arts and design

Cold comfort: what can Arctic cultures teach us for our future survival?

A circular map with the North Pole at its centre details 24 different cultural groups wheeling around the Arctic circle; some 400,000 people. The groups are very diverse. Some, like the Nenets of Siberia, are traditionally reindeer herders, whereas the Inuit have long relied on sea mammals and still derive much of their nourishment and materials from life under the sea ice. No other human cultures experience such seasonality, such extremes of midsummer light and midwinter dark. No other cultures use ice in so many ways: for transport, building material, food preservation. This map makes us rethink our customary projections that locate Arctic cultures as the upper remotes of European or North American or Russian states. To Arctic peoples themselves the distances are shorter, they know their neighbours. Trade and influence around Arctic groups has been going on for millennia.

The revelatory exhibition that has been on at the British Museum, and online, brings these cultures together, and explores their various adaptations to their climate and their remarkable resilience, physically and culturally. As it happens, the show is undergoing a freeze-thaw cycle of its own. Postponed from spring, it opened to the public on 22 October, only to close again on 5 November. It reopened on 3 December to booked ticket holders, but closed again when London went into Tier 3 restrictions. The plan, lockdown allowing, is for it to stay open until 21 February.

In one way, these interruptions are timely. The exhibition is posing a legitimate question: what is a successful society? As we witness our own industrialised, consumer societies bring about global climate collapse and biodiversity loss, as we urgently rethink our definitions of “normal”, might we have to turn to indigenous peoples for guidance? Given their superb adaptations, their lack of rapacity, might Arctic peoples be worth asking?

That would be a rich irony. The last 300 years have seen pan-Arctic resilience tested to the extreme in the face of colonial and missionary activity from the south. As recently as the 1960s Inuit children were being removed from their parents and “educated” out of their traditions and knowledge. Nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples were obliged to settle. Shamans were murdered, and other expressions of indigenous and ancient religions suppressed. Only in 1999 did Nunavut come into being, the devolved, Inuit-run territory in northern Canada. It is extraordinary that industrialised peoples might now have to go cap-in-hand and ask: what is the secret of long human endurance? How are we to live in extreme climates? How to weather calamity? How can we to bring as many species as possible through a crisis that Vladimov V Pitulko, in his catalogue essay, calls a “fundamental natural restructuring”?

Sledge made of bone, ivory, sealskin and driftwood. Inughuit, Baffin Bay, north Greenland, 1818.
Sledge made of bone, ivory, sealskin and driftwood. Inughuit, Baffin Bay, north Greenland, 1818. Photograph: British Museum

Though the catalogue and online events are available to those who can’t reach London, it is the artefacts that are stunning, the actual everyday objects that one longs to hold and feel. Some are ancient, others made especially for this show. Of them all, perhaps the humble needle is the most easily overlooked. To life in the Arctic, needles were crucial, and have been called a breakthrough of Palaeolithic technology. In Arctic Siberia, needles have been discovered made of mammoth ivory, dating to 30,000 years ago. They were used, of course, to make clothes. Tailored clothing requires supreme skill and intense knowledge of the natural materials. Needlewomen who could produce fitted garments, boots, bags and tentage enabled human expansion throughout the unfathomably cold north. More recently, needles of bone, stored in a beautifully worked case, would be part of a woman’s essential kit and kept close to hand.

And what clothing! Here is an all-in-one whaling suit, 200 years old, made of sealskin, designed with an entrance tunnel in the chest which allowed the huntsman get into the suit and then close it tight, so he could plunge into icy water. Here is a Yupiit waterproof jacket made from the guts of bearded seals, stitched with sinew and beach grass. Merely to read the labels is to glimpse this acute relationship between Arctic people and the abundant animal life. A luxurious contemporary toddler’s outfit in bright blue is stitched in cotton, plus muskrat, wolverine, beaver and otter skin. Wolverine fur frames the face, because uniquely, wolverine fur does not hold moisture and so does not freeze.

Such clothing, exquisitely made from fur and skins of hunted animals, indicates a healthy domestic partnership. This sense of family give-and-take extends into the world at large. If an animal was so good as to offer itself to the hunter or fisher, then nothing of it was wasted because waste would have been disrespectful. Once the salmons’ flesh had been eaten, the treated skins could be stitched to form a bag, embroidered with designs in caribou hair. The work is gendered, but rather than the seamstress making do with whatever the hunter could procure, she might have sent him out with a wish list; he’d be asked to provide different creatures of different sexes or at particular seasons, to meet specific requirements. Not only animals, and not only clothing. Baskets are of birch bark, willow root. Socks could be woven from grass.

