Tag Archives: indigenous peoples

Andreas Raspotnik, The European Union and the Geopolitics of the Arctic (Cheltenham & Northampton: Edward Elgar, 2018)

Andreas Raspotnik, in his new book “The European Union and the Geopolitics of the Arctic”, critically scrutinizes the decade-long history of successes, failures and attempts of the European Union in constructing its own legitimacy and credibility in the multi-layered geopolitics of its “northern neighborhood”, the Arctic. In doing so, the author attempts to define this “unknown” but yet a “component of the Arctic geopolitics”, that is to say the EU, and to provides his own response to the long-standing matter of which role the EU has to play in the region.

One immediate question that arises in the mind of those who are more familiar with EU’s studies, especially with regards to the Arctic, is not if the EU has an influence in the Arctic region, but whether the EU holds the actual capacity to act as an international actor in the given geopolitical context. Regardless of EU’s formal acceptance as an observer to the Arctic Council – now a symbolic token, as the EU can de facto observe, taken by too many as the ultimate proof of EU’s extraneousness to the region – this politico-economic Union of 28 Member States has shown clearly over the years both its negative and positive influence, yet influence nonetheless; though the question remains in which capacity. Raspotnik raises this question in his introduction, and skillfully adds another layer to this already complex picture, by using his study to “question [EU’s] broader role as an international actor with evolving geopolitical identity”. The study won’t provide the reader with a clean-cut answer, as the very last sentence of the book suggests – “[u]ltimately, the European Union attempts to act as sui generis geopolitical actor in the Arctic” – but it is a classic example of research where the journey itself is more relevant than the destination.

The main text of the book is structured in 5 parts which, excluding “Introduction” and “Conclusions”, compose the title of the book: II) Geopolitics, III) The Arctic, and IV) The European Union. This structure underlines the choice and need of the author for excavating and critically analyzing each of these concepts before providing – in an almost Hegelian fashion – a final synthesis. This book is indeed very well researched, and combines a vast literature of classic “Arctic Geopolitics” scholars, interviews, official documents and speeches given by EU representatives. Under several aspects – e.g. the use of explanatory “boxes” within the text and the careful contextualization of each new term used – this book could be positively marked as a textbook for students in geopolitics or European studies or a vade mecum for scholars, without ever providing a superficial account of the issue it addresses.

Raspotnik’s sets the start of his journey in 2007/2008, when high-level representatives of the EU and its member states – J.M. Barroso (former president of the EU Commission), Angela Merkel and Romano Prodi – all visited in different moments the new “Mecca of climate change”, Greenland, to experience first-hand the ice-cap melting. The Arctic was, in the meanwhile, experiencing a new moment in the global media, with the Russian flag being planted more than 4000 m beneath the North Pole, or the new record low in the Arctic Ocean’s sea-ice extent in September 2007. In addition, climate change – which will quickly turn into one of the strongest leitmotifs of the European Union’s narrative in the Arctic – was also having a new impetus in the same years and made it to the top of the G8 Summit agenda in Bad Doberan/Heiligendamm (Germany). Therefore, climate change, (potential) availability of resources, environmental and social challenges turned into a potential security issue for the EU, which, with the strong encouragement of Finland, added the Arctic to its “neighborhood’s radar”. In 2008, the EU formally started developing its own Arctic Policy.

This process took about 10 years, many documents and speeches, and for many observers it is not even yet fully finalized. The chapter dealing with this “policy-in-the-making” process is actually one of the highlights of this book. An overview that too easily risks turning into a repetitive and pedantic mantra – given the nature itself of the EU’s structure where documents/proposal need to bounce among the EU Parliament, the Commission and the Council (and repeat this itinerary several times) – was given new life. The author alternates the description of each step taken toward the development of an EU Arctic Policy with an “external reading”, combining in this way facts with his analyses.

The formal analysis used in the book, while accomplishing the need for providing a deep understanding of the EU’s role in the Arctic, runs into the same negative underestimation made by the EU regarding the role of indigenous people in the Arctic geopolitics. Reading this book, likewise most of the narrative and approaches used by the EU itself, the feeling is that the indigenous peoples of the Arctic appear more as a cameo – or a political/formal duty to be discussed – rather than part of Arctic geopolitics. In the description of the Arctic’s layered geopolitics, for example, a good overview is provided with regards to the “issue of eight national identifies”, but no mention at all is given regarding Indigenous peoples’ visions for their own territories. The role of Indigenous Peoples Organizations (IPOs) within the Arctic Council is only formally addressed and therefore minimized (“although the AC includes IPOs, decision making formally remains with its core members, the A8”), and the “seal-issue”, which ultimately costed the EU its formal acceptance as observer at the Arctic Council from 2009 to 2015 (then the Crimean crisis came into play) is dealt as a largely solved political issue, which formally and politically it is, but not in practice, at least for some of the indigenous peoples of the Arctic.

