Blog

Ocean Currents

In the Arctic, the Water Connects Us

Indigenous stories of connection and division across modern boundaries

Inuvik 135
Herschel Island, Yukon Territory, Canada, was a whaling station in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and continues to be used by Inuvialuit from Canada and Iñupiat from Alaska as they travel back and forth to see friends and relatives. © Henry P. Huntington

It was a privilege to work with seven Indigenous friends and colleagues on a paper in which they describe what it’s like to live alongside one of the three international borders dividing the traditional lands of the Chukchi and Inuit in the Arctic.

These boundaries are now so familiar to us that we often take them for granted, as if they are a natural and inevitable outcome of history and geography. Each was the result of a decision made far away, with little thought to the Indigenous peoples along the new borders or to ecosystem connections near and far.

Modern boundaries

On the shore of the Beaufort Sea, where the 141st Meridian crosses from land to water above the Arctic Circle, a small monument stands on the boundary between Canada and the United States. Innocuous in itself, the marker is nonetheless a symbol of colonial and national powers exerting their control regardless of local rights and customs.

In 1825, Great Britain and Russia signed a treaty delineating the divide between their empires in North America. In 1867, the United States paid Russia $7.2 million for Alaska, creating a new border bisecting the Bering Strait. Far to the east, Canada and Denmark (as the colonial power ruling Greenland) drew their own line between Greenland and Ellesmere Island and continuing down through Baffin Bay.

HH-map-for-OC-water-blog-color-2020-07-20

Community impacts

The implications of a new line on a map took time to manifest in a series of changes that hardened the control exerted by national governments. Trade was restricted or blocked, travel was limited or even prohibited, and land use patterns were forced to change regardless of ecology or culture. Cold War politics, concerns about sovereignty and fears of national security led to even tighter restrictions.

The waters that had previously connected people are now a barrier dividing families, trading partners and cultures. The Indigenous peoples of the region, however, have not simply accepted this state of affairs. Instead, they have maintained or re-established ties across the borders, celebrating their shared cultures and working to sustain their shared ecosystems.

Here are some highlights—in their own voice—emphasizing what has been accomplished and also how much farther there is to go.

The Bering Strait: Russia-United States

Eduard Zdor, Chukchi, wrote:
“The Bering Strait is not a water border separating the two countries, but a water world that provided a life for peoples. … the Bering Strait does more than provide traditional food, it sets the rhythm of life, supporting our traditions and spirituality. … The Bering Strait is not a border, but a unique habitat of the Chukchi, Inuit and Siberian Yupik, which provides a chance to preserve their cultures, languages, and identity.”

A gray whale near the shore of St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, with the coastal mountains of Chukotka, Russia, in the distance.
A gray whale near the shore of St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, with the coastal mountains of Chukotka, Russia, in the distance. © Henry P. Huntington

Vera Metcalf, St. Lawrence Island Yupik, emphasized the same theme:
“We share the Bering Strait, which is a migration route for vast numbers of marine mammals—bowhead and other whales, walrus, all types of seals—and millions of seabirds and fish, too. This is an immense migration that follows the sea ice retreat in spring and its expansion in the fall. Our natural resources are theirs, their natural environment is ours; and we both depend on these for our well-being, nutritionally, economically and culturally. The strength of our connection to each other, even during times when governments separate us, will hopefully always remain.”

The Beaufort Sea: United States-Canada

Carla SimsKayotuk, Iñupiaq, described her family’s struggles with the paperwork needed to establish citizenship and rights:
“So many people in the area have parents who were born on one side while they themselves were born on the other. … Some were born in Canada, so they have a Canadian passport, but live in Alaska. … Oddly enough, many people in this situation are recognized as tribal members in the U.S., even if they are not citizens. … Those with ambiguous status will have to find a way to clear things up. Otherwise, families will be divided, including brothers and sisters, parents and children, and husbands and wives. Our blood, our songs, our language, our coasts, our waters and our animals all connect us. But paperwork divides us.”

Herschel Island, Yukon Territory, Canada, was a whaling station in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and continues to be used by Inuvialuit from Canada and Iñupiat from Alaska as they travel back and forth to see friends and relatives.
Herschel Island, Yukon Territory, Canada, was a whaling station in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and continues to be used by Inuvialuit from Canada and Iñupiat from Alaska as they travel back and forth to see friends and relatives. © Henry P. Huntington

Richard Binder, Inuvialuq, extended this point to the marine environment:
“The animals, too, go back and forth each year. But now there is a border dividing us. … In the 1980s, we Inuvialuit from Canada got together with our Iñupiaq cousins from Alaskas North Slope to create a shared, Indigenous-to-Indigenous system for managing the polar bear population that spans our lands and waters on both sides of the border. … We have expanded that cooperation to other species, too. It is good … that the governments on both sides have come to recognize the importance of our work. But it is also frustrating because the international boundary makes it harder than it should be, with extra rules and complications all because of a line on a map. We are one people and this is one ecosystem, which we should be taking care of together as our ancestors did.”

Baffin Bay: Canada-Greenland

Toku Oshima, Inughuaq, also wrote of her frustration:
“I used to go hunting on Umimmattooq (the Greenlandic name for Ellesmere Island) but now I cannot because the border has been closed by the Canadian government. … Today, we need passports to go to Canada, which many of us do not have, because we cannot get them in Qaanaaq [her hometown in the far north of Greenland]. …The discussions about creating Pikialasorsuaq (an Inuit-designated protected area in the northern part of Baffin Bay, between Canada and Greenland) may create an opportunity for us to travel freely again to Umimmattooq. … I just know that I want to be able to do what we used to do, without restrictions.”

Inughuit from northern Greenland and Inuit from Nunavut, Canada, chatting during a rest stop while enjoying the chance to travel the land together.
Inughuit from northern Greenland and Inuit from Nunavut, Canada, chatting during a rest stop while enjoying the chance to travel the land together. © Henry P. Huntington

Robert Comeau, Inuk, found hope in traveling across Baffin Bay:
“The tides do not care about boundaries on a map. Nor do the prevailing currents or dominant winds. The animals we rely on consistently cross national lines through the ocean. Most importantly, we as people created our own spaces based around the ocean. Every summer I get to travel across Baffin Bay on an expedition cruise ship. …What an experience to see hunters, seamstresses, business folks that are so similar to us! … The new efforts put in by Inuit to manage our waters are just another example of our relationship not only to the water but to each other.”

The lived experiences from Indigenous peoples shared here are perhaps the first attempt to present voices from across the region and three international borders. These are stories that we must continue to record as Indigenous leadership strengthens traditional connections and interactions that have been disrupted and harmed by government restrictions.

Much remains to be done but the people of the Arctic are once again finding ways for the water to connect us.

Crossroads of Continents and Modern Boundaries: An Introduction to Inuit and Chukchi Experiences in the Bering Strait, Beaufort Sea, and Baffin Bay” by Henry P. Huntington, Richard Binder Sr., Robert Comeau, Lene Kielsen Holm, Vera Metcalf, Toku Oshima, Carla SimsKayotuk and Eduard Zdor is available here.

Related Articles