Research Article: Present and past dynamics of Inughuit resource spaces

Date Published: March 8, 2018

Publisher: Springer Netherlands

Author(s): Janne Flora, Kasper Lambert Johansen, Bjarne Grønnow, Astrid Oberborbeck Andersen, Anders Mosbech.


Information from a collaborative GPS tracking project, Piniariarneq, involving 17 occupational hunters from Qaanaaq and Savissivik, Northwest Greenland, is used to explore the resource spaces of hunters in Avanersuaq today. By comparison with historical records from the time of the Thule Trading Station and the decades following its closure, we reveal a marked variability in resource spaces over time. It is argued that the dynamics of resources and resource spaces in Thule are not underlain by animal distribution and migration patterns, or changes in weather and sea ice conditions alone; but also by economic opportunities, human mobility, settlement patterns, particular historical events and trajectories, and not least by economic and political interests developed outside the region.

Partial Text

There is a little disagreement among people in Avanersuaq (Thule area) today that the conditions underpinning hunting have undergone changes in recent years. Some relate to environmental changes, e.g., global warming that causes glaciers to retreat and reduces sea ice, thereby gradually eroding the foundation of dog sledge infrastructure. Others relate to social and economic changes, such as the economic means to purchase fast motor boats needed to utilize the expanding open water season, or embracing Greenland halibut fishery or tourism, which both provide new opportunities for many occupational hunters and the community more generally (Hastrup 2015: 190 f.).

There are just under 800 people living in Avanersuaq today. Most of them (around 650) live in the region’s largest town, Qaanaaq, and the rest live in the three villages Siorapaluk, Qeqertat,3 and Savissivik.4 The former two are in vicinity to Qaanaaq, while Savissivik is located in the southernmost part of the region, facing Qimusseriarsuaq (Melville Bay). Though everyday life in this part of Greenland carries many similarities with the rest of the country, there are also numerous ways in which Avanersuaq and the people who live there (predominantly Inughuit), set themselves apart. Hunting traditions, tools, and technology differ in some ways from those of other hunting communities in Greenland, and hunters in the region adamantly proclaim that these characteristics are distinctly theirs. Narwhals (Monodon monoceros) are notoriously skittish and hunters, therefore, insist on catching them from kayak to avoid disturbance of the animals from the noise produced by a motorized boat. Narwhals should also be harpooned to prevent them from sinking to the ocean floor. Similarly, polar bears (Ursus maritimus) are hunted using dogs that have been specially trained for this purpose, and motorized vehicles (snowmobiles, motorboats etc.) are prohibited in certain areas during certain parts of the hunting season.5 Furthermore, the catch should be shared according to local prescriptions and methods of sharing.

The main purpose of the Piniariarneq study was to map the distribution and seasonality of resource spaces through the movements of occupational hunters in present day Avanersuaq. For a detailed description of the project, and the cross-disciplinary, collaborative effort on which it is based, we refer to Andersen et al. (2017).

A complex interplay of processes—some continuous, some abrupt and drastic—have set in motion a variety of changes in Inughuit hunting practices through time. Juxtaposing the findings of the Piniariarneq project with historical records from Avanersuaq allows us to contextualize the current use and formation of resource spaces in a longer time perspective. For analytical purposes, we will focus on two periods, referred to here as the “Thule Station Period” and the “Post-Thule Station Period”. The Thule Station Period (Rasmussen 1921; Vibe 1950; Holtved 1967; Grønnow 2016) begins with the establishment of Knud Rasmussen’s trading station in North Star Bay in 1910. It ends in 1953, when, as a consequence of the establishment of the American Thule Air Base, the station was closed and the inhabitants of the large adjacent settlement Uummannaq were relocated to Qaanaaq. During the Thule Station Period, the economy of the Inughuit was driven by the trade in fox fur—a development that was reinforced in the early 1930s by the establishment of two additional trading posts in the northern- and southernmost parts of the district. While the Thule Station had a clear beginning and end (1910–1953), and, in some respects, can be regarded as marker of a historical “period”, this is much less the case for the time that followed. By “Post-Thule Station Period” (ethnographic information compiled in Gilberg 1971 and 1984), we refer to the time span from 1953 up until the mid-80s, when the prices of sealskin began to plummet. It thus covers the time of the new settlement patterns and resource spaces that characterized the decades following the establishment of Qaanaaq as the centre of the region and a number of permanent villages.

Involving occupational hunters in the study of spatio-temporal patterns of resource utilization has revealed many nuances in the way that different hunters engage resources, or put in another way, where, when, how and why their resource spaces emerge. Some hunters are avid narwhal hunters and kayak paddlers, while others are not. Again, some seem especially attuned to hunting polar bear, walrus, or land mammals, while others have also taken to Greenland halibut fishing. We have quantified and mapped each of the hunters’ topographical trajectories into a seemingly unified whole, but it is worth noting that this mapping exercise may mask individual variability in how the resource spaces emerge.

Drawing on Piniariarneq data and historical records, this article has explored the notion of resource spaces as emergent through human engagement in the present, and over time. Rather than being finite in terms of space and time, it is shown how resource spaces are dynamic events that occur through rather complex structures and interests that originate and have relevance and meaning both within and far beyond the resource spaces themselves. Our approach to studying resource spaces through the perspective of human activity is in a sense a study of human societies in movement and transition. Resource spaces change with human societies, and vice versa, in a way that speaks to the close interconnectedness between humans and their environment and bears relevance to spatial planning and the management of living resources in Greenland.




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