By Chelsi Slotten and Nicholas Parlato
The Ninth International Congress of Arctic Social Sciences took place earlier this month in Umea, Sweden, in the southernmost part of Sapmi, the ancient homeland of the Sami. The five-day event was attended by eight hundred people from twenty five different countries, with 204 sessions and 1,014 papers presented. The theme of this year’s conference was “People and Place”, addressing the essential importance of our relationship to and reliance on the land. The Arctic Studies Center was represented at the conference by Igor Krupnik, Nicholas Parlato, and Chelsi Slotten.
The five-day conference began each morning with a plenary session, many of which revolved around indigenous knowledge and sustainability. It kicked off on Thursday June 8th with an opening ceremony and a plenary titled ‘Extractive resource development and sustainability in the Arctic’. Panelists included Florian Stammler, Gunhild Hoogensen-Gjory, Thierry Rodon, Chris Southcott, and Sverke
r Sorlin. Major themes from the first plenary were knowledge-sharing networks surrounding land use issues, proper community representation in negotiations over land, problems of international lending and monitoring for extractive projects, and the gender politics of indigenous communities and industrial settlements.
The second plenary session, called “What is the role of education and education research in advancing understanding of the Arctic?” featured the following panelists: Diane Hirshberg, Jose Gerin-Lajoie, Laila Aleksandersen Nutti, Sean AsquilqluqTopkok and Tuija Turunen. Common themes in this session were the importance of education in equipping local populations to address the unique challenges they face, and building a more sustainable future. Emphasis was given to recognizing the value of traditional knowledge, and fully engaging with local populations to ensure that the Arctic is understood as a place of living cultures with valuable contributions to make to the wider world.
Saturday’s plenary, “Indigenous perspectives on knowledge” continued this theme. The panel consisted of Jillian Mars, Gunvor Guttorm, Kirk Anderson, Lars-Anders Baer with Petter Stoor as moderator. Many of the panelists had the same major point in their discussions, namely that the value of traditional knowledge must be recognized and embraced in a real and meaningful way within the Academy. Intellectuals must engage in active decolonization in the research and knowledge-production spheres. While some universities have made strides towards recognizing the importance of indigenous knowledge, this panel called for a larger engagement by institutions as well as people. While laws, policy and regulations regarding indigenous knowledge are useful, intellectuals must go deeper and aim for emotional change that results in deep, internalized respect for indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing.
Conference days were split up into morning and afternoon sessions on a variety of topics across multiple disciplines, and often covering inter- and transdisciplinary territory. As is so often the case, there were more sessions than there was time to attend them all. What follows is a brief overview of the sessions we attended.
Session 1.1 was an archaeological focused session called ‘The Hunting-Herding Continuum Past and Present: Palaecological, Cosmological, and Climate Narrative Across Eurasia’ that analyzed changing land uses over the past thousand years. Sessions by David Anderson, Kjell-Åke Aronson and Stine Barkindhaug focused on the importance of reindeer to the Sami way of life, the changing relationship with reindeer, and the need for flexibility in reindeer management as industrialization encroaches on traditional herding areas. Phil Buckland's afternoon presentation on the uses of dung beetle analysis in archaeology was more methodological in nature, while Ralph Hartley returned to questions of land use and hunting, this time in Southeast Alaska. All 5 speakers addressed how the changing landscape, either due to global warming, industrialization or other forms of human action, is affecting archaeology and the need for continual high-level work in this part of the world.
Session 9.1 covered the theory-driven ICE Law Project, which considers questions of maritime and environmental law through the lens of ice. Neither earth nor water, ice provides a critical point of departure in addressing the issues of a planet in rapid fluctuation and devising adaptive strategies for coastal peoples and shipping industries. Presentations by Stephanie Kaine and Gavin Bridge laid the conceptual ground for a “disruptive” politics of ice, while Aldo Chircop and Anna Stammler offered current and projected examples of how ice and the Arctic transcend geopolitical and economic boundaries. Conclusions by all four presenters identified the need within the United Nations, the EU, and International Maritime Organization to develop stronger, more versatile regulations over the resources and landscape of a changing Arctic.