Jarich Oosten & Barbara Helen Miller (eds.), Traditions, Traps and Trends. Transfer of Knowledge in Arctic Regions (Alberta: The University of Alberta Press, 2018)

Indigenous knowledge – or traditional knowledge – has recently gained more and more attention, especially within the Arctic context. Large and complex bodies of knowledge(s) are thus acknowledged, which are mostly acquired in non-verbal ways: a learning by doing, or better, a learning by living (it), ensuring survival in the harshest environments of the globe for millennia.  Such a knowledge includes skills and “attitude that encourages perceptual rather than judgmental forms of knowing”, leading to a life oriented toward service to community. It is a knowledge that still today struggles with the Western concept of “science”, still deeply anchored to classic dichotomies, as “our way of thinking” vs ”their way of thinking”, or the Cartesian paradigm whereby mind and body are essentially separate entities.

The scope of this book, outlined by the editors Jarich Oosten and Barbara Helen Miller in the introduction, is to overcome the classic definition of “Western science” and “mak[e] a place in scientific discourse for contributions from Indigenous authorities”.  This cognitive place is therefore created by eight interdisciplinary case-studies, written by different authors, that explore knowledge transfer and knowledge practices of the Inuit in Canada, East and West Greenland, and the Northern Sámi of Norway. There is no given methodological explanation regarding the selection of Arctic regions treated in the book, but probably it is the result of the geographical areas of expertise of the authors, all members of the Research Group Circumpolar Cultures.

After a dense introduction, aimed at clearing out both the theoretical background and the histories of the peoples involved, the book is divided conceptually into two parts: the first one comprises five chapters on the Inuit of Greenland and North America; the second one three chapters on the Northern Sámi of Norway.

The first part considers the Inuit concept of IQ, “knowledge that has proven to be useful in the past and is still useful today”, in different contexts, historical times and geographical areas. Although following separate patterns, all the authors come to highlight, on the one hand, the disruptive effects that the introduction of Western education, with missionaries first and national school systems later, has had on individual, social and family relations. On the other hand, the dynamic and flexible nature of this IQ makes it still today a valuable body of knowledge(s) (inclusive of its spiritual component) for the younger generations’ well-being, both mental and physical. A correct transfer of this knowledge (or IQ), however, faces today several challenges, as for example the impossibility of extracting this knowledge from its material support, that is to say, the environment, and teach it in a classroom; obliging educators and researchers to experiment and find more suitable solutions (some of them are addressed in the book).

The second part takes the reader to a completely different location, Northern Norway, and into a different culture, the Sámi. This second part focuses on a variety of topics, yet connected with the main area outlined in the introduction, i.e. transfer of knowledge and knowledge practices.

Presented as a book for “students and scholars in anthropology and ethnology and for everyone interested in the Circumpolar North”, this collection of essays offers indeed different reading levels. However, probably due to a general lack of coordination among the authors of the first part, where the five essays share the same main topic, IQ, and different yet similar background (Inuit), make the reading often repetitive and redundant, hampering a fluid reading. The second part, while being definitely more diverse, sometimes struggles in showing clearly its connections with the overall scope of the book, leaving the reader a little lost.

Some peculiar design choices – such as the font and its size, slightly smaller than usual, and the left-side alignment – make the reading not easy, as they give the feeling of an endless footnote. On the bright side, this book includes also some interesting historical figures and drawings, such as those (pp. 166-167) illustrating stories related to “tupilat” (i.e. “evil spirits” in the form of small sculptures carved out of bone, ivory, wood or stone, depicting monstrous figures and believed to have destructive and sometimes lethal effects on rivals).

A question, however, remains unanswered.

Why is no essay in this book openly written by an indigenous scholar or an “indigenous authority” of the actual Arctic communities that are discussed therein, a child of their lived experiences and living cultures?  The feeling is that one very important classic dichotomy was not addressed at all, that is to say, indigenous cultures and indigenous peoples as proactive “subjects” of research rather than “objects”. If this dichotomy persists, can then the authors’ competent scientific approach really achieve the declared aim of the book’s editors, namely to “mak[e] a place in scientific discourse for contributions from Indigenous authorities”?