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The Arctic As A Homeland
by Piers Vitebsky
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Landscape And People
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Reindeer herders crossing Yarei-Shor River, Nenets Autonomous District, Russian Federation.
It is late winter and the temperature is minus 40 degrees Celsius. The sea is frozen over for a mile from the shore. Far out on the ice a solitary hunter inches forwards towards a seal which has come up for air through a hole in the ice and is resting on the surface. In front of him he pushes a rifle hidden behind a white screen of canvas. There is no sign that there is anyone hidden behind the screen, except for a small cloud of condensation above him as he breathes. If he is skilful and lucky, the seal will not notice him until it is too late.
Meanwhile, thousands of miles away inland, three reindeer herders wait on a windswept hilltop, scanning the surrounding mountains with binoculars. In the distance, they see two other herders riding reindeer and weaving their way through the thin larch trees which seem drawn with black ink against the snow on the ground. They have found part of the herd and are driving it toward the waiting men. At last, the sound of men whistling and deer grunting can be heard. The first reindeer filter through the surrounding trees, the camouflage of their fur blending closely with the snow and the tress' rough, grey-brown bark. Suddenly, the waiting men burst into action with their lassos, separating some deer and bunching others in order to drive them off later to different pastures.
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Young Even reindeer herder holding down a reindeer while the other herder treats the animal's feet.
The hunter on the ice belongs to a people called the Inuit, a name which in their language means simply 'people'. The Inuit are the Canadian section of a people who are still known to outsiders as Eskimos, though this is a name they do not like.
Groups with different names but related to the Inuit live along the coasts of Greenland and Alaska as well as Siberia, in Russia. The reindeer herders belong to the Eveny, a quite different people who live in the Northeast Siberian mountains. The Inuit and the Eveny are just two of the dozens of indigenous, or Native peoples of the Arctic. This means that they have lived there for so long that they feel that it is their land. Though many of them now live in towns, most still follow a life which still depends largely on hunting seals and whales, or else on herding reindeer.
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Near Hornsund, Southern Spitsbergen. Photo taken by Andrzej Kaim, July 1998
To live like this, you must see nature not as something to fight against, but as something to work with. You need a sensitive understanding of the behaviour of your animals. The landscape also has it moods, which it is essential to understand. In the short Arctic summer, the Inuit hunter paddles his kayak silently across the mirror-like smoothness of the open sea, watching for the tell-tale signs of a seal's movement. He must think like the seal and imagine in advance where it will come up. One hasty movement and he will miss it. But this sea is also dangerous and many hunters are drowned when their kayaks capsize in sudden squalls.
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A doe with her calf.
The reindeer herders spend the summer, when it is light all night, protecting their new-born deer from being pounced on by wolves and bears, which they may have to fight. The pace of Arctic life is one of long, slow periods requiring patience, interspersed with sudden bursts of action requiring extreme skill.
People who live outside the Arctic are generally impressed by its vastness and apparent emptiness. They often think of it as a wilderness, hostile to human life. Yet small communities of humans have lived in this region for thousands of years, moving across these spaces in regular cycles as they follow the animals with which their lives are closely involved.
This landscape can support only a very thinly spread-out population and most of these peoples number a few hundred or a few thousand each. But if one includes the much recent, much larger communities of outsiders in the mining and administrative towns, the Arctic and the neighbouring sub-Arctic between them contain several million inhabitants. This region is full of natural, cultural and political diversity - and of beauty and drama. Immigrants from the south generally stay for only a few years, but for the indigenous population this region is their home.
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Hansabreen glacier, Suður-Spitzbergen.
There are various ways of defining the Arctic. The boundary between the temperate zone and the cold zone is unclear and the term sub-Arctic is used for a wide band which shares the Arctic pattern of long, cold winters and short, often quite warm summers. The two regions together are often called the circumpolar North. The Arctic is sometimes defined as the region where permafrost is found, which is the name for ground which remains permanently frozen and does not thaw out even in summer. It can also be defined as the region which lies north of the point beyond which the forest will not grow, or treeline.
By either of these definitions, the boundary of the Arctic would extend further south than what is called the Arctic Circle. This is an imaginary line which is drawn on the map at latitude 66° 33' north. Here, for one night at midsummer the sun sinks down to the horizon but does not actually set below it. This is the famous midnight sun. As you go further north towards the north pole, the summer nights get lighter and lighter so that in the far north the sun does not set for weeks or even months and it never gets dark at all. During this period the weather is often warm. People feel vigorous and active and children can play games outside all night long.
  In winter there is a corresponding period of darkness. Right on the Arctic Circle, there is just one day in midwinter when the sun does not rise at all. Further north the polar night lasts for weeks or months during which there is no daylight at all. This period is also bitterly cold. Many hunters and herders remain out on the trail, but most other people stay indoors much of the time. They often feel sluggish and depressed. At the end of the winter, people in some areas go to a nearby hilltop and wait eagerly for the first sunrise of spring.
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Arctic Ocean near Spitsbergen.
For human populations, too, the Arctic Circle does not provide a clear dividing line and both the Arctic and sub-Arctic will be considered here as one continuous region which contains diverse smaller regions, under the general heading of 'the North'.
The heart of the Arctic is the Arctic Ocean. This ocean is largely landlocked, like a northern Mediterranean. There are narrow gaps through the islands of the Canadian archipelago and between Alaska and Siberia, with a wider opening to the North Atlantic. The central part of the ocean, which contains the north pole, is covered with a permanent layer of ice which advances and retreats with the seasons, increasing the area of ice by tens or even hundreds of square miles.

