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Freeze Frame Scott Polar Research Institute

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Northern Peoples

The Arctic region is inhabited by many indigenous groups, who live in the world’s most northerly latitudes, but each group has its own distinct culture, traditions and history.

During the sixteenth century, as Europeans searched for the Northwest Passage, expeditions to the Arctic became more frequent. As a consequence, contact between Europeans and the indigenous people of the north also increased. The first well-recorded contact with British explorers is during Frobisher’s search for the Northwest Passage in 1576. Five of his men rowed out from their ship to meet the indigenous people. Frobisher was of the opinion his men had been taken hostage and decided to capture one of the Inuit in return. This man was brought back to Britain, where he died shortly afterwards, probably due to a lack of immunity to European diseases.

At this time, exploration was mainly by ship and few Europeans spent much time on the land. As they stayed on board their ships, the explorers had no need for many of the indigenous methods of survival and generally viewed the northern peoples that they met as inferior. As well as explorers, a major source of contact with Europeans was through the whaling industry. From the sixteenth century, whalers travelled to the Arctic to fish in the coastal waters. As this practice was almost entirely ship-based, like explorers whalers did not need to learn indigenous survival techniques.

This early contact was rarely equally favourable to both parties; the indigenous people could benefit from many of the things explorers and whalers brought with them, whereas explorers and whalers had less need for the goods the indigenous people traded. Furthermore, as explorers and whalers lived on their ships, there was little they felt they needed to learn from indigenous people about survival.

However, expeditions did not always stay at sea and, as explorers moved onto the land, it is surprising that more did not attempt to learn survival techniques from indigenous people. As Stefansson states:

“It is one of the least explicable things in history of Arctic exploration that Eskimo methods of travel were not sooner and more generally adopted” (Stefansson 1908: 211).

It may be possible to explain the failure to adopt indigenous methods being due to a belief in European superiority. The general belief at this time was to class the indigenous people encountered by the explorers and whalers as inferior to the Europeans and so their survival methods would commonly be considered inferior. This belief probably cost many European explorers their lives, lives which could have been saved had local survival methods been practiced. Over generations, the peoples of the north had developed a ‘cold-living culture’ which allowed them to survive in an environment which they did not see as hostile or harsh, as outsiders did (Brody 1987).

However, some explorers, for example, John Rae of the Hudson Bay Company, did pick up indigenous techniques. This is thought to be one of the reasons why Rae never received the recognition from the establishment that he deserved. Occasionally, an explorer would take a native technique and modify it, using European materials. This seems to have been a more acceptable practice; for example, Nansen redesigned a traditional sledge which formed the mainstay of many future expeditions.

Outsiders did not just fail to adapt to a finely tuned way of life, but in many respects they tried to break down the traditional way of life in the Arctic.  The major shift we see in indigenous lifestyles is a shift from a nomadic way of life to a sedentary one, which makes living off the land alone impossible. From the eighteenth century onwards, missionaries travelled to Greenland, northern Canada and Alaska and actively worked to convert indigenous people from animistic religious beliefs to Christianity. Outside forces did not merely try to change religious beliefs, but the process of colonisation across the Arctic attempted an assimilation programme which aimed to break down the traditional way of life. A major consequence was the settlement of nomadic peoples in villages in houses, which meant they could no longer live and hunt in the same way.

From the 1960s we see indigenous groups in the Arctic becoming increasingly politicised as they tried to have their rights re-established and recognised. There has been a great fear amongst indigenous groups that the knowledge of traditional survival and manufacturing techniques will be lost. As these are passed from one generation to the next, there is a concern that some of these skills may have been lost forever.

Alongside the increasing politicisation of indigenous groups, there is also an increased recognition by those outside the Arctic that indigenous groups had been wrongly subjugated. A key shift has been the rejection of the term Eskimo, first by indigenous people themselves, and secondly by those outside the Arctic. For many years, indigenous people of the Arctic region were simply known as Eskimos by the outside world. However, such a term is problematic. First, it fails to account for the culturally and ethnically diverse group formed by the indigenous peoples of the Arctic. Secondly, outsiders had used the term Eskimo in a pejorative sense to suggest that to be Eskimo was to be inferior. There is no one term that encompasses all the indigenous people who live in the Arctic today.

Indigenous people in Canada and Greenland are usually referred to by the term Inuit (singular Inuk). In addition, Inuit in Greenland often refer to themselves as Greenlanders or by their culture name. In Alaska, indigenous people are known as Alaskan Natives or Eskimo, although some prefer to identify themselves as, for example, Yup’ik or Inupiaq. In Siberia, there is no single unifying term that covers all the indigenous groups of Northern Russia. The images showing indigenous people that form part of the Freeze Frame collection were all taken in Greenland or Canada. Where possible, the Freeze Frame project has kept the original title or caption that accompanied the image. This means that many of the photographs have titles containing the word Eskimo. However, all the images have been catalogued using contemporary keywords and, in particular, Inuit has been used where no specific cultural affiliation can be identified.

The Freeze Frame collection contains images dating from 1875, showing interactions between explorers and indigenous groups. This resource charts the different relationships explorers to the Arctic region have had with indigenous groups and how outsiders have viewed these groups.
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