Science and State Colonialisms

In the early twentieth century, arctic science continued its service to governments and nations. Little was left of the terra incognita that Wright studied 40 years later. Rather than being unknown, many narratives of arctic lands had accrued in imperial archives. Most shorelines had been mapped and aerial surveys would soon be introduced. Sublime landscapes that had once leant currency to grand explorations became reconstituted as political territory through the repeated mapping and construction of boundaries. These ventures helped to produce the regionally partitioned Arctic of today: Greenland; the Canadian Arctic (now divided into three territories); Alaska (purchased from the Russians in 1867 by the United States); Russian Siberia; northern Scandinavia (whose boundaries stabilized after World War II); and Iceland (often included as part of the Arctic).

Reinforcing this transformation were scientific reports that sustained images of an arctic ‘wasteland’ – simu taneously an empty space, and one filled with challenges for what was deemed the ‘northward progress of civilization’. Except for Russia, governments left the sponsorship of extensive exploration to private enterprises. States instead sponsored intensive exploration – geological inquiries like that of George Dawson in the Yukon in 1887, or the US Geological Survey in Alaska under Alfred Brooks in 1903. Such projects produced new visions of subterranean space that enabled the North to be seen as a three-dimensional reservoir of geologic resources, visions that obscured any detailed understanding of existing human ecologies that crisscrossed their surfaces. Throughout the Arctic, such investigations ordered up a territory in relation to the sustenance of large industrial populations elsewhere.

They also rendered the northern part of the country intelligible as a landscape of raw resources. Swedish plant geographer Gunnar Andersson, for instance, configured the North as a rich timber resource, visualizing its rivers as the perfect transportation device for efficient industry. Dawson’s work, republished in 1897, helped to bring an influx of prospectors into the Klondike, and huge mineral based migrations soon followed in search for gold, copper, coal, and oil. The Gold Rush provided material for writers like Robert Service and Jack London, as well as impetus to contest and resurvey the Alaska–Canada border. In northern Siberia, the discourse of mineral wealth and economic development followed after the 1917 Russian Revolution. Amidst a throng of prospectors displaced by the war, the Evenk people refused to serve as guides for the government geologists. Nonetheless, the first Five Year Plan created a state corporation in 1928 to develop heavy industry on Siberia’s arctic coast, which brought a million migrants by 1932.

Over the same years, social sciences studied arctic aboriginals. Moscow’s Institute of Geography produced ethnographies that represented the Nenets, Evenk, and Chukchi as ‘backward’ people, but the school soon divided between liberal ethnographers who saw these indigenous groups as primitive national cultures that needed gradual reform, and Marxist anthropologists who saw them as communal societies in need of rapid assimilation with Soviet socialism. Yale geographer Ellsworth Huntington developed a theory of climatic determinism that depicted arctic peoples as inferior to those from temperate climates. In the Annals in 1927, Clark University’s Elmer Ekblaw used a similar moral climatology to ascribe the ‘‘homogeneity of Eskimo character, culture, and language’’ to the environment they inhabited. Such broad brush treatment of the Arctic contributed to an image of aboriginal people as a vanishing race, which justified a regional colonization by a ‘more advanced’ civilization.

While environmental determinists often suggested the Arctic was a homogeneous region, that image was disrupted in practice, since the narratives science produced had differentiating effects on both national and arctic identities. As the volume Narrating the Arctic illustrates, even the Scandinavian Arctic was heterogeneous in its national identities, its scientific practices, and in the effects these narrations had on indigenous peoples. While the practices of Danish scientists valued both fieldwork and the knowledge of Greenlandic Inuit, Swedish scientists developed a network of scientific institutions that devalued both fieldwork and the Saami people. But whether or not research positioned Native peoples as an inferior culture, field researchers invariably used the help of indigenous community members, inscribing local knowledges into their reports as they erased the visibility of native contributions.

This epistemic violence cut Native peoples out of the decision process in setting research agendas and development goals. The Saami case is telling. Since 1747, Swedish law legally defined Saami identity as ‘primitive’, and scientists affixed Saami identity to the reindeer they herded. This ‘traditional’ designation constrained their ability to influence the narrative of the Swedish nation and continues to affect Saami political power, unable to manage other resources – like fish – that were once considered part of their subsistence regime. Indigenous peoples across the Arctic resisted the new political order resulting from these migrations and researches. Elsewhere, however, geographer Kirk Stone advised on policies to populate ‘the last frontier’ in Alaska. Others conducted applied work to overcome ‘limits’ that the climate imposed on development, through herding and agricultural experiments in boreal and tundra ecosystems. Such work attempted to ‘advance’ Inuit society by transforming them from hunters into herders and farmers, including the introduction of reindeer herds in Alaska and the expansion of the Canadian northern agricultural frontier. At the same time, many in the south of Canada turned to the northern landscape for a sense of distinction and unity. For instance, the concept of ‘Nordicity’ – articulated in the 1970s by geographer Louis Edmond Hamelin – described the embrace of the North as essential to Canadian national identity.

World War II prompted researchers to create new arctic narratives in which the region could be understood as a military theater in which the tensions between two nations were expressed. Its strategic importance prompted what Matthew Farish calls ‘‘wars on geography,’’ since military personnel treated the Arctic – contra Stefansson – as a hostile environment. During World War II, Isaiah Bowman stressed that the Arctic was a key geopolitical arena as others gathered aerial photos and used new cartographic technologies for its analysis. In the Office of Strategic Services, Richard Hartshorne helped change the organization of research from disciplinary configurations to interdisciplinary regional topics, further enabling military narratives to construct the Arctic as a cohesive theater of operation, despite its environmental and cultural diversity. Following the 1942 Japanese occupation of two islands in the Aleutians, the US established an archipelago of bases across northern North America, from the Alaska Command in Anchorage to the air base at Thule, Greenland. In the Cold War, the Distant Early Warning system strung remote communications stations across the high latitudes. In Canada, the military used Inuit as stand ins for ‘the enemy’ in strategic exercises, sometimes resulting in real casualties. By 1990, Russia had built over 250 military installations in northern Siberia, shifting the location of many industries to eastern Siberia as well. These activities contribute to a troubled military environmental legacy, the most disturbing of which is perhaps in Murmansk on the Kola Peninsula, where the Soviets dumped nuclear waste on the floor of the Arctic Ocean or left it in crumbling concrete tanks.

Militarization also changed the Arctic’s political and cultural geographies. The Korean War added 30% to Alaska’s population, catalyzing rapid urbanization and the statehood movement. The territory became a state in 1959, and tensions between Alaska’s rural and urban populations continue to the present day. Greenland experienced similar tensions to a greater degree after the Danish government relocated Native populations to its urban centers. An attempt to modernize and integrate the Greenlandic peoples into the global economy and create ‘productive’ self supporting populations, the new highrise buildings disrupted social networks and traditional subsistence economies, creating a legacy of dependence despite a home rule government.