Exploration, mobility and geographical imaginaries: the living geography of polar spaces

By Alice Oates

From Antarctic exploration to birth and death, the human body has played a complicated role in the performance of statecraft and discovery in the Polar Regions. Mastery of cold spaces by the white male body has become almost legendary through explorers like Shackleton and Scott (Spufford, 1996), and throughout polar history was a source of strong national pride from Britain. Advances in technologies for mapping, visualising and communicating allow deeper representation of polar knowledge from individual explorations to aerial surveying and contemporary scientific bases (Dodds, 1997). Instead of imagining the poles as blank space, we should see them for the site of “living social struggle, cultural production, political contest, and environmental scrutiny” (Rosner, 2009, p. 489) that they are, by listening to the stories of those excluded from state and elite narratives that frame the coldest places on earth.


Figure 1: Emilio Marcus Palma, born in the Antarctic in 1978 as part of Argentina’s quest to solidify their Antarctic claim. The project of creating Antarctic citizens, on the part of both Argentina and Chile, explicitly links the human body to the practice of statecraft. (Source: Web Ecoist)

Examining the role of the human body in colonisation and claiming of polar spaces calls into question the imaginary geographies of the Antarctic, built on “tropes of masculinity, objectivity and empiricism, nationhood, progress, conquest and race” (Legler, 2011, p. 208). As an isolated continent without indigenous human life the Antarctic has a different relationship to exploration and colonialism than the Arctic, with its native populations and constituent states. Histories of the Arctic can fail to include the stories and rights of native communities when discussing how the construction of states came about. The real and imagined histories of the poles are rich in gendered tales, skewed in favour of the claims nation states hold over polar spaces. While men have dominated in the exploration and settlement of the Antarctic, women have helped solidify resulting claims to Antarctic spaces with their names on maps and their children as Antarctic citizens – in the 1970s Argentina and Chile flew women to the Antarctic to give birth (Dodds, 2009, Rosner, 2009). As women, alongside non-Euro-American state citizens, begin to take an active part in scientific research and governance – including current Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, Okalik Eegeesiak – the exclusionary politics of the Polar Regions may be forced to transform.


Figure 2: a snapshot of the Pan Inuit Trails Atlas (Aporta, Bravo and Taylor) that illustrates how Inuit mobility crosses ice threatened by climate change, including over the Northwest Passage. By writing out the evidence of Inuit occupation of the Arctic this map illustrates a different geography to the ‘blank space’ imaginary

The Northwest Passage exemplifies how state policy can be exclusionary. An ice-free Passage represents commercial opportunity to some, contested sovereignty to others, and a threat to mobility and livelihood to the Inuit. Inuit have criticised the Canadian government for failing to take into account the effect of climate change on their livelihoods, and subsequently failing to bring them to the table as equal partners when discussing the Northwest Passage (Cecco, 2015). Alternative maps produced through the Pan-Inuit Trails project illustrate the extent of Inuit mobility and occupation of the Canadian Arctic, and place this within the history of exploration and scientific research in the region. Maps like this provide an alternative representation of Arctic occupation, but also raise questions about whether we can truly understand such personal, embodied experiences of the Arctic by placing them on a standard satellite map.

The mediums through which the Arctic has been described and understood through time are deliberate choices that speak to western imaginaries of the Arctic as feminine, empty, conquerable, or chartable. Can maps encompass the vast range of human experience of the Arctic, or are they as reductive as the ‘Lady of the Arctic’ waiting to be won by intrepid western explorers? This is not to misrepresent the value of placing indigenous experiences on a map, complicating the picture and contesting the ‘empty spaces’ narrative, but to ask whether there is perhaps a next step for understanding the Arctic, such as practical inclusion of indigenous experiences into national and regional policies, or exhibitions that showcase Inuit experiences without the filter of academic scholarship.

The resource potential of the Arctic and the concept of a contemporary ‘scramble for the Arctic’ has raised concerns among indigenous communities that policies will fail to represent them and their reality (Arsenault, 2010). How might academic scholarship and regional politics come together in a way that leaves an explicit space for indigenous experience and needs, and takes strides to go beyond the gendered, ‘blank space’ narrative to understand the Arctic as the dynamic, living space that it is?


Figure 3: The Lady of the Arctic ‘waiting to be won’, a literal illustration of gendered ideas about the Arctic (source: in Spufford 2009, originally from Punch, 5 June 1875)


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