Session 18.4 addressed questions around the topic, “Indigenous Communities and Extractive Industries in the Arctic: Processes of Domination and Co-existence”. Two of the presenters, Vyacheslav Shadrin and Aytolina Ivanova, hailed from the Republic of Sakha in central Siberia, while Dmitri Berezhkov, currently in exile from Russia, lived formerly in Kamchatka. Shadrin’s presentation described in detail the proposal of an “ethnologic impact assessment” to enforce compensation to native Siberians from extractive industries. Ivanova explored the contradictions among Evenk people between their sedentary village life and their idealized nomadic life through the lens of Schopenhauer’s “World as Will and Imagination”. Finally, Berezhkov gave a harrowing account of a village’s confrontation with a large coal mining corporation in the Kemerova Oblast of southern Russian.
Session 17.2 was another dual session with panels in the morning and afternoon. The session on “Facilitating social sciences and humanities scholarship of the Arctic through library, archival and information services” was co-chaired by Spencer Acadia and Hannele Näveri-Ranta. Ali Shiri and Stéfano Biondo presented papers on the importance of utilizing digital libraries to make information accessible to the communities they pertain to and interested scholars. Stacey Penney from Memorial University discussed the logistical difficulties in creating such a digital library, while Joë Bouchard discussed the importance of having accurate selection criteria in place before building a collection, digital or otherwise. Nadine Hoffman then discussed the difficulties in using databases because of changing terminology, in this case Indigenous terminology in Canadian legal research in the Arctic. Rounding out the panel was Erin Hollingsworth who discussed her project to create Iñupiaq language resources at the Tuzzy Consortium Library in Barrow, Alaska. All six speakers spoke eloquently on the need to increase digital resources as a conservation method, an educational tool and a way of reconnecting archival material with the communities it originated in.
Session 14.4 was titled “Sustaining Arctic Cultural Heritage in the 21st Century” and addressed a wide range of subjects. Tatiana Argounova-Low offered a compelling story about a project at the National Arts Museum of the Sakha Republic to recreate the missing second half of a 150 year old Sakha sculpture. Victoria Peemot connected two historical periods separated by one hundred years through a project exploring a 1917 Finnish Geological Expedition to southern Siberia, the people and places it touched, and the memories its documentation evokes today. Finally, the Arctic Studies Center’s Nicholas Parlato presented on the ASC’s ongoing development of the International Guide to Arctic Ethnographic Collections, which, upon completion, will elucidate the diverse holdings of one hundred museums around the world in terms of scope, history, and accessibility.
Session 20.2 covered three key dimensions of the “Politics of Sustainability in the Arctic”. Emma Wilson-Rowe discussed the divergent cultural attitudes and policies among Arctic states by analyzing official statements and announcements, bringing to light significant differences in international definitions of “sustainability”. Jes Harfeld brought up the little-discussed notion of anthropocentrism in definitions of sustainability and invited the audience and Arctic studies community to examine challenging ethical dimensions of land and resource use as well as our relationship with animals. Providing a more concrete investigation of active sustainability and mitigation practices, Daria Shapovalova shared her research into four international conventions on environmental protection, dating to 1992, detailing their language, enforcement, and shortcomings.
Session 12.1 focused on the ‘’The Mediated North’ – Constructing ‘the Arctic’ in Contemporary Media”. Andreas Womelsdorf started the session with a paper on the Alaska computer game Never Alone. He analyzed the ways in which Never Along differs from traditional computer games set during the colonial period, by allowing indigenous communities to share their stories in their own worlds. He also addresses how the reason behind the creation of the game- to raise money to decrease the communities reliance on the government- highlights how colonial power relations are still affecting the world today. Susan Vanek then discussed the difficulties with circumpolar publications, both due to the large number of languages spoken in the North and logistical hurdles such as limited internet. The final presenter was Ali Shiri, discussing his digital library development project for the Inuvialuit Settlement Region once again. All three presenters focused on the importance of giving voice to the people who actually live in the Arctic, as well as some of the difficulties in achieving that due to language barriers, funding issues, and insufficient infrastructure.
A very full session 19.3 focused on the unique challenges facing ‘Cities of the North’. This six person session spanned the globe with presentations about Alaska, Russia, Sweden, and Australia. The panel introduces a new collaboration between Umeå University, Charles Darwin University and the University of Alaska-Anchorage, that seeks to increase understanding of how cities in sparsely populated northern areas impact development in those areas. The session posed many questions that this new partnership will hopefully answer, such as what is the role of government in sustaining northern cities? What impact do these cities have on tourism and leisure mobility? What do settlement, residence and home mean in the modern context of our highly mobile society? It will be exciting to see when this project is at the next meeting in 3 years time.