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Larch forest on the Kuyukhta Ridge.

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In the traditional Even reindeer herders' tent.

The land between the shore of the Arctic Ocean and the treeline is called the tundra. Here, extremely strong winds sometimes blow off the ocean and the vegetation is made up entirely of low-growing plants such as grasses, mosses, lichens and dwarf shrubs. The Inuit described at the beginning of this section live at the farthest edge of the tundra, right on the coast. South of the treeline is the forest, which in Siberia is called the taigá. The trees here are largely evergreen conifers, with some deciduous birches and willows. Here, far from the coast, the wind is less fierce but the continental climate means that winter temperatures may be much lower than in the tundra. The coldest temperatures in the northern hemisphere, around minus 70 degrees Celsius, are recorded in Verkhoyansk and Oymyakon in north-eastern Siberia, which lie on either side of the Arctic Circle. The Eveny who were also described above live in this area.
Eight countries have territory which lies within the Arctic Circle or almost touches it: Russia, the USA, Canada, Greenland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland. By far the largest of these is Russia (formerly the USSR or the Soviet Union). The Russian North occupies about half of the former Soviet Union's 8.75 million square miles and contains a high proportion of the region's entire human population, as well as most of its cities. Next in size is the Canadian North, which occupies 2.73 million square miles, or about 70% of Canada. Alaska is one of the states of the USA and has 586,400 square miles, practically all of it northern in character. Geographically, it forms a continuation of the Canadian North and is separated only by the national boundary. Alaska was originally colonised by the Russians, who found it too remote from the capital at St Petersburg and sold it to the Americans in 1867 for a mere 6 million dollars.
Greenland has a population of 55,000, most of them Inuit. It was colonised by Denmark in the eighteenth century and in 1979 achieved 'Home Rule', which gives the population a limited degree of independence. Norway, Sweden and Finland all contain northern regions where their incoming southern populations mix with the local Saami (also known as Lapps).The rugged Norwegian coastline faces Northeast towards the Arctic and it was from here that Iceland was colonised by the Vikings, whose descendants still live there. Vikings also settled for a while in Greenland.
  All these countries (except for Finland and Sweden, which do not have an Arctic coastline) face each other directly across the Arctic Ocean. It is only in the second half of the twentieth century that air travel and the development of intercontinental nuclear missiles has made this orientation an important one, since the shortest route between Russia and the USA lay across the north pole. Until that time, the northern regions of these countries had lain at the extreme outer edges of another world which centred on the south. So the Arctic was the world's ultimate frontier, since there seemed to be nothing beyond. As a result of recent political changes, we are now living at a moment when for the first time in history this region is developing a strong identity of its own, and one which pulls against the south. There are several reasons for this and two of these will be discussed in the final section. One is our new understanding of the special role of the Arctic in the study of global warming. The other is the opening up of Russia to the outside world since perestroika began in 1985.

