Michael Bravo (University of Cambridge) and colleagues including the anthropologist/geographer Claudio Aporta recently launched a new digital resource – a kind of interactive atlas – which brings together cultural knowledge about sea ice and the network of trails that allowed indigenous peoples to move, interact, trade and survive in the Canadian Arctic region. The atlas can be found here. And it has quite rightly generated a fair amount of media interest as well.
The website for the project provides further details including the two research questions that informed the project:
1. how extensive and significant is the historical Inuit presence along the Northwest Passage? and
2. how interconnected Inuit groups were before Europeans arrived?
And the work itself, a wonderful example of the digital humanities, “… focuses on historical written evidence of Inuit presence in most of the Canadian Arctic. It contains a selection of material obtained from hundreds of published and unpublished documents produced by explorers, ethnographers and other visitors who were in contact with Inuit during the early contact period or shortly before Inuit moved to permanent settlements. A very significant proportion of those trails and place names are still used today. The Atlas is a database, and the sources can be found through searches, or clicking on the features on the map. Each document has been given a geographic reference (which in some cases, it occupies the whole Canadian Arctic). Whenever possible Inuit place names and trails encountered in the documents were digitized separately”.
The significance of this project, more broadly, is well worth thinking about. Its appearance is timely when there is increasingly interest in Arctic ‘trails and tracks’, especially those taken by commercial shipping through the Northern Sea Route (NSR) and more sporadically the Northwest Passage (and even in the future a central Arctic Ocean route). Other geographers such as John Agnew, Lawson Brigham and Laurence Smith have reflected on the prospects for these ‘tracks’ and the implications for Arctic marine access. We are now getting increasingly used to seeing the Arctic region as represented as a series of shipping lanes (potential and or actual) being connected to various ports and cities in Europe and Asia. In this sense, the Arctic becomes a space for transit. Something, as Durham geographer Phil Steinberg has noted, to be passed through.
The atlas of Inuit Arctic trails reminds us of a more populated Arctic, albeit one characterized by mobility and place-based memory. A place to dwell and a place to move. A place that the Canadian government, under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has been keen to reinforce Canadian sovereignty over, especially the Northwest Passage(s). How and where aboriginal and indigenous populations get enrolled in these sovereignty performances and projects is not straight forward, however. And one interesting aspect of the Atlas is how it might get used by a variety of interested parties.
For me, however, I hope this work will put to rest any sense that the Arctic region is either a ‘white spot on the top of the world’ and/or an ‘empty space’. This Atlas reveals that the Arctic has been, and will continue to be an inter-connected, inhabited and intimate space.