Session 8.10 considered problems of “Recognition, protection, and management” with regards to the lands and resources of indigenous peoples. Gail Fondahl discussed the establishment of federal and regional laws on Territories of Traditional Nature-Use in Russia and the challenges presented to local sovereignty and land use by a new “Far East Hectare” law offering western Russian citizens cheap land in the east. She was followed by Antonina Savvinova, who described the steady appropriation of thirty thousand hectares of a one-million hectare WWF-protected territory by encroaching gold-mining operations. To end the session, Nobohiro Kishigami explored the heated conflicts between indigenous whaling communities and environmental activists.
Session 14.3 addressed “21st Century Collecting”, which went far beyond the traditional museum model of collecting. Nancy Wachowich gave a presentation on her 2015 efforts to digitally record traditional seal-sewing techniques with the Pond Inlet Women’s Sewing Collective in Nunavut. Lynn Walker used Marcel Mauss’s seminal work on the social theory of reciprocity, “The Gift”, to provide a framework for repatriation and decolonial practices in museums. Lastly, Jonella Larson White gave an in-depth presentation on the activities of her nonprofit organization, the Foraker Group, which works closely with Alaskan native groups on leadership training, heritage preservation, and financial stability.
Section 9.3 took an in depth look at “Arctic 'exceptionalism'? Northern Contributions to International Relations”. Sarah Milne applied balance of power theory to the Arctic looking at how recent political changes have impacted the regional orders in the Arctic leading to potential bipolar or multipolar futures. Michael Tuszczuk then applied role theory to determine that the involvement of nations in the Arctic are often driven by external factors but the role they take in the Arctic is determined by internal factors. Hege Kallbekken investigated the role of paradiplomacy in the Arctic, finding that even when state level communication breaks down, regional and local relationships continue that can result in political and economic benefits. All the panelists stressed the importance of understanding the Arctic’s role in the broader world of international relations and how the landscape of international relations in the Arctic is currently shifting.
In addition to the sessions, there were several wonderful evening events, film screenings, as well as the IASSA General Assembly. The welcome reception on June 8th was hosted at the Vasterbottens Museum and featured local cuisine, including reindeer stew, and both Sami and Swedish music, as well as a chance to see the museum. Attendees strolled, ate, and chatted among reproduction Sami camps on the grounds of the museum, while live reindeer enjoyed the local foliage and a Sami hunter answered questions on traditional practices. Conference attendees could also walk around the main museum building and partake of cloud berry tarts, visit a 19th century residence and bake house where traditional flatbread was being made, and enjoy music in an outdoor gazebo.
The second evening featured live music by Mikias Narvaez Savhi followed by a screening of the critically-acclaimed film Sami Blood. Written and directed by Amanda Kernell, the film was released last year and recounts the experiences of a Sami girl growing up and leaving her community for education in the south. A deeply moving film, it shines light on the plight of Sami children forced into “nomad schools” throughout the 20th century and the cultural fallout in their adult years.
The evening of the 10th also began with live music by the same performer, Arctic Karaoke, and a screening of the film, Guardians of Eternity. The film looks at the issues of gold mining in Northern Canada, and especially the large amount of arsenic produced as waste in the processing of gold ore. The chemical is highly toxic and, as of right now, there is no way of safely disposing of it. The film follows the journey of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation in their attempts to mitigate the damage done by this chemical and set up a system to ensure future generations understand the danger and severity of such mining practices.
Sunday was the last full day of the conference, complete with evening entertainment. Earlier in the day the IASSA General Assembly was held. General elections were held, resulting in leadership of IASSA passing from Peter Sköld of Umea University to Andrey Petrov, Professor of Geography at University of Northern Iowa, for the next 3 years. It was also decided that the ICASS X will be held in Arkhangelsk, Russia in 3 years time. That evening, the closing banquet included a 3-course meal, followed by presentations of awards, and finally a live band performance and dancing at the restaurant. The event was very well attended and seemed to be enjoyed by all.
After sessions on the final day, the conference attendees convened in the Aula Nordica auditorium for the last time to conclude the conference and set the stage for 2020. After opening remarks by the sitting president, synthesizing all the themes and ideas developed over the previous five days, the closing ceremony was turned over to Andrey Petrov, who promised to continue promoting IASSA as a platform for indigenous-led research and collaboration. He was followed by representatives from the Inuit Circumpolar Council, who shared their insights and vision of the future of the conference. Finally, a delegation from the Tling’it Nation spoke and presented gifts to many of the organizers and key participants. The conference officially closed with a beautiful Sami song, performed by Krister Stoor of the Umea University Centre for Sami Research.