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Strongly damaged forest-tundra vegetation in the Noril'skaya River valley.

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Dead forest, result of sulphur-dioxide emissions from the Noril'sk Mining and Metallurgical Combine.

The northern environment is exceptional. There are fewer species of plants and animals than in any other region of the world, but these can occur in enormous quantities in one place. The low temperatures and short summers allow plants to grow for only a few weeks a year. The lichen on which reindeer graze in the winter may take thirty years to grow back and a dwarf willow 'tree' a few inches high in the tundra may be a century old.
This slowness makes the environment fragile and vulnerable. The permafrost in the tundra soil is protected from melting by its thin layer of plant life. If this vegetation is stripped by the tracks of even one vehicle, the permafrost may thaw and erode, leaving a gully which widens year by year. The vehicle than has to drive round this gully the next time it passes and in some areas where oil and gas are extracted, the tracks of heavy vehicles have made 'roads' half a mile wide. The environment is also exceptionally sensitive to pollution. The molecules of oil spilt in accidents can take years to break up into harmless substances, rather than months as they would in a warmer climate.
As the land stretches southwards from the Arctic Ocean towards the temperate zone, different bands can be distinguished. Each of these has its own particular vegetation, animal life and human culture. The coast is a world of rock, sea and ice, in which the land is poor but the sea sometimes rich. Whales and seals pass along here during their yearly migrations from warmer waters and some areas are rich in fish. Inland, the treeless tundra is full of birds and provides grazing for herds of wild animals and domesticated reindeer. Further south, below the treeline, lies a landscape of rivers, lakes and forests where the winter snow piles up deep. Here there are large wild animals like reindeer (called caribou in North America), elk (or moose), brown bears and numerous small furry animals. The rivers and lakes contain freshwater fish.

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Fishing on Kamchatka River, Russian Federation.

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Old Even lady working with reindeer skin.

The idea of growing and eating grain and vegetables, let alone of vegetarianism, could never have arisen in the North. No-one can stay alive here except by using these animals and fish. In any case, meat gives people the high proportion of protein and energy which they need in this climate.
Animals are also the main source of clothing and of materials for making tools, equipment and housing.
Hunting, herding and the daily routine of life in this environment make tough demands on men, women and children. People suffer a lot from tuberculosis and bronchial diseases. This is also a landscape of sudden catastrophe and there are many deaths from accidents. You could get caught in a blizzard on a hillside; while sledging across a frozen lake, you could disappear through a crack in the ice; and even if you are a good hunter you may simply fail to catch an animal for days on end, so that you and your family could starve. Not surprisingly, all Arctic cultures place a very high value on detailed local knowledge of the environment, as well as on sharing food and helping others - as do hunting peoples throughout the world.
The next two sections will explore the basic differences between these Native peoples and the Europeans who have gradually come to control the area over the past 300-400 years. Europeans began to settle in the North only during the last 300 years, as part of the same colonial expansion which took them to the tropics. For Native peoples, the Arctic is their homeland, while for outsiders it is a frontier land where most of them do not expect to remain all their lives. This distinction has become more and more important since the 1960s, as immigration and industrialisation has increased and local peoples have increasingly become outnumbered in their own homeland. Then we will show how most of them are now demanding a degree of self-government and control over the land and resources in the areas in which they live.
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The Arctic is a Homeland, by Piers Vitebsky.
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