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Histories from the North: Environments, Movements, and Narratives

Histories from the North: Environments, Movements, and Narratives book cover

by John P. Ziker and Florian Stammler (editors)2011
ISBN 978-0-9779515-7-X
254 pp

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This book highlights the major contributions and the live conversations of significant conference on Arctic social sciences and humanities held in Rovaniemi, Finland, on October 29 through 31, 2009.

The Circumpolar North is widely seen as an observatory for changing relations between human societies and the environments. This region, which includes the Arctic and the sub-Arctic, has also moved to the center of global debates on new post-cold-war partnerships and issues of post-colonial governance, strategy, and regional sovereignty. For political and other reasons, the circumpolar region has only recently reemerged a “region,” revealing past connections and current common problems and pointing to future challenges, such as the relationships between communities and the modern state (whether Soviet, post-Soviet or welfare), NGOs, climate change, and the global economy.

Arctic science has consequently received increased attention within and outside the academic community. Major scientific initiatives, such as the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA 2005), several large monitoring reports by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), and most recently, the International Polar Year (IPY) have put the Arctic on the agenda widely beyond academia. Public attention about the Arctic his risen to an extent unseen 15 years ago, and as scholars we realize that what we find out is relevant and interesting to the rest of the world. There has been a slow but significant increase in recognition that the Arctic is more than the mirror image of the Antarctic with an ice-covered ocean burying large untapped fossil fuel resources. The recent landmark volume on IPY (Krupnik et al. 2011) has impressively shown how much social sciences can contribute to our understanding of a changing North. One fact that distinguishes the Arctic from Antarctic is its habitation by humans for millennia, making the place into what has been called a “sentient environment” (Anderson 2000).

However, we note that both within and outside the science community, the diversity of research coming out of social sciences and humanities in the North is still often subsumed under the common umbrella of the “human dimension,” which tends to iron out the richness of our research, as noted recently by a number of prominent scholars (summarized by Stammler 2011).  The present volume, and the research program called BOREAS out of which this book grew, turns this situation upside down and puts us humans to the center of the attention in an explicit attempt to bring results from northern social sciences and humanities out to the broader academic community. Through its core focus on time, space, change and movement, the research presented in this volume brings common themes to the time scales of geophysics, archeology, and lived human experience.

Can the changing climate of the Arctic be seen as an “early warning system” for our planet? Many would reply positively to this question. Can the social, cultural, economic, and religious changes in the Arctic contribute to our general understanding of human existence within or as part of an environment? Many of the contributions in this book give their own answers to this question.


The conference upon which this book is based was held at the Arctic Centre of the University of Lapland, Finland, and included many of the investigators involved in seven collaborative research projects (CRP) under a program called BOREAS that ran between 2006 and 2010. “BOREAS: Histories from the North: Environments, Movements, Narratives” was an international and interdisciplinary research program in Arctic social sciences and humanities. Organized under the EUROCORES scheme of the European Science Foundation (ESF), the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Canadian Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) teamed up with eight European national funding agencies to fund the first circumpolar transatlantic initiative in the humanities of the North. The contribution by Vitebsky and Schweitzer (see Appendix A) highlights what was so special about BOREAS that it deserved such dedicated attention. The contributions and discussions in this volume will mention numerous times the different teams, projects, and researchers involved in this program (called “Boreans” by some in this volume), which is why a little background information may be useful to keep in mind.

In response to a call for proposals in 2003, teams of scholars from Europe and North America developed a series of international collaborative research projects (CRPs) for the BOREAS program. The projects were required to be multidisciplinary and transnational in order to explore the many facets of sustainability and change in northern environments. Of almost thirty applications, seven CRPs gained funding. Each CRP in turn included a number of individual projects resulting in approximately 40 closely networked research projects, initiated in 2006 with a total funding of almost 6 million Euros. The seven collaborative research projects[1] chosen for the BOREAS initiative were the following:

1)      Colony, Empire, Environment: A Comparative International History of Twentieth Century Arctic Science (CEE)

2)      Home, Hearth and Household in the Circumpolar North (HHH)

3)      Moved by the State: Perspectives on Relocation and Resettlement in the Circumpolar North (MOVE)

