culture and climate
Exhibition / 22 Oct 2020 – 21 Feb 2021
British Museum London
You might have a picture in your mind of the Arctic – with its vast icy landscapes and plentiful wildlife – but where actually is the Arctic and what cultures live there? Amber Lincoln, curator of the forthcoming Citi exhibition Arctic: culture and climate, reveals what life is like in the most northerly place in the world.
The Arctic captures the imagination, calling to mind a pristine, empty, icy world that in many ways stands still: frozen and timeless. This romantic idea is appealing but of course false. You only have to read the news to know that today the Arctic isn’t standing still. Reporting on scientific studies and assessments by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), helps us all understand how quickly the Arctic is changing as a result of global climate change. Temperatures are rising, altering weather patterns, sea ice is shrinking, raising global sea levels, and permafrost, the once permanently frozen ground that served as bedrock, is melting and sinking. These changes are dramatic and unlike any experienced in the Arctic before, but the truth is, the Arctic never has stood still, nor have its Indigenous People.
The Arctic is the most northern place on earth and covers 4% of its surface. Its centre, the North Pole, rests over the Arctic ocean, which until recently has been covered by relatively stable, year-round sea ice. The Arctic Circle designates both the southern boundary of the Arctic and the latitude (66.5° North) at which the sun remains above, or below, the horizon for 24 hours, at least one day per year. The further north you go, sunlight is gained or lost at greater speed.
Today, four million people live in the Arctic. They are spread across the eight countries with territory in the Arctic: Russia, USA, Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland. Only 10% (400,000) of those Arctic inhabitants are indigenous to the region, belonging to one or more of the 40 different cultural groups. The Sámi are the only Indigenous Arctic Peoples in northern Europe, occupying parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and north-west Russia. There are many different groups in north-west Russia and northern Siberia. The Nenets, Mansi and Khanty, and Nganasan originate in north-west Russia. The Evenki, Even, Sakha, and Dolgan are from north-central Siberia. The Yukaghir, Koryak, Chukchi, and Siberian Yupik occupy the Russian Far East. Indigenous People in North America include the Aleuts, Alutiit, Yupiit, and Inupiat of Alaska, the Gwich’in bordering Alaska and Canada, and Inuit groups of Canada and Greenland.
These Indigenous Arctic Peoples have traded and engaged with each other for millennia. Today they collaborate in international organisations such as the Arctic Council and the Inuit Circumpolar Council. The Inuit are a unified indigenous group, sharing a common language, culture and history, who live within four countries: Chukotka, Chukotka (Russia), Alaska (USA), Canada, Greenland (Denmark). In Canada and Greenland, the term ‘Eskimo’ is considered derogatory because it was a name given by non-Inuit people and thought to mean ‘eater of raw meat’. Linguists now believe ‘Eskimo’ was a term used by the Ojibwe (Indigenous People from Canada and North America) for Inuit meaning ‘to net snowshoes’. Nonetheless, Inuit is the name they use to describe themselves. Eskimo is more commonly used in Alaska to collectively refer to all Inuit and Yupiit. This is because ‘Inuit’ is not a word in the Yupiit languages of Siberia and Alaska.