Week 10: 13 November 2011
Research Associate at the Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge
An outsider from a distant land
During my year of living in the Arctic wilderness of north-west Greenland where I was documenting a minority language and endangered oral traditions of a tiny Inuit community, I did something that I had only done once before in my life. I wrote poetry.
The recipients of my poetry the first time round were various young ladies whom I had fallen in love with over the years. I had tried to impress them with my arcane vocabulary and ambitious meter. This time was different. The poetry was not intended for anyone. It was firstly a natural response to the landscape around me, and second it was a means of getting through the long three and a half months of darkness where progress in any sense of the word seemed to be non-existent. At the moments where it felt as if the darkness was closing in around me and when my relationship with the community was at its most challenging, I discovered that the only way to get through it was to ‘intellectualise’ what was going on (or not going on, as the case might be). This meant stepping back from the difficulties and analysing the ethnographic experience in a purely objective manner. By stripping out the subjectivity and dismantling the vicissitudes of life in the Arctic bit-by-bit, the sometimes troubling events and problematic encounters could themselves be transformed into meaty objects of critical enquiry and provide a certain academic stimulus to mull over.
Since returning from the Arctic, I have only now looked over the lines and pages of poetry that were written at this special time. There are two themes that are immediately discernible: (a) the harsh, but mesmerising transient Arctic landscape; (b) my experience as an alien or an outsider living in a distant land where the rhythm of life is determined by uncontrollable factors. Both of these are of course relevant to Nowhereisland, a new nation visiting from the Arctic. However, it is only the latter that I wish to focus on here - for when Nowhereisland is first seen from the shores of Britain next summer, it will too seem like an intrusion, a strange curiosity in the same way that I was when I arrived last summer at the top of the world. There are of course different cultural responses to the unknown or less familiar. With a few clear exceptions, the people in the community where I lived chose (initially at least) to more or less ignore me and thus my poetry complained of:
Am I an invisible flaxen halo amongst black hairs?
We are living in two contiguous realities that never meet
Subtle beggars enter without a knock,
The never-ending, suffocating pulaar, cups of tea,
Tangential conversations in sparse rooms,
The peregrine Blond, ubiquitous but invisible,
Halo of light above a black sea,
Except to the gabble of cheery children,
Spies for those who do not speak,
Small, smiling faces waving from the window,
Without preconceptions or judgement
Once they did engage with me, they first did so to remind me who I was: an outsider, a white man whose way of living with schedules, timepieces and appointments had no place in their society:
The ammaqa spirit pervades the place,
No pledge, covenant or word is my bond,
Clocks, appointments and diaries are white man’s tools
After some months and as people got to know me, the response from many of the men at least became quite different and much more to my liking:
‘Peals of laughter and practical jokes,
The outsider is chaffed day after day’
Judging from what I wrote at the time, I was still, however, an outsider. The issue of belonging and ‘not belonging’ in this community became for me sufficiently salient that it ended up becoming a key theme and focus of my own ethnographic research. I tried to define what exactly the parameters of belonging were, why I was excluded/included, by whom and for what reasons. The people I lived with defined themselves first and foremost in terms of kinship and their relationship to other family members in this extremely tight-knit community. They were not just Ussoqqaq, but they were the brother of so-and-so, the son of so-and-so and the cousin of many more. It did not matter much how well you spoke the language, what you ate and what kind of house you lived in, you could not really belong unless you could boast the right kin relations and genealogies. Through this social network and through the culture of hunting on the ice, the Inugguit of north-west Greenland had created a very fixed, non-negotiable identity for themselves.
Out in the Arctic wilderness, on the sea ice, tens of miles from any form of civilisation, I often reflected on how open the landscape was with its massive panoramas and open spaces stretching for hundreds of miles, but how closed and inward-looking the society was where I was living. Returning from long trips on the sea ice, this contrast struck me time and time again.
It is this kind of open, wild landscape from which Nowhereisland emerged. This new nation is the product of a retreating glacier, the result of climate change which is changing not just the way some live, but how their immediate surroundings might look. Nowhereisland is a symbol of this changing world, epitomised by places like the wilderness of north-west Greenland where climate change threatens to eradicate ancient cultural practices. Hunters of the Polar North would tell me how their world around them is changing so fast and so dramatically, in ways they did not think possible. Near where I lived there is a glacier whose name translates as ‘the glacier that leads to the sea’. But, today, the end of the glacier is far from the sea. Certain place-names coined by ancestors in the distant past have become meaningless in the course of a generation or two.
When I was living in Siorapaluk, the northern most permanently inhabited settlement in the world with a population of 59, I spent many an afternoon chatting to a Japanese man who had come to north-west Greenland as part of a scientific expedition forty years ago. Ikua Oshima was in his twenties at the time and he decided there and then never to return to his homeland, choosing instead the life of an Arctic hunter. One afternoon, he popped round with a gift of some fresh musk-oxen meat and over a cup of coffee, I asked him why he chose to stay. He looked out of the window, eyes fixed on his dog team skulking on the sea ice and after an unfeasibly long silence, Ikua uttered one word with a great sense of purpose, Ihumaninahorjamahunga. The word ‘ihuma’ means thought and the expression would have to be translated as ‘I wanted my mind to be open to thoughts’. In his view, the Arctic wilderness offered the best means of keeping one’s mind open. After a year of living in this environment, I came to sympathise with this and appreciate the effect that the Arctic and wilderness can have on your way of thinking. Whilst I am not proposing that all Nowhereislanders should go and live in the Arctic, my wish is nonetheless that they aim to keep their minds open in this way when thinking about how we can collectively solve issues such as climate change. On such a quest, there can be no barriers of belonging as there is so much to be gained from listening to the voices of those all around the world.
Whilst Nowhereisland might appear as an outsider in the form of a floating art exhibit, its special community of citizens has to, however, be open to the rest of the world and to share knowledge to deal with the key issues such as sustainability and environmental exploitation. We cannot afford to forge an identity based on exclusion.
Stephen has been interested in the North and the Arctic since a young age and has just spent a year living with the Polar Eskimos of north-west Greenland. He is Research Associate at the Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge.