Inuit Intuition: Recasting Arctic Cartographies

By Josh Holmes

Arctic Territory Claimant States (Source: BBC News)

Echoing imperial desires to locate the fabled Northwest Passage, the looming spectre of an ice-free Arctic has sparked a sensationalised “scramble for the seabed” that reaffirms the prevailing geopolitical imaginary of untold prosperity from greater access, and control, over the “white blank” on the map. Last December, Denmark became the fourth Arctic coastal state to submit extended territorial claims under Article 76 of UNCLOS, as competing scientific endeavours to delimit outer continental shelves are seen to be the latest embodiment of an explicit “cartopolitics” within the region. The problem is that such intensive cartographic regimes presuppose a particular spatial reality that is empty and abstract, privileging state-centric forms of knowledge that construct the Arctic according to specific legal jurisdictions.  A recent visit to the ‘Lines in the Ice’ exhibition at the British Library conveyed the importance of rethinking Arctic geopolitics through hybrid imaginaries constituted by historically emergent assemblages of representations, objects and practices, notably in relation to the marginalised conceptualisations of space enacted by indigenous populations.

Amongst the kaleidoscope of journals, photographs and artefacts on display at the exhibition, what caught my attention, above all, was a small wooden map carved by Inuits to depict the rugged relief of the Greenland coastline. The three-dimensional map is deliberately tactile, designed to be felt in the hand with each notch and curve communicating not only topographic features but also pragmatic points where a kayak can be carried across ground when ice blocks the preferred route. Thus the map creates a material evocation of place that is navigated at the most intimate scale, enrolled as part of a collection of experimental cartographies that reveal a confluence of representational and performative qualities to Inuit understandings of Arctic territory.

Wooden Inuit maps on show at The British Library

Wooden Inuit maps on show at The British Library


Traditional Inuit mapping involves schematic portrayals of the environment, either sculpted in snow or gestured by hand, articulating a profoundly perceptive spatial knowledge acquired pedagogically and experientially though immersion within what Mark Nuttall refers to as cultural “Memoryscapes” – whereby myths and personal experiences of cited places are recounted across generations in the form of stories, songs and ritual dances. Indicative of the powerful affective bond between Inuits and the land, place naming itself acts as a mnemonic device by referring to renowned areas of hunting or shelter that, when plotted on the map, provides an important means by which unsettling legacies of colonial occupation are subverted.

Despite the ostensible chasm between positivist cartography and ephemeral memoryscapes, the exhibition exposes how the purported feats of European exploration ironically relied upon the appropriation of indigenous knowledge typically reserved for suspicion and disdain. Captain John Ross noted the extraordinary ability of Inuit guides to annotate subtle features of unfamiliar terrains without previous encounters with western charts or instruments. This suggests a need to interrogate the triumphant geographies disseminated by historical and contemporary Arctic cartography, untethering maps from their association with normative discourses and focusing instead on Anna Moore and Nicholas Perdue’s recent call for “creative geopolitical visualisations that illustrate alternative on-the-ground experiences.” Shifting beyond established Cartesian representations of territory, critical appreciation of Inuit approaches to mapping emphasises the multiple memories, materialities and embodied practices of Arctic spatiality. If you have not yet had the opportunity to see ‘Lines in the Ice’, it is definitely worth a visit before the exhibition closes for good on April 19th.

Two Inuit cartographers add information to a British chart in 1830   (Source: Reports of Captain John Ross, 1835)

Two Inuit cartographers add information to a British chart in 1830 (Source: Reports of Captain John Ross, 1835)


Josh Holmes is a Durham geography graduate and current masters student in Geopolitics and Security. His research interests range from affect and mobilities to critical security approaches and materiality.


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