On 1st March 2021, Scotland-based researchers arts and humanities, social science, sociology, and multidisciplinary backgrounds met online to discuss cultural heritage, loss and revitalization in the Arctic. The theme of this networking meeting was cultural revitalization with a focus on exploring how to enhance collaboration between Scottish higher education institutions and research organisations in Scotland-Arctic research.
This event was the fourth event in a network series titled “Scotland’s Role and Contribution in a Changing Arctic Environment” supported by the Scottish Government through the Nordic and Arctic Unit Directorate for External Affairs. These network events intend to lay the foundation for consolidating Scottish expertise on Arctic matters and build an interdisciplinary network for more consistent involvement of Scottish institutions in Arctic research and international forums.
This event featured a fantastic line-up of speakers to showcase some interesting Scotland-Arctic research on cultural revitalization and proceeded to an open discussion with attendees to explore future opportunities for meaningful cultural revitalization in Scotland and Arctic contexts. A recording of the event is available online – click here. If you attended the session, or watched the recording, and wanted to contribute further thoughts and join a dedicated Scotland-Arctic mailing list, you can by filling out this survey – click here. There will also be two consolidation events to reflect on this network series and start the initial steps towards a Scotland-wide Arctic research network on the 15th (click here) and 17th March (click here).
Professor David Anderson, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen, opened the event as Chair, outlining three areas of focus for their presentation: Artefact Repatriation and Digital Sharing, Enskillment, and Renewed Citizenship. Professor Anderson started with a suggestion on an alternative way to view the discourse of culture and language loss in Highland and Arctic settings, one that moves away from the focus on culture loss and instead, one that promotes and revitalizes culture. Highlighting the opportunities for digital sharing and curation of artefacts, Professor Anderson underlined the importance of artefact repatriation post colonialism and shared some examples of how advancements in technology in the form of scanning negatives and digital 3D printing provided such opportunities. Professor Anderson emphasized that cultural revitalization should not be limited to a focus on artefacts. Working directly with communities to revive cultural skills and language is a crucial component of cultural revitalisation but added that using artefacts in ceremonies and cultural practices can help revitalise language and renews public awareness and respect which contributes to a global citizenship. Professor Anderson also commented on the impacts of climate change on cultural revitalisation, sharing an example of how permafrost melting led to artefacts being exposed in an Arctic community. Quick and collaborative action and working directly with the community were important to protect the exposed artefacts. Professor Anderson concluded by highlighting the wide range of skills and experience that Scotland has to contribute towards collaborative research in the Arctic.
Dr Peter Loovers, Project Curator at a British Museum Exhibition on ‘Arctic: Culture and Climate’ and Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Aberdeen, provided an overview of a recent Arctic Exhibition at the British Museum in which they were the project curator. The exhibition addressed climate change by focusing on the lived experiences of communities that have had to adapt to the changing weather. Dr Loovers highlights that Indigenous and Arctic communities have been used to adapting to weather extremes but highlights that human induced climate changes have resulted in a rapid shift in climate patterns within just one generation. Dr Loovers wanted the exhibition to be one of hope and believes cultural revitalisation is important. The exhibition showcased some of the ways that indigenous communities have used similar strategies throughout history to combat change. It was hoped that those attending the exhibition could think of how Arctic cultures could inform their own way of sustainable living. Dr Loovers then went on to discuss the importance of dogs in some Arctic cultures. They shared the story of a man who has grown up during this period of climate change in the Arctic and how they are returning to use a dog team like their father in the past. Dog teams are not common now due to colonial practices on the land, but revitalisation is important as these previous cultural practices are more reliable and contribute less to climate change and overall wellbeing. Dr Loovers also commented on the difficulty many communities have in teaching their children about the land when it is changing so quickly. Dr Loovers concluded by highlighting that cultural revitalisation has often been talked about by bringing back old knowledge and skills, that have been lost or scarce due to colonial pressures on land and lives. Climate change needs to be brought into that conversation. When revitalisation is talked about it implies bringing back vitality to the land. With climate change and unsustainable industrial practices, this is under threat.
Dr Tamara Ranspot, Teaching Fellow in the Anthropology Department at the University of Aberdeen, spoke on Cultural Revitalisation and Musical Resilience and opened by outlining some of the findings from their PhD research in the Yukon, close to the Alaskan border. Their research focuses on musical practices in the Arctic, exploring how they can help to tell a different story of colonialism in the Arctic, one that is more about resilience and that moves away from the idea of cultural loss in the Arctic. Dr Ranspot shared the story of the Han Songs of the Tr’ondek Hwech’in community: In the early 19th Century, colonial pressures and an influx of people arriving in the area for the gold rush threatened the community’s way of life. When the border was in 1903, they were forced to choose whether to settle on the Canadian or the American side and were unable to continue their seasonal subsistence movements. In order to protect their culture, Chief Isaac at the Moosehide put their songs away for safekeeping at a Potlach in Alaska on the understanding that one day they would be returned. They were forgotten about by many for over a hundred years. The Anglican church’s influence on the school system in the area which forbade the speaking of local languages did not help. This ultimately led to long term stigma and shame associated with the community’s language and culture. In the 1990s efforts to revitalise the language started and community elders and young people have recently travelled back to Alaska to rediscover their language, music and songs. The songs and the culture were not lost, they were just sleeping. However, invasive policies and institutions resulted in the language being critically endangered. Dr Ranspot concludes that music is vital for cultural revitalisation and engaging with or being aware of musical practices can be vital for researchers interested in cultural revitalisation. Researchers should engage in a meaningful way with existing efforts of culture revitalisation as opposed to researching in a passive way.