Plants grow, and animals and fish move according to weather and season, which too are deeply understood. A particular humidity is required to prepare grasses prior to weaving. Exposure to a freeze-thaw cycle is required to soften and whiten the sealskins used to make kamiit, soft Inuit boots.

Much is traditional, but the exhibition also reminds us that Arctic peoples are becoming full participants in the globalised world, politically as well as in their material cultures. Nowadays Inuit hunt with rifles, albeit carried in sealskin cases. Villages are noisy with four-wheel drive vehicles and in winter, snowmobiles, but even these are adapted to suit the coldest climates. Displayed is a snowmobile with a saddle made of sealskin, because sealskin keeps the rider warm. There’s a modern basket, woven from nylon fish net. The exhibition was curated in collaboration with Arctic people; it is accompanied by several online events. One is a talk by Inuit activist Siila Watt-Cloutier called “The Right to be Cold” – a nice inversion, for southerners who think cold is merely to be endured.

Basket with carved walrus head decoration, made with baleen, bird quills and walrus ivory by Marvin Peter (1911–1962).
Basket with carved walrus head decoration, made with baleen, bird quills and walrus ivory by Marvin Peter (1911–1962). Photograph: © Trustees of the British Museum.

Which brings us to the climate crisis. Arctic peoples’ lives are predicated on a climate that, though extreme, is relatively stable. There were times of dearth, even starvation, in their long and changeful history. But it was a climate which was known, understood and largely predictable – even the gentle onshore breezes of autumn that are required to dry the summer’s catch of fish. In recent decades, however, great changes have been occurring. The Arctic is warming faster than anywhere else on the planet. In Alaska, the shore ice that formed almost without fail in autumn has ceased to arrive.

This ice, far from being problematic, had a protective effect. It defended coastal dwellers from the worst of the ocean waves. Without that buffer, the coast is being washed away. Permafrost is melting; thawed land is falling into the sea so fast entire communities are braced for relocation. In Siberia, mass reindeer deaths are linked to the release of ancient bacteria, released from suddenly thawing land. The Arctic ocean is predicted to be ice free within decades. Cruise ships are arriving, which threaten to overwhelm small village populations.

In the Arctic, survival is understood as a spiritual or moral term, rather than denoting mere endurance. Survive they have, despite their demanding environment, or perhaps because of it, and despite everything colonising cultures have thrown at them. There is alcohol abuse, violence and suicide, but there is also cultural regeneration. Sami women are again wearing their ládjogahpir – red, horn-shaped hats which were denounced as devilish by missionaries. Yupiit people are once more celebrating with ceremonial dances, again using carved masks, and dance fans made of caribou throat-fur.

Our Beautiful Land, hand-coloured lithograph by Nunavut Qajanartuk (1927–2013).
Our Beautiful Land, hand-coloured lithograph by Kenojuak Ashevak (1927–2013). Photograph: Reproduced with the permission of Dorset Fine Arts

These ways of life and cultural expressions that, one might say, began with a needle aren’t over yet. The exhibition also displays contemporary art, some specially commissioned. In the past half-century, Inuit painting and sculpture have become globally recognised. Art is their chosen means of communicating, and creating it requires the same wry and acute observation of animals and fellow humans as Inuit have always practised, and so preserves those attentive skills. A beautiful recent lithograph called Nunavut Qajanartuk (Our Beautiful Land) by Kenojuak Ashevak of Baffin Island is circular. A sun with ink-dark rays, and a moon and stars form the centre; one half of the image shows a summer scene with open water, when travel is by kayak. The winter half shows an icy world traversed by dogsleds. An abundance of animals thrives. There are igloos. These are images we may have come to expect, but the tone is one of confidence 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 dicing whale meat. In a white vastness, a man sits on a schoolroom chair, catching fish through a hole in the ice. Exhibits are bathed in changing light that hints at summer and winter extremes. A life-sized symbol of hope is Silent Messenger, a specially created inuksuk, constructed in London in local limestone, by Piita Irniq. An inuksuk is a structure now recognised and recreated around the world, an Arctic landscape and cultural marker, a sign by which to commemorate and orientate. An inuksuk features on the Nunavat flag. This London inuksuk has a gap like a window, through which we might just glimpse the way ahead.

Arctic: Culture and Climate is at the British Museum, London WC1, until 21 February.


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