4)      New Religious Movements in the Russian North: Competing Uses of Religiosity after Socialism (NEWREL)

5)      Northern Narratives: Social and Geographical Accounts from Norway, Iceland, and Canada (NORSAGA)

6)      Social Change and the Environment in Nordic Prehistory: Evidence from Finland and Northern Canada. (SCENOP)

7)      Understanding Migration in the Circumpolar North (UMCN)

Objectives and Impact

Thematically, the seven BOREAS collaborative research projects were organized on the relationship between humans and environments in the Circumpolar North. Challenging the image of a static Arctic, the research teams explored the importance of movements (both seasonal and long-term), especially those associated with the creation, permanence, and dissolution of communities (Stammler and Khlinovskaya-Rockhill 2011), and the ways in which these are mapped in ancient and new social forms (Oetelaar 2007). Human engagement with a given or changing environment also finds expression in narratives (histories, philosophies, mythologies, arts, and other forms), and this important, usually humanistic topic was a critical component of all the BOREAS research teams.

Methodologically, the work of the seven BOREAS teams was organized explicitly around multidisciplinary approaches (including fields of humanities) and structured comparative case studies across the Arctic region, involvement of indigenous and local peoples in the study of environments (Ziker 2007; Demarée and Ogilvie 2008), migrations (Southcott and Huskey 2010) and narratives (Bolotova and Stammler 2010). The collaboration between and contributions from multiple streams of informants, including those in social, medical, and natural sciences (Sörlin and Avango 2007; Rogers and Hung 2008) was an important aspect of BOREAS as a means of strengthening scholarly networks, improving the overall quality of research, and reinforcing the ties among the social science fields.

Following such research approaches, the Rovaniemi conference focused on relationships between humans and environments in the Circumpolar North, with a strong emphasis on understanding the experience of local peoples living there. Accordingly, many of the presentations focused on local perceptions of environmental, cultural, social and economic change, thereby facilitating a dialogue between local and scientific models.

The objective of the conference was to discuss these results from four years of transatlantically-coordinated northern research with other scholars who had not been part of the program, to expose students and scholars inside and outside BOREAS to innovative approaches in northern research, and to plan future research. The various approaches are reflected in the individual chapters, discussions, and question-and-answer sessions presented in this volume.

The research presented in this volume goes beyond the recording of human techniques of local ecological adaptation in extreme environments by exploring the philosophical and spiritual foundations of knowledge in the Circumpolar North. The studies have aimed to trace the dynamics that shape the transmission of knowing about sustainability in a fragile world in general. Some authors explore, for example, the role of scientists and naturalists in creating sometimes-conflicting conceptual landscapes of the Arctic, while others have shown the importance of field stations for the production of knowledge, revealing how cartographic practices influence ways of negotiating competing national claims in the Far North. Comparative studies were another main theoretical component, as well as the participation of indigenous groups as research partners. Therefore, a key theme of the conference was open discussion of the role of local and indigenous scholarship in northern research, and communication between the academic community and local northern residents. By engaging in research collaboration, participants further refined distinctions between “Northern” and “Western” views that further integrate comparative models.

Many of the research teams were just entering the final stage of their research activities at the time of the conference that this book presents. Rather than being the final word on BOREAS research, this publication aims to bring preliminary results in one volume to the table, inviting the reader to become curious and delve more deeply into the work of these scholars by reading subsequent peer-reviewed publications. In this preliminary form, the book gives a taste for more, demonstrating the relevance that northern research has for science and wider public—in addition to being an object of commemoration for the 142 participants involved in the BOREAS conference.

Structure and Summary of the Contributions

Prior to the conference, each of the principal investigators of each BOREAS project was requested to collaborate in developing one of the cross-cutting conference themes and to encourage their project members to contribute a presentation for each theme. Consequently, the final BOREAS was organized into six thematically cross-cutting panels that are presented as the major sections (i.e., Part 1, Part 2, etc.) of this book. In addition, the organizers and panel conveners invited non-BOREAS researchers working on similar themes in the North or researchers working in other areas of the world on similar themes (environments, movements, and narratives) to contribute to the conference panels. So the conference was geared to expanding the reach of the BOREAS projects, further networking northern research in order to bring Arctic social science and humanities out of their perceived isolation. As the final discussion shows, this effort culminated in a strong plea to deconstruct altogether the Arctic as a region.

