Point-Counterpoint: Artic Historiography: Current Status and Blueprints for the Future

By Grant, Shelagh D | Journal of Canadian Studies, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Point-Counterpoint: Artic Historiography: Current Status and Blueprints for the Future


Grant, Shelagh D, Journal of Canadian Studies


Volumes upon volumes have been written on arctic history, but relatively few are by Canadian academic historians. Who has been writing arctic history and why? Do current trends in arctic historiography suggest the need for change, and if so, what form should it take? And how might these objectives be accomplished?

Before addressing these questions, what do I mean by "arctic historiography"? Since history is essentially a story about people about societies, cultures and civilizations, "Arctic" is defined here as the traditional homelands of the Inuit people.' In Canada, these lie in the northern region of the Mackenzie District, the proposed Nunavut territory, northern Quebec (or Nunavik) and northern Labrador. "Historiography" is the writing of history, the interpretation of historical facts and events as they relate to the interests of contemporary society.2 Scholars of the Western World traditionally divided Inuit history into pre-history and post-contact history, a Euro-centric perception that seemed to imply there was no history before the arrival of the white man. In both cases, interpretation was deemed the responsibility of anthropologists. Times have changed, as have perceptions, but Canadian academic historians have yet to write a comprehensive history of the Inuit peoples of Canada.

For centuries, western scholars envisioned arctic history to be synonymous with polar exploration history and as such, the exclusive domain of European and Russian scholars, until joined by American historians in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. Because it celebrated heroes, conquest and pride in achievement, the history of arctic exploration was readily integrated into nationalist and imperialist histories of the newly industrialized nation states. Preoccupied in the nineteenth century with the politics of nation-building, railway construction and pioneer settlement, Canadian historians seemed content to attach British polar exploration history to their own, as part of their colonial legacy. Until the region offered up comparable Canadian heroes, political significance or sizable resource wealth, the Arctic was not considered of major importance.3 By contrast, the Yukon drew scholarly attention because of the economic and political implications of the Klondike Gold Rush. Here was a truly "northern" history of adventure, discovery of riches and survival of the fittest, a history that inspired national pride in having thwarted United States imperialism.

Coexisting with polar exploration narratives was Inuit history, preserved through countless generations by the oral tradition. These two forms of historiography were rooted in disparate perceptions: one focussed on Western scientific achievements and conquest; the other recounted Inuit spirituality and adaptations to their environment.4 The former described the curious inhabitants of a formidable and alien land; the latter told of the arrival of big ships, carrying strangers who needed help to survive the long winters. Anthropologists have long understood the significance of Inuit oral history. Canadian academic historians have been slow to accept its value as a credible resource.

The apathy towards Inuit studies among Canada's professional historians has been partially offset by a surfeit of arctic literature written by geographers, surveyors, anthropologists, archaeologists, ethnologists, ethnographers, geologists, botanists, ornithologists, zoologists, journalists and novelists - Canadians and non-Canadians. Many were writing "history." Some were excellent, but none the less moulded by the perspectives and methodologies of the author's discipline. The Canadian government also contributed to arctic historiography during these years by publishing detailed accounts of its sovereignty patrols and scientific expeditions.5 Beginning in the 1930s, these were complemented by a number of "official" arctic histories compiled for the government.6 Written for public consumption, most were understandably less critical than were reports of privately funded or non-British explorations.

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