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TURTLE ISLAND at the Moonspeaker

The Moonspeaker:
Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...

Mapping Inuit Nunangat

The Indigenous peoples of what in settler parlance is referred to as "the arctic" but is better referred to as Inuit Nunangat, Inuit land, water, and ice, have been trading and interacting with non-Indigenous foreigners for centuries. This is rarely doubted anymore, in part because they have had ongoing dealings with certain groups of europeans who are valourized in settler writing, especially the vikings, whose putative presence in various areas of northern Turtle Island is fervently sought for to the edge of mania. Still, this only meant so much in terms of extended interactions, because the majority of outsiders to Inuit Nunangat deemed it an empty waste, too cold to be seriously considered a place to live, an attitude that persists to this day. As is alas all too familiar, the complexity of Inuit social, political, and economic life was at best ignored, or caricatured. Some readers may be familiar with the early grade school spellers once so commonly used in canada, small books of around a hundred pages providing a series of short stories and word lists for hapless students to learn from. I still vividly remember the page and a half that informed me that "the arctic" was empty, and "eskimos" were so poor that they had to make all their worldly goods out of animal skins and ice. Furthermore, the women had to chew the skins until their teeth wore away, and the preferred "eskimo" way of keeping a baby busy who was old enough to crawl was to tie a piece of seal or whale blubber to their toe and set them to trying to chew on it.

I kid you not.

Nunavut's coat of arms. Nunavut's coat of arms.
The Nunavut coat of arms, circa 1999.

Eventually, the british and russians began to make a greater effort to impose themselves as authorities over the Inuit and take over their lands, ice, and water. The main reason for this was simply greed. Both colonial countries had an interest in the lucrative fur trade and for finding and exerting control over the fabled northwest passage, a much hoped for sailing shortcut between europe and northern Turtle Island. And no doubt also a critical military asset as well. In time the russians ended up confined to the more western parts of Inuit Nunangat, to the point that today alaska is not to my knowledge referred to by that term, and the Yupik-speaking peoples of the region have a very different relationship to the term "eskimo." But russian or british or eventually american or canadian, all these outsiders were sure of one thing. "The arctic" was empty and desert, that is a place of riches left unused and unmanaged by people and therefore ripe for the taking. That such a characterization is convenient nonsense to land thieves didn't cause them much pause, and they encoded their beliefs in their maps of "the arctic." Those maps were basically blank.

Oh, the maps might have a few labels added to them, especially of "seas," "bays" and maybe an important current, usually with some european man's name, although a few were carry overs all the way from the ancient greeks. "Arctic" is one of these, in fact. "Explorers" in these regions, often guided by skilled Inuit pilots whom they inveigled on board or paid for their work in trade goods, may have been as much disappointed as relieved to find out that there wasn't a great whirlpool into which all the northern seas flowed among other curious ideas about the far north disproved by actual experience. In time europeans began to add a few names to places on land – usually their own – and to the glaciers and mountains they thought were the biggest of all. The use or recording of Inuit names was at best spotty. The maps remained effectively empty, although some later names, like "norman wells" were intended to assert the imposition of a "modern" economy.

Simplified map of Inuit Nunangat, courtesy of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. Simplified map of Inuit Nunangat, courtesy of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.
Simplified map of Inuit Nunangat, courtesy of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, circa 2018.

Of course, Inuit have maps of their own, and these were and are full of places. Although admittedly, that is hard to tell from the first map to the left, which is non-Indigenous in style, as the flat colours and sharp boundary lines reveal. Those yellow dots are clearly meant to indicate "settlements" in mainstream terms, the nucleated sites enforced on Inuit especially in the early to mid 1900s, when the canadian government saw this as a way to claim "sovereignty" over the region against Inuit and such countries as the united states, denmark, and russia. The transplantation of unsuitable housing and hyper-expensive southern food on top of deportation of Inuit children for long periods to residential schools and tuberculosis sanatoria were officially the means of imposing civilization. Social disruption, rampant tuberculosis, untenable food and work economies, and environmental degradation have been the primary outcomes for Inuit. Since they know quite well that it is not possible to live on their land, water, and ice in southern ways or mainstream, destructive ways generally, Inuit have been stubbornly reestablishing their cultures and economies, including producing brand new, very different maps. For example, the next map includes community names in Inuktitut, both in roman characters and in syllabics, in french, and in english.

