IPY Reflection pt. 2

June 14, 2012

    I had the amazing opportunity of attending the Toronto Historical Materialism Conference at York University (May 11-13th 2012) this weekend. In particular, I was interested in hearing the “Indigenous Politics Forum: Primitive Accumulation, Environmental Destruction and Resistance in Indigenous lands:” session I and II. Speaking in these sessions were two members associated with the ArcticNet research project: “Adaptation, Industrial Development, and Arctic Communities:” Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at Carelton University, Emilie Cameron and Warren Bernauer, a PhD student in the Department of Geography at York University. Both speakers were deeply passionate about their work in Nunavut, critically examining the “social footprints” of extractive industries on Inuit owned lands. But more than that, I was interested in how the speakers negotiated their positionality in terms of the audience, their research, and their very presence in the communities they worked in.
As a graduate student looking critically at the new relationships developing between mining companies and Inuit communities in the Kivalliq Region of Nunavut, I am fascinated by (post)colonial spaces of contact: where Indigenous and non-Indigenous worlds meet and grapple with each other. It is these encounters, and the search for minerals that brings these diverse interests together into conversations over actual material resources, that my masters thesis seeks to engage with. Yet, before I can ask critical questions around how these actors meet and attempt to engage in dialogue over land, resources, and capital, I must address the “elephant in the living room.” Call it culture, or colonialism, or Indigeneity but it is ultimately the deeply vulnerable, historical “wound” that remains on the landscape and the peoples of the Nunavut territory. This wound remains within the communities that have been forcefully relocated, the children who struggle to grasp the intergenerational gaps between their own sense of “Inuitness” and their (in)ability to speak to their Grandparents, and the historical development projects which removed children from their communities as social experiments to attend Southern schools. These encounters remain, and have been internalized by arctic communities, haunting the landscape and its people, and it stays a “wound,” whether northern researchers speak about it or not. It shapes the very relations that occur within arctic communities, and haunts the shared and uncertain futures enacted by new partnerships with mining companies.
Yet, the predominant scholarship occurring in the Canadian North, in reference to the “human dimensions” of climate and social change in arctic landscapes focuses on the buzz words of adaptation, resilience, and vulnerability. My recent participation in the International Polar Year Conference 2012 in Montreal, Quebec provided me with a solid foundation of the major interests of Northern scholars and funding. Many projects presented their ability to incorporate Traditional Knowledge (TK), or Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) into their research, and how this traditional knowledge could be used alongside an engagement with Western scientific knowledge. While I found many scholars were deeply engaged with the incorporation of Traditional Knowledge into their own work, and were interested in learning more about Indigenous ways of being, I was equally confused by its easy, almost clockwork incorporation into so much contemporary Northern research.
After four years studying Indigenous studies and Global Development Studies at both Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario and the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand I have spent a long time in self-reflection over this notion of a colonial wound. As a postcolonial geographer, I am interested in the haunting of the landscape and its peoples. But what needs to be stressed, is that studying these colonial wounds is not just a liberal kindness, or a sensibility as good and ethical researchers working in arctic communities, acknowledging the need for respect and mutual beneficial relationships with Indigenous peoples; rather, I would argue that not talking about colonialism and historic environmental and social injustices allows for northern research to become an almost “anti-politics:” viewing arctic communities as solely vulnerable to changing environmental conditions and turning the researcher’s gaze to what Emilie Cameron calls the scale of the local. Arctic communities become bounded to the local scale, where they are rendered traditional and vulnerable to change: both environmental and social. Changes that can solely impact them as a population at the local level. Changes they can only speak back to at the local level. This adaptation literature allows for the North to critically forget its history, to forget the deeply geopolitical spaces of the North, and to undermine the agency of its Inuit and non-Inuit citizens. By confining arctic communities to the local, researchers can forget issues of globalization, colonialization, and neo-imperialism.
In fact, the silence on issues of colonialism and social injustices, are dangerous because Northern researchers become themselves, perpetuators of the colonial good. By ignoring the political, they save vulnerable populations from environmental harms, while claiming to be objective, and never critically examining their own location. They then believe they are entitled to do this research, to make a difference in the Canadian North, and to advise climate change policy. They believe themselves tools.
At the Historical Materialism conference, Indigenous scholar and poet, Lee Maracle, was in the audience and during the question period she very angrily spoke to a scholar who researched the incorporation of Traditional Knowledge into co-management policies in the North West Territories. The scholar had called herself a tool, a scribe of sorts, to record this traditional knowledge. Lee angrily stated that Non-Indigenous researchers always seem to miss their own role in (neo)imperialism. She argued that when Indigenous communities ask someone to come and record their stories, this is a position. It is not a tool. She argued that Non-Indigenous scholars seem to feel entitled by this position, thinking “I am valuable to the community because I have these skills…” Maracle argued that this is a gross distortion, stating that non-Indigenous scholars should work to understand how the community sees them as valuable, because at the end of the day, the scholar is merely a witness. And being a witness in itself is a beautiful and powerful position: arctic communities cannot witness themselves, what is needed is a witness, someone who will record social and environmental injustices with humility and vulnerability, and not entitlement and distortion. What is required in Northern research is for researchers to turn and face themselves, not just the “supposed vulnerable arctic communities,” but their own world and their own assumptions and entitlements.
I would argue that what is needed in Northern research is a deeper decolonizing of methodologies. A deeper understanding of what it means to be a witness. A reassertion of the political and an engagement with these hidden histories, and shaky and vulnerable shared futures. It is only through facing ourselves, getting beyond this disabling colonial “shame” that we can address the wound and actually understand how arctic communities value us, and appreciate our own value. This value does not come from forgetting who we are and where we stand, and rendering arctic communities as islands of the local; rather, it is by transforming our research into a ceremony of witness which we attend, looking back at ourselves and then those that we study with, through a deeply emotional, political, and historical lens.
This is messy research.  And it is hard. And Non-Indigenous scholars seem to be very bad at it. Many ask: “I do not understand. What is different about Indigenous communities? We have these problems where I live too!” This in itself is an “anti-politics” argument. As non-Indigenous scholars we do not share the same histories. In Nunavut, the suicide rate is very high. Suicide rates are important as they ensure we pay attention to the real issue, that we address the political. Suicide rates are so high because of a loss of hope, a loss of that place to stand, a deep internalization of colonial and postcolonial injustices. Life expectancy is lower in Nunavut. Sexual abuse is higher. We live in vastly different worlds. The rest of the predominantly Non-Indigenous South is not as stressed, as haunted by these stories. To do good work in arctic communities we must firstly acknowledge difference, we must see difference differently, and we must position ourselves within the political. Because we are always political whether we choose to speak about colonialism, or whether we choose to speak in “anti-political” language. That which is not spoken always remains within our words, haunting our easy incorporation of traditional knowledge, and begging to be acknowledged and addressed. Our research in the Canadian North requires our acceptance (and attendance) of our role as witnesses.

Thank you,

Tara Cater
MA Candidate in Geography