English 261 Section 01

Northern Exposures

The Arctic Imagination and the (Post)Colonial Experience

Dr. Russell A. Potter
   


This course examines cultural contact narratives -- both 'factual' and 'fictional' -- between European 'explorers' of the Arctic and native peoples in the comparative context of European colonialism and emergent literatures, including British, Canadian, Inuit, and Amerindian texts.
 
 
 

I. Course Description/Overview

In this course, we will delve deeply into the long-standing fascination of the British and American publics with the geography and peoples of the Arctic. We will read both literary and historical texts, and examine the testimony both of European and American "explorers" as well as indigenous Northern peoples such as the Inuit, the Dene, the Inupiat, and the Yu'pik. In the process, we will attempt to form an understanding both of the notion of 'cultural contact,' as well as of the larger economic and political forces that shaped the exploration (and exploitation) of the Arctic Regions.

Among the questions we will address are: How did the emergent discourses on ethnography and racial characteristics play into this project, particularly at its peak in the mid-nineteenth century? And, within this context, how was the "North," broadly defined, different from other regions of the world? Was Arctic exploration necessarily disinterested and "scientific"? What were the politics of the kidnapping and exhibition of Inuit and other northern peoples at venues such as London's Egyptian Hall and the World's Columbian Exposition? How were the Inuit regarded differently than more southern native cultures within the emergent "science" of ethnography? What assumptions about geography, territory, and community guided both the "explorers" and the "explored"? And, finally, why is it at just this time, at the dawn of a new millennium, that there is such a widespread renewal of the old fascinations with the Arctic and Antarctic regions?

A central theme throughout this course will be "contact" -- what does "contact" mean, and what are its consequences and costs? What were the underlying ideologies of colonialism on a global scale, and specifically of the British Empire? How were different colonial projects -- whether in Africa, Asia, the Americas, or in circumpolar regions, justified, undertaken, and represented? How did the emergent discourses on ethnography and racial characteristics play into this project, particularly at its peak in the mid-nineteenth century? And, within this context, how was the "North," broadly defined, different from other regions of the world? Colonialism on other continents was often justified on the grounds of economic utility, race destiny and the 'Christianization' of indigenous peoples, but in the North, the economic and religious aspects of colonization were often downplayed, as it was taken for granted that there was a dearth both of economic resources and convertable souls. Yet was Arctic exploration necessarily disinterested and "scientific"? What were the politics of the kidnapping and exhibition of Inuit and other northern peoples at venues such as London's Egyptian Hall and the World's Columbian Exposition? How were the Inuit regarded differently than more southern native cultures within the emergent "science" of ethnography? What was the relationship between British colonialism in Africa and the Indian subcontinent and British "exploration" of the Arctic? What assumptions about geography, territory, and community guided both the "explorers" and the "explored"?

The "North" and the "Pole" have exercised a powerful hold for centuries in the imaginative landscapes of British, Canadian, and American novelists, poets, and filmmakers. From Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to Nanook of the North, from Peary's North to the Pole to the film Map of the Human Heart, the public eye has been flooded with images of a grim, frozen vastness, a sublime realm whose mysteries were sealed by the kiss of frost. Yet despite this, the actual history and traditions of the native Arctic peoples of North America -- the Yu'pik, the Inupiat, the Dene, the Inuit, and the Chipewyans -- is scarcely known, and the literature of these peoples is only beginning to be written. At the same time, of course, mid-century Arctic "exploration" did not take place in a vacuum, and indeed in many ways it preceded and served as a model for the subsequent shift to African exploration. The antipodal dynamics between the "white" of the Arctic and the heart of "darkest" Africa will be one central focus of this class; we will look at how Joseph Conrad's boyhood fascination with the Arctic (documented in his essay "Geography and Some Explorers," which appeared in National Geographic) led to his mature fascination with Africa, and the ways in which fantasies of power, isolation, and cannibalism played into this symbolic geographical linkage in his novel Heart of Darkness.

From these ideologically-charged fictions, we will (re)turn to the no less charged narratives of the early Arctic "explorers," reading them alongside the reactions of indigenous Arctic peoples to these strangers -- beginning with the earliest contacts and continuing through the work of modern writers such as Margaret Atwood and William T. Vollmann, as well as contemporary Inuit writers such as Alootook Ipellie. We will also look at the no less singular visual representations of Arctic life and peoples, ranging from nineteenth-century paintings, engravings, and public exhibitions to twentieth-century films, such as the landmark 1922 film Nanook of the North (the first, and last movie to cast an Inuk in a lead role), as well as more recent films, such as Map of the Human Heart and Smilla's Sense of Snow) which, despite their largely non-Inuit casts, have tried to unravel the misconceptions of the past (though they have ended up raveling new ones).

Finally, in the context of the modern era, we examine the critiques of the colonial project and its aftermath via emergent discourse on post-colonialism , looking both at some of the exemplary texts of this movement (Aimé Césaire, C.L.R. James) as well as at some of the "northern voices" who have recently sought to carve out a similar space of resistance within the context of the modern Arctic, which, though still vast and relatively low in population, is rich in mineral resources, and has become a new site of struggle for the self-determination of native peoples. We will look specifically at the new territory of Nunavut, which, now that it has officially come into existence (April 1, 1999), is the largest state or province in the western hemisphere governed primarily by its indigenous peoples.
 

 

II. Texts -- course readings and viewings
 
 

1. Literature

 

Sten Nadolny, The Discovery of Slowness (Germany)

Rudy Wiebe, A Discovery of Strangers (Canada/Dene)

Alootook Ipellie, Arctic Dreams and Nightmares (Inuit)

Gwendolyn MacEwen, "Erebus and Terror" (Canada)

Margaret Atwood, "Concerning Franklin and his Gallant Crew" (Canada)
 
 

2. Essays and background readings

 

Charles Dickens, "The Noble Savage," "The Lost Arctic Explorers" "An Extraordinary Traveller" (England)

Chauncey Loomis, Weird and Tragic Shores

Joseph Conrad, "Geography and Some Explorers" (Poland/England)

Hugh Brody, The People's Land

Alootook Ipellie, Ipellie's Shadow (Inuit/Canada)

Kenn Harper, Give Me My Father's Body: The Story of Minik, The New York Eskimo
 

 

3. Films and television programs

 

Edison Films of the Eskimo Pavilion at the World Columbian Exposition, Buffalo NY (1901)

Nanook of the North (1922)

The Wedding of Palo

Map of the Human Heart (1994)

Smilla's Sense of Snow (1996)

Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001)

The Search for the Northwest Passage (2005)


 
 
 

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