Map of communities in Inuit Nunangat, courtesy of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. Map of communities in Inuit Nunangat, courtesy of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.
Map of communities in Inuit Nunangat, courtesy of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, circa 2018. (Original pdf)

Well, linguistically this is an oversimplification on my part. It is much wider knowledge than it used to be that there are several dialects of Inuktitut and Inuinaqtun spoken in Inuit Nunangat. The wikipedia article provides a fine dialect map, which is also reproduced below. Language maps of this kind are still vastly oversimplified by nature compared to the reality they summarize, but still give a beginning sense of the social and historical complexity of Inuit presence. Unfortunately, the article runs to the offensive as the various writers and editors opted to effectively complain about the apparent "prosaic" nature of Inuit language names for people and places. If the work of non-Indigenous ethnographers like Keith Basso, Julie Cruikshank, whose works are popular and constantly in print can't get through to wikipedians, that is sadly unsurprising. They write extensively about Indigenous place naming practices and systems, and among the things they show is that the poetics of names are emergent. They develop as part of communal experience and storying of the land, and yes, of persons. Obviously I have strong opinions on the subject, but I think there is a strong argument for the claim that "Inuit Nunangat" itself has emergent poetic properties already. After all, land, water, and ice all change on a wide range of time scales and can be experienced under a remarkable range of light and weather conditions. That's just what I can come up with as a person who has lived just far enough north to see the aurora borealis almost all year round and experience temperatures as low as -50 celsius in winter, which is nothing compared to the deep relationship to their home that Inuit have.

Many of the changes in how Inuit Nunagat is mapped have come since the official creation of Nunavut, although their foundations were set by two Inuit founded organizations, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Inuit circumpolar council. The work of both organizations is a good example of how Indigenous nations are not defined by modern nation-states, nor are their interrelations dictated by them. For instance, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami has involved Inuit from all over Inuit Nunangat from from its foundation in 1971, although the different population numbers in different Inuit regions and its central office location in ottawa have complicated this over time. For its first year of existence Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami was based in edmonton instead. Both cities are long time Inuit centres outside of Inuit Nunangat, places Inuit still commonly move to for education and medical care that is not available at home. The Inuit circumpolar council includes representatives from Inuit communities whose lands are currently labelled as part of canada, the united states, greenland, and russia. It was founded just six years after Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami in alaska, and has grown into an important international organization that has developed important relationships with neighbouring Sámi communities and organizations. The Inuit circumpolar council founded the Pikialasorsuaq commission in 2016 in order to study how to conserve a key region of ocean water that remains ice-free all year round. The commission's mandate runs for three years, after which it will report its findings on this key part of Inuit waters.

Dialect map of communities in Inuit Nunangat, courtesy of wikimedia commons. Dialect map of communities in Inuit Nunangat, courtesy of wikimedia commons.
Dialect map of communities in Inuit Nunangat, courtesy of wikimedia commons, generated by Asybaris01, december 2010. (Original pdf)

Evidently mapping is never just mapping. It matters who does it, what they choose to represent, and why. The latest canadian federal government mapping obsession applied to Inuit Nunangat is making it easier to access geological and other maps for the purpose of oil and mineral prospecting. The supposedly bloodless diamonds mined in Nunavut are a major feature in many canadian tourism advertising campaigns wherever the potential audience is likely to be especially affluent. Various oil executives still hold out hope of a massive expansion in natural gas production and offshore drilling even as the hydrocarbon economy collapses in on itself. As global warming continues apace, a different sort of prospector is sniffing around. Speculative land prospectors who are busy remapping Nunavut with an eye to selling land soon to be deemed arable for southern crops. Disaster capitalists looking out for opportunities related to unseasonable fires and increased flooding risk as the permafrost melts. Of course there are at least a few scientists and others who insist that global warming isn't really a thing, and the arctic may in fact flip into a new ice age. This seems an outside chance, but in any case it would also represent a change rendered catastrophic by speed and extent of disruption. Inuit Nunangat is not a single uniform environment but a complex mosaic of interacting systems including people, other animals, plants, on top of the geological elements mainstream thinkers usually stress. A two-dimensional map isn't the best representation of so many relationships, which is one among many reasons that Indigenous peoples whose ways of being and thinking centre those relationships privilege verbal maps: systems of place names and stories.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2024
Last Modified: Monday, January 01, 2024 01:26:39