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Thin Ice: Inuit Traditions within a Changing Environment

Dartmouth Arctic Collections and the International Polar Year, 2007–8

Hood Quarterly, winter 2007
Ross A. Virginia, Director, Dickey Center Institute of Arctic Studies, Professor of Environmental Studies, Dartmouth College; Kenneth S. Yalowitz, Ambassador (Ret.) Director, Dickey Center for International Understanding, Adjunct Professor of Government, Dartmouth College; Gor Krupnik, Curator, Circumpolar Ethnology, Arctic Studies Center, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution

The earth’s polar regions have been the subject of three major research initiatives, called “international polar years” (IPY). Beginning with the first IPY in 1882–83, these events have shared the goal of advancing basic scientific knowledge of the geography and geophysical processes of these remote lands and oceans via global conferences at thirty- to fifty-year intervals. International polar year events have always captured the imagination of the public, yet the polar regions remain a distant, and disconnected, realm for most people. The global science community is now set to begin another IPY in 2007–8 with a special sense of urgency: simply put, the polar regions are a critical part of the earth’s climate system, which is now undergoing rapid change in response to human activities.

Thin Ice: Inuit Traditions within a Changing Environment is part of Dartmouth College’s overall initiative for the International Polar Year, titled Project 160: Arctic Change: An Interdisciplinary Dialog Between the Academy, Northern Peoples, and Policy Makers. The exhibition is the result of a collaborative effort between Dartmouth’s Hood Museum of Art, the Institute of Arctic Studies within the Dickey Center for International Understanding, the Rauner Special Collections Library, and the Arctic Studies Center of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

Located in Hanover, New Hampshire (roughly halfway between the equator and the North Pole), Dartmouth has a distinguished tradition in Arctic research reaching back to Vilhjalmur Stefansson (1879–1962), the famous Arctic explorer, scholar, and founder of Dartmouth’s Northern Studies program. Distinctions between weather and climate are obvious when modern instruments precisely quantify change over time. But how are these distinctions— and the lessons to be learned from them—perceived and recorded by people who have lived in the Arctic for generations without the use of satellites, thermometers, or computer models? Thin Ice explores the lives of the Inuit people of the Arctic and their intimate relation to ice, weather, climate, and nature, each a manifestation of the Inuit concept of sila.

Can the consequences of Arctic climate change be anticipated so as to spur the implementation of new policies that manage Arctic resources in a more sustainable way for the benefit of all northern inhabitants? Our collective ability to adapt to Arctic climate change, or to mitigate its effects, will depend upon a productive collaboration between northern peoples, the scientific community, and policymakers from the local to the international levels. Without a dialogue involving indigenous perspectives and timely policy actions, the future of the “Arctic,” and perhaps the entire planet, may truly be on thin ice.

Excerpted from the exhibition catalogue Thin Ice: Inuit Traditions within a Changing Environment.

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