An opening keynote speech by Sami scholar Elina Helander-Renvall and closing keynote speech by Tim Ingold—two non-BOREAS researchers—added to a lively debate. Twenty-two students were invited to attend the conference. These students were chosen from numerous responders to an open call and represented a variety of countries and disciplines. A final roundtable discussion on the future of BOREAS research was also included in the conference and is reproduced in this volume.

The conference panels were video-recorded and transcribed. The transcriptions were sent to panel conveners and presenters for correction and editing. This book is somewhat unique in that it is largely based off of said transcriptions. Some of the presenters opted to provide revised papers for this book instead of editing the transcriptions of their presentations. We encouraged presenters to do so. So, this book includes several, more formal texts alongside revised presentation texts. We made all attempts to include the question-and-answer sessions from each panel. Some difficulties arose when we were unsure of the identity of the speaker, since the video camera was usually directed at the panel in the front of the auditorium. A number of presenters were not available to revise papers. However, most of the panel presentations are included in this book, and so are audible questions and answers. For those presenters who did not contribute, we summarize the papers in the introduction to each major section.


2005 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK.

Anderson, David
2000 Identity and Ecology in Arctic Siberia: The Number One Reindeer Brigade. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bolotova, Alla, and Florian Stammler
2010 How the North Became Home: Attachment to Place among Industrial Migrants in Murmansk Region. In Migration in the Circumpolar North: Issues and Contexts. Chris Southcott and Lee Huskey, eds. Pp. 193-220. Edmonton, Alberta: Canada Canadian Circumpolar Institute Press.

Demarée, Gaston R., and Astrid E.J. Ogilvie
2008 The Moravian Missionaries at the Labrador Coast and their Centuries-Long Contribution to Instrumental Meteorological Observations. Climate Change 91(3-4):423-450.

Krupnik, Igor, Ian Allison, Robin Bell, Paul Cutler, David Hik, Jerónimo López-Martínez, Volker Rachold, Eduard Sarukhanian, and Colin Summerhayes, eds.
2011 Understanding Earth’s Polar Challenges: International Polar Year 2007–2008. Edmonton, Alberta: Canada Canadian Circumpolar Institute Press.

Oetelaar, Gerald A.
2007 Beyond Activity Areas: Dwelling in Tipis and on the Landscape. In A. V. Kharinsky, V. S. Nikolaev, A. V. Teten’kin, V. N. Avramenko, and A.V. Lun’kov, eds. Ethnohistory and Archaeology of Northern Eurasia: Theory, Methods and Practice.  Pp. 633-635. Irkutsk: Irkutsk State Technical University Press.

Rogers, Jeffrey C. and Meng-Pai Hung
2008 The Odden Ice Feature of the Greenland Sea and its Association with Atmospheric Pressure, Wind, and Surface Flux Variability from Reanalyses. Geophysical Research Letters 35(L08504):1-5.

Sörlin, Sverker, and Dag Avango
2007 Humanities and Social Sciences in the International Polar Years: Issues and Projects from a Swedish Perspective. Journal of Northern Studies 1(2):143-154.

Southcott, Chris, and Lee Huskey, eds.
2010 Migration in the Circumpolar North: Issues and Contexts. Edmonton, Alberta: Canada Canadian Circumpolar Institute Press.

Stammler, Florian
2011 Our Movement to Retire the Term “Human Dimension” from the Arctic Science Vocabulary. Northern Notes: The Newsletter of the International Arctic Social Sciences Association 34, Fall/Winter 2010: 7-13. Akureyri, Stefansson Arctic Institute.

Stammler, Florian, and Elena Khlinovskaya
2011 Einmal “Erde” und Zurück: Bevölkerungsbewegung in Russlands Norden [Round-Trip ticket, “Earth” and Back: Population Movement in Russia’s Far North]. Osteuropa (2/3):347-370.

Ziker, John P.
2007 Subsistence and Food Sharing in Northern Siberia. Ecology of Food and Nutrition 46:445-467.

[1]Details on each CRP with lists individual projects and main research personnel can be found at: boreas/projects.html.