Professor Peter Reid, Professor of Librarianship at Robert Gordon University, presented on a project they are currently leading called Northword – the place for creative story tagging at Robert Gordon University. The project is funded by Northern Periphery and Arctic Programme and combines traditional storytelling with modern technologies with the aim to help increase their visibility and market reach of practitioners in remote areas. The project has multiple partners across various Arctic countries who each have the task of collecting at least 30 stories for a shared platform. After explaining the framework of the project, Professor Reid emphasised the power of storytelling, highlighting that stories are wonderful ways to communicate our past and inform our present. One of the key findings of this project was that methods of collecting stories for the project really mattered. What might work in Scotland, for example will not necessarily work in Finland or Russia and so it is vital to work directly with communities. So far in Scotland, there have been many interesting stories, many that link to other Arctic communities and Dr Reid comments that it has been interesting comparing similarities of stories from Shetland and Orkney with other stories from Arctic regions. The next step for the project is to engage with creative practitioners to develop new products or work inspired by these stories and Dr Reid suggests that this is revitalisation in a slightly different context. Dr Reid concludes by highlighting the challenges in developing common approaches for collaborative endeavours but that there has been a real enthusiasm shown by creative practitioners in the Northword storytelling project.
Professor Donna Heddle, Director of the Institute of Northern Studies at the University of Highlands and Islands and member of the UArctic Thematic Network on Circumpolar Archives, Folklore and Ethnography (CAFE), highlighted the work of the thematic network, outlining its aims to explore how folklore and ethnographic research enrich the communications across the circumpolar region. The main focus of the network is digitisation of manuscripts, photographs, sound recordings, materials, and other objects. This research is also looking into best practices of digital sharing and ethical impacts that these processes pose. Scotland and the Arctic have a historic relationship, folklore in Northern Scottish Isles demonstrates this. Historically, Orkney was the last place to get fresh water on the way to the Arctic. Professor Heddle highlighted that narratives and folklore are easily lost if not preserved in the right way and comments on bias in the preservation processes, using the example of women’s stories being excluded from story archives due to systematic barriers for women in the past, highlighting the importance of careful consideration of inclusive practices. In addition to this, Professor Heddle discussed the need to ensure that story archives are accessible and findable, whilst also capturing all methods of storytelling, not just written stories as written means could be seen as a colonial force. Furthermore, not all information can be written down. Professor Heddle concluded by emphasising the importance of working directly with communities and first of all asking if preservation is valued or important. With preservation comes ethical responsibilities.
Numerous Scottish higher education institutions and research organisations were represented in the meeting: University of the West of Scotland, University of Stirling, University of Glasgow, Glasgow Caledonian University, Heriot-Watt University, University of Aberdeen, and University of Highlands and Islands. We were also joined by researchers from various UArctic affiliated institutions and interested members of the public and civil society.
Attendees discussed opportunities and barriers to Scotland-Arctic research, the potential benefit of this research to people in Scotland and the Arctic, and strengths and weaknesses of Scottish research in the Arctic. Below is a summary of responses:
Barriers and weaknesses
- The coronavirus pandemic has halted travel and fieldwork.
- Stories are dynamic and naturally evolve and change over time, there is a risk that archiving them stops can stop or hinder that development.
- Curator or Archivist bias – need to be working collaboratively and consistently.
- Funding for research in the Arctic is limited – especially since leaving EU and ERASMUS. Arctic research is generally expensive.
- Misconception that people think the Arctic is uninhabited.
- Whilst there are strong links between Scotland and the rest of the Arctic, the UArctic and Arctic Universities do not recognise Scotland as an Arctic country.
- There is a great variety of research on the Arctic but there is not a single well funded interdisciplinary centre based in Scotland dedicated to work in the Arctic like other countries have.
Opportunities and strengths
- There is an opportunity to rethink how researchers reach out to local communities.
- Digital archives provide an opportunity to save multiple versions of stories that naturally evolve through time and allow the opportunity to see and link all pervious version.
- Storytelling provides an opportunity to share people’s experiences, words and stories from the Arctic so that misconceptions about the Arctic being uninhabited can be changed.
- COP26 provides an opportunity to change the narrative.
- Networks like this are positive and contribute towards good practices like community involvement from the start and the sharing of knowledge across networks.
- Scottish research has a history of collaboration between Scotland and the Arctic that has been going on for centuries.
- Artists from Scotland have been involved for at least ten years with the UoA thematic network Arctic Sustainable Arts and Design (ASAD).
- Opportunity for a well-funded institute or centre in Scotland that could help Scotland lead the way in many aspects of Arctic research and allow for easier collaboration with Arctic countries.
- Opportunity to draw on Scotland’s strengths in other areas like video gaming (which University of Dundee is known for) to create educational packages that play like video games. This capitalises on something that Scotland is well known for and lending it to this field.