George Walford: The Polar NITBY

Brody (Hugh) Living Arctic; Hunters of the Canadian North 1987. London: Faber & Faber.

In connection with the current exhibition “Living Arctic” at the Museum of Mankind, Hugh Brody has published, under the same title, an account of the peoples of the Canadian Arctic and sub-Arctic regions, the Inuit (more familiar as the Eskimo), the Dene, Cree, Naskapi, Innu and Metis. Within living memory these peoples followed the hunting life, depending mainly op seal, walrus, caribou, whale, small game and fish. To some extent they still do, but now they are being integrated into the wage-labour economy, with groceries and supermarkets, the fur trade transforming hunters into trappers, the oil industry intruding into their hunting- grounds, large areas being intentionally flooded, and a suggestion that nuclear explosions may be used to create a deep- water harbour in Southern Alaska. Brody protests that an integrated, successful, enjoyable and sustainable way of life is being destroyed; he wants to see these peoples exercising supreme control of the territory they have traditionally inhabited, with the power to exclude developments they do not want. But he does not propose to deprive them of rifles, modern medicine, outboard motors, or even snow-mobiles. They are to have the facilities offered by modern technology without its burdens; the industry producing the vehicles they use, and the fuel these consume, is not to be invited into their fastnesses. His attitude can fairly be summarised as Not In Their Back Yard, and in supporting his views he contradicts ideas and rejects attitudes which have recently been gaining prominence. It is not only the ruthless industrialists and exploiters he complains of, but also the conservationists and the opponents of the fur trade; they too are interfering with the way the northern peoples choose to live.

Brody runs some risk of being charged with racism. In order to see this we have only to take his arguments and substitute “English” for “Inuit (Cree, Dene, etc.)” This gives the proposition that the English should exercise supreme control of the land they have traditionally inhabited, with the power and the right to keep out all these nasty foreigners and immigrants with their upsetting ideas and devices. Even to mention such a thought is to risk being buried under a wave of furious reformers, yet this is just what Brody is claiming on behalf of the peoples he favours. To suggest that there is a significant difference between the two cases, the English being a mongrel breed and the north Canadian peoples (except the Metis) racially pure, would hardly be an improvement. Nor would it help to say that the English are not the original inhabitants, that any natural title to the land must lie with those they ousted; the Inuit also drove out their predecessors, those known to archaeology as the Dorset people. And, since the Dorset people have left no trace after their expulsion, the Inuit may even have committed genocide. It was a long time ago, probably around 2,500 BC, but on this crime there is no statute of limitations.

These hunters fall some way short of the approved concern for the ecology as the common heritage of all humanity: “It is our own land and the animals are our own, and we used to be free to kill them because they were our animals.” (p. 7) It is true that another quotation shifts things on to a higher plane: “It’s a totally spiritual world you live in when you’re trapping,” and Brody reports the belief that to hunt animals is to show respect for them and ensure that their species will thrive; people are obliged to respect the animal that is willing to die. (p. 77) One can only hope the dying creatures appreciate this tender concern for their welfare.

Brody does not explicitly claim any mandate to speak on behalf of these northern peoples, although he quotes individuals expressing ideas and feelings similar to his own. It is difficult to see how anybody ever can claim authority to speak for a number of communities choosing to live independently, each without leaders or political structure of its own; the claim itself would constitute an intrusion by those hierarchical ideas Brody regards as foreign and wants to exclude. When we look at the preferences they express in their observed behaviour, as reported by Brody and anthropologists from Boas and Stefansson onwards, these go against green ideas. These people would like to follow their accustomed life while taking advantage of many benefits offered by high technology. Unfortunately technology comes as a package, benefits and costs tied up together, and Brody shows no good reason why his favoured peoples should enjoy the benefits while others suffer the costs, the consumption of irreplaceable resources and the pollution – which can doubtless be greatly reduced but never completely eliminated while industrial production of rifles, outboards, snow-mobiles and the rest continues.

There are strong arguments for conserving wild areas, and the Arctic and sub-Arctic are among those most nearly in their original condition. But if this is done it will be a social act, with all the members of industrial society bearing some part of the cost. The suggestion that only the people born in the area are to enjoy these northern solitudes, while the rest of us remain huddled in the cities, or packed hip to thigh on the Spanish beaches, may be a reasonable one, but it is hard to reconcile with the belief even in equality of opportunity, let alone any more rigorous egalitarianism.

Comparison of Living Arctic with books by other authors who have lived in the region, such as Burnford’s One Woman’s Arctic and Freuchen’s Book of the Eskimos, suggests that a tendency to play down the asperities may have produced an excess of sweetness. Brody presents the practice of leaving the old to die alone in an igloo as “assisted suicide” (p. 137), with no suggestion that people who had become a burden to hunters depending (as he stresses) on mobility might have been encouraged, perhaps even pressured, into this decision. He speaks of “occasional” infanticide (p. 137), which may be understating the inevitability of this practice in the hunting life, with its need to keep population within the limits of the food supply naturally available. He mentions nothing corresponding to Peter Freuchen’s experience when, out with a party of Inuit hunters, he fell down a crevasse; the others just went on, leaving him to get out alone, and he nearly didn’t make it.

Brody’s book is a joy to read, its careful explicitness carrying no suggestion of the strenuous and prolonged labour that must have gone into the writing. It has been beautifully produced, and at £4.95, with 16 colour plates, over 100 black and white, 254 pages in all, is so cheap as to suggest that a substantial subsidy must have come from somewhere.

from Ideological Commentary 41, September 1989.