Report: The Postcolonial Arctic Conference

Event Date: 
Fri, 30/05/2014 - 09:00 to Sat, 31/05/2014 - 17:00
Leeds Humanities Research Institute, University of Leeds
29-31 Clarendon Place, Leeds LS2 9JT

The Postcolonial Arctic conference held at the University of Leeds in early June was important not merely in terms of offering direction for the 26 early career researchers who presented their work, but also for those of us conducting research as part of the Arctic Encounters project. A postcolonial presence reflects back on how the Arctic has been encountered by many types of travellers, researchers and explorers. Still, we can no longer speak about the Arctic without taking into consideration the humans who live here. Could it be that taking the postcolonial as a point of departure provides us with direction towards specific questions regarding ethics, methodology, as well as the interface of scholarly research and politics?

For a long time, the Arctic as a concept belonged to the natural sciences and to explorers and other travellers. It is worth mentioning that most of these mobile actors were men. The Arctic became an imaginary place in which polar bears were much more present than humans. More recently, researchers from social and human sciences have begun to engage in Arctic research, asking new questions and demanding that others be heard. This is much needed in contemporary developments, as the environmental questions at stake here need human engagement in order to become political solutions.

To explore and come to terms with these issues, Michael Bravo’s opening keynote was of fundamental importance. A crucial challenge – as he sees it – is to develop the context in which emerging voices have a better opportunity to be heard, as well as to enable the articulation of alternative postcolonial framings of northern spaces that move beyond dominant political frameworks. His current project on Pan Inuit trails provides a synoptic view of Inuit mobility and occupancy of Arctic waters, coasts and lands, including icescapes. Bravo thus documents Inuit spatial narratives about their homelands, based on their realities and histories. This project – for us – illustrates how researchers can take on a position of intervention, when engaging with and generating icescapes and landscapes of their own, as well as the “knowscapes” which Arctic people, animals and researchers inhabit.

This brings us to some of the main questions that ran throughout the conference: What is the post-colonial condition or presence in the Arctic? And how is this inflected in the current condition of a looming interest in Arctic geopolitics? There are some paradoxes that have been driving this attention. Researchers obviously create new imaginations of the past and present with respect to what is happening and how the Arctic is plotted on various maps. Arctic sciences were established and developed as a field of research through the specific method and eye of the natural scientist. This is now shifting and new paradoxes are materialising, both physically and politically. As has been noted by Durham University’s Phil Steinberg (one of the conference attendees), geophysical changes generate geopolitical concerns/visions, which are portrayed by many international relations scholars as being in a state of competition in the Arctic. From this perspective, coastal Arctic states are predicted to be self-maximizing actors, especially relating to resource governance (which may well be reproduced as self-fulfilling prophecies by policy makers). How and ‘where’ we place or portray ‘the Arctic’ may then indeed reflect how we construct a geographic region with unsettled boundaries. Or is what we are discussing an imaginary in and of itself: beyond, out of reach, out of time and space hunted by the ill angels as Edgar Allen Poe described in his poem Dreamland?

These paradoxes, themselves in flux, are opening up opportunities for new ways to talk and do research. Human and social sciences are now able to widen the gap between the polar bear and the human, between melting ice and human sufferings and strategies. They also open a space for a more democratic dialogue with people (indigenous or not) for whom the Arctic is home, who inhabit its ‘knowscapes’ (e.g. practices of living off Arctic icescapes and landscapes), and to hear their stories and despair. The new movement into the Arctic can be seen as an opening to establish reciprocity between researchers and those who live in the Arctic, instead of a continuous silencing of these knowscapes. This brings us to our final point in our reflections on the way forward for applying a postcolonial outlook to developments in the Artic. How can we ask the important questions in ways that reflect the contemporary challenges for responsible politics towards environmental as well as human concerns? How can we include the awareness of people and exposed and vulnerable Arctic animals? While concepts and sophisticated theories about the postcolonial Arctic continue to matter, we also need to develop methods and procedures that will enable us to work in ways that matter for those who live here, and for the balance between human and etna (The Sami word for earth). In other words, for exactly the reasons that the Arctic is currently attracting so much attention.