The Arctic, the subject of the Minnesota International Center’s “Great Decisions” dialogue this month, is most closely associated with conversations about climate change.
But cultural change is affecting the Arctic, too, as local languages and cultures risk melting into an increasingly interconnected, internationalized world.
Among those following these phenomena are two regional researchers, Timothy Pasch, an assistant professor of communication at the University of North Dakota, and Aaron Doering, an associate professor in learning technologies at the University of Minnesota. Both are using new-media tools to study old ways, and in the process they hope to help indigenous Arctic people preserve their language and culture.
On Tuesday in Grand Forks, Pasch will present his work at a symposium sponsored by the Consulate General of Canada and the University of North Dakota titled “Science, People and Sustainability in the Canadian Arctic: From the 1913 Canadian Arctic Expedition to the 2013 Arctic Council Chairmanship.”
The symposium will celebrate the centennial of the launch of the Canadian Arctic Expedition, which was led by one-time UND student Vilhjalmur Stefansson. As the title suggests, the symposium will reflect on the past but be forward-focused as well.
“Stefansson acknowledged the dangers created by what he called ‘civilization’s juggernaut,’ ” Pasch said. “He was cognizant of modern society as a potential danger. Yet at the same time he was also of the mind that the Arctic was full of enormous economic and societal potential.”
Yet no matter how prescient, predicting how media technologies would change culture in the “modern society” that Stefansson envisioned would have been impossible. In fact, even relatively recent changes are striking.
“There are many, many social issues right now in the north,” Pasch said. And they are “partly related to the enormous cultural and linguistic upheaval, caused to some extent by the massive increase in media.”
Yet disruptive media can also bind.
This summer, Pasch took digital devices to northern Nunavut, the territory that encompasses most of the Canadian Arctic archipelago, to teach indigenous Inuit people to record their language and stories.
“It’s crowdsourcing digital recording,” Pasch explained. “Engaging with elders in the community and getting that content out there so other members of the community and the world can see it. I really believe that a community, in order to preserve itself as a minority culture and language, needs to create high-quality, sufficient content to develop a critical mass in order for young people to use.”
Of course, media isn’t the only disruptive dynamic rapidly transforming Arctic ways. Climate change is, too.
Chronicling its impact is the focus of North of Sixty˚, a Minneapolis-based organization whose stated mission is to “create a global tapestry of climate stories, weaving together the history and culture of Arctic communities worldwide and preserving the voices and ecological knowledge of generations.”
The U’s Doering, who leads North of Sixty˚, said that the project worked with schools, sending them “tapestry kits” to capture climate-change stories. “Now the younger generation actually has a reason to talk with their elders about climate change and how they are adapting to it.”
The ever-evolving technological transformations make capturing and sharing these stories more possible.
“It used to be difficult setting up these technologies,” Doering said. “Now we are able to document this traditional knowledge, do the interviews, and within hours share it with the world.” (And with the Weather Channel, which chronicled the project.)
“We’re shooting at 40 below in the field, cutting it in the tent. As the tech gets better, and we get better, then the overall quality of what we are putting out just gets so much better.”
Doering, like Pasch, passes on new-media methods to a new generation. “Now we’re able to use these mobile technologies to empower the youth to capture and share their stories about traditional knowledge and how their lives are changing,” he said.
The changes in climate, culture and commerce in the Arctic may not reverse. Indeed, they may accelerate as Arctic ice melts and opens up frozen shipping lanes as well as making mineral and fossil-fuel extraction easier. “Civilization’s juggernaut” is coming, if it has not already arrived.
Pasch, comparing today with Steffanson’s time, said that “he perceived the Arctic as a hub, where all continents and other land masses stemmed out almost as spokes on a wheel.”
Then, describing his work — but reflective of the broader changes, challenges and even opportunities in the Arctic — Pasch added that “what I’m trying to do is to reconcile some of what Steffanson saw as preserving the wisdom and knowledge of the Inuit people coupled with economic development.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. on Friday on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.
The Star Tribune Editorial Board and the Minnesota International Center are partners in “ Great Decisions,” a monthly dialogue discussing foreign-policy topics. Want to join the conversation? Go to www.micglobe.org.