his journal, “We were, at this time, close to the edge of the ice, which was as compact as a wall; and seemed to be ten or twelve feet high at least. But, farther North, it appeared much higher. Its surface was extremely rugged; and here and there, we saw upon it, pools of water.”


HMS Resolution reaches the Ice Islands in the Arctic Ocean, north of the Bering Strait.

Unable to penetrate any farther north and failing to have found a passage between Europe and Asia, Cook and his crew turned south. Here in the Arctic, even in summer, ice was hardly the “greatest of luxuries” as it was in Hawaii. Seeking warmth and relief from horrible seas, Cook headed towards the Pacific via the Bering Strait. The ship stopped in the Aleutian Islands along the way, where Cook infamously forced his crew to eat walrus meat, which the crew thought was disgusting and tasted like “train oil.”

Alaska did not let them leave easily. “Mountainous seas,” in the words of British historian Frank McLynn, tormented the sailors, and it would be another 31 days before they would sight the lush island of Maui. Of course, any vision of relief from the ice would be a mirage. It would be on these ice-free islands that Cook would meet his ignominious fate, bonding Hawaii and the Arctic in a morbid and unforeseen way.

Today, if you ever have the chance to enjoy a shave ice in Hawaii, remember how precious ice used to be before ice machines were invented. It was so dear that it was shipped thousands of miles across the sea from Alaska, where it was stacked into piles by indigenous peoples for whom ice was part of the fabric of their landscape – not something that was hacked up and shipped out thousands of miles across the sea, only for it to melt away.

So how did shave ice come to be one of Hawaii’s most popular desserts?

Even after ice machines were introduced to Hawaii, it took some time for the flaky indulgence to be introduced to the islands. While the dessert has many origins, the Hawaiian version traces its roots to Japan, where it was first created over a thousand years ago during the Heian period (794-1195) using ice brought down from the mountains. Shave ice grew really popular after it burst onto the scene in the port city of Yokohama in 1869. Japanese immigrants to Hawaii in the 20th century reputedly used family heirloom swords to slice blocks of ice into the snowy, soft dessert that is today synonymous with island refreshment. The shop Obama frequents is called “Island Snow Hawaii” – bringing the tropics and the weather of the Arctic together under one banner. I guess the main difference now between ice in Hawaii and ice in the Arctic is that shave ice is rainbow-colored, while Arctic ice is clear, white, blue, or green.


A snowy scene in Japan. Maybe ice came from mountains like these. Image: Kanbara, by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858)

Sidebar: Dealing with ice still has its archaic moments, as seen in this video of an ice crushing machine I took a few years ago at Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo.