A circular map with the North Pole at its center details 24 different cultural groups that revolve around the Arctic Circle; about 400,000 people. The groups are very diverse. Some, like the Siberian Nenets, are traditionally reindeer herders, while the Inuit have long depended on marine mammals and still get much of their food and materials from life under the sea ice. No other human culture experiences such seasonality, such extremes of light in midsummer and darkness in midsummer. No other culture uses ice in so many ways: for transportation, construction material, food preservation. This map makes us rethink our usual projections that place Arctic cultures as the remote superiors of European, North American, or Russian states. Distances are shorter for the Arctic peoples themselves, they know their neighbors. Trade and influence around Arctic groups have been going on for millennia.
The eye-opening exhibition that has been in the British Museum, and online, brings these cultures together and explores their various adaptations to their climate and their remarkable resilience, physically and culturally. The program happens to be experiencing a freeze-thaw cycle of its own. Postponed since spring, it opened to the public on October 22, to close again on November 5. It reopened on December 3 for reserved ticket holders, but closed again when London entered Level 3 restrictions. The plan, if the lock allows, is for it to remain open until February 21.
In some ways, these interruptions are timely. The exhibition raises a legitimate question: what is a successful society? As we witness our own industrialized consumer societies causing global climate collapse and loss of biodiversity, as we urgently reconsider our definitions of “normal,” might we have to turn to indigenous peoples for guidance? Given their magnificent adaptations, their lack of rapacity, would it be worth asking the peoples of the Arctic?
That would be a rich irony. The last 300 years have seen Pan-Arctic resistance tested to the extreme in the face of colonial and missionary activity from the south. As recently as the 1960s, Inuit children were being separated from their parents and “brought up” outside of their traditions and knowledge. Nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples were forced to settle. Shamans were assassinated and other expressions of indigenous and ancient religions were suppressed. Only in 1999 was Nunavut, the decentralized Inuit-run territory in northern Canada, born. It is extraordinary that industrialized peoples now have to go with hat in hand and ask themselves: what is the secret of long human resistance? How are we going to live in extreme climates? How to weather the calamity? How can we get as many species as possible through a crisis that Vladimov V Pitulko, in his catalog essay, calls a “fundamental natural restructuring”?
Although the catalog and online events are available for those who cannot make it to London, it is the artifacts that are impressive, the real everyday objects one yearns to hold and feel. Some are vintage, others made especially for this show. Of them all, perhaps the humble spire is the most easily overlooked. For life in the Arctic, the needles were crucial and have been called a breakthrough in Paleolithic technology. In the Arctic of Siberia, needles made from mammoth ivory have been discovered, dating back 30,000 years. They were used, of course, to make clothes. Tailored clothing requires supreme skill and an intense knowledge of natural materials. Needle women, who could produce tight clothing, boots, handbags, and tents, enabled human expansion through the unfathomably cold north. More recently, bone needles, stored in a beautifully crafted case, would be part of a woman’s essential equipment and kept within easy reach.
And what clothes! Here’s a 200-year-old all-in-one whaling suit made from sealskin, designed with an entry tunnel in the chest that allowed the hunter to get into the suit and then seal it off so that they could be submerged in icy water. Here’s a Yupiit waterproof jacket made from bearded seal guts, sewn with tendons and beach grass. Simply reading labels is a glimpse of this acute relationship between the people of the Arctic and the abundant animal life. A luxurious contemporary toddler boys outfit in bright blue is sewn from cotton, plus muskrat, wolverine, beaver and otter fur. Wolverine’s skin frames the face, because uniquely, Wolverine’s skin does not retain moisture and therefore does not freeze.
Such clothing, exquisitely made from hunted animal hides and skins, indicates a healthy domestic partner. This sense of familiar give and take extends to the world at large. If an animal was good enough to be offered to the hunter or fisherman, none of it was wasted because the waste would have been disrespectful. Once the salmon meat had been ingested, the treated skins could be sewn into a bag, embroidered with caribou hair patterns. The work has a genre, but instead of the seamstress making out with what the hunter could get, she could have sent it with a wish list; You will be asked to provide different creatures of different sexes or in particular seasons, to meet specific requirements. Not just animals, and not just clothes. The baskets are made of birch bark, willow root. Socks can be knitted with grass.
Plants grow and animals and fish move according to the weather and the season, which are also deeply understood. A particular humidity is required to prepare the herbs before weaving. Exposure to a freeze-thaw cycle is required to soften and bleach the sealskins that are used to make kamiit, soft Inuit boots.
Much is traditional, but the exhibition also reminds us that the peoples of the Arctic are becoming full participants in the globalized world, both politically and in their material cultures. Today, the Inuit hunt with rifles, albeit in sealskin cases. Towns are noisy with ATVs and in winter, snowmobiles, but even these are adapted to suit colder climates. A snowmobile is shown with a saddle made of sealskin, because sealskin keeps the rider warm. There is a modern basket, woven from a nylon net for fishing. The exhibition was curated in collaboration with the People of the Arctic; it is accompanied by various online events. One is a talk by Inuit activist Siila Watt-Cloutier titled “The Right to Cold,” a nice investment for Southerners who think the cold is simply to endure.
Which brings us to the climate crisis. The life of the Arctic peoples is based on a climate that, although extreme, is relatively stable. There were times of scarcity, even famine, in its long and changing history. But it was a familiar, understood, and largely predictable climate, including the gentle fall overland breezes required to dry out summer’s catch. However, in recent decades there have been great changes. The Arctic is warming faster than anywhere else on the planet. In Alaska, the coastal ice that formed almost without fail in the fall has stopped coming.
This ice, far from being problematic, had a protective effect. He defended the inhabitants of the coast from the worst waves in the ocean. Without that buffer, the coast is being washed away. The permafrost is melting; Thawed land falls into the sea so fast that entire communities are preparing for relocation. In Siberia, the massive reindeer deaths are linked to the release of ancient bacteria, released from the suddenly melting earth. The Arctic Ocean is predicted to be ice-free within decades. Cruise ships are arriving that threaten to overwhelm the populations of small villages.
In the Arctic, survival is understood as a spiritual or moral term, rather than denoting mere resistance. They survived, despite, or perhaps because of, their demanding environment, and despite everything the colonizing cultures have thrown at them. There is alcohol abuse, violence and suicide, but there is also cultural regeneration. Sami women reuse their Ládjogahpir – red horn-shaped hats that were denounced as diabolical by missionaries. The people of Yupiit are once again celebrating with ceremonial dances, again wearing carved masks and dance fans made from caribou skin.
These ways of life and cultural expressions that, one could say, began with a needle are not yet over. The exhibition also shows contemporary art, some specially commissioned. In the last half century, Inuit painting and sculpture have become world renowned. Art is their chosen medium of communication, and creating it requires the same keen, ironic observation of animals and neighbor that the Inuit have always practiced, and thus retains those attentive skills. A beautiful recent lithograph called Nunavut Qajanartuk (Our beautiful land) from Kenojuak Ashevak to Baffin Island is circular. A sun with dark rays like ink, and a moon and stars form the center; the middle of the image shows a summer scene with open water, when traveling by kayak. The winter half shows a frozen world traversed by dog sleds. An abundance of animals thrives. There are igloos. These are images that perhaps we expected, but the tone is one of trust and love.
The exhibition also features large photographs by contemporary Iñupiaq photographer Brian Adams, which immerse us in his landscapes and illuminate everyday activities: outside, in the snow, a woman wrapped in a parka is cutting whale meat. In a vast white space, a man sat in a classroom chair, fishing through a hole in the ice. The exhibits are bathed in a changing light that hints at the extremes of summer and winter. A life-size symbol of hope is Silent messenger, a specially created inuksuk, built in London from local limestone, by Piita Irniq. A inuksuk it is a structure now recognized and recreated around the world, an arctic landscape and a cultural marker, a sign to commemorate and orient. A inuksuk characteristics of the Nunavat flag. East london inuksuk it has a space like a window, through which we could glimpse the road ahead.
• Arctic: culture and climate it’s in the British Museum, London WC1, until February 21.
Digsmak is a news publisher with over 12 years of reporting experiance; and have published in many industry leading publications and news sites.