Like many arctic hamlets, the Inuit community in Pangnirtung, Nunavut was once separated from the rest of the western world by its algid waters and inhospitable climate. Predating global exploration and expansionism, modern-day Nunavut was not only geographically, but culturally isolated. "We are caught between two lifestyles - NBA, football, $150 sneakers - and grandparents who still fish out on the land" reflects Pangnirtung teenager, Ooli (Billson 148). As her observation suggests, the pervasive impacts of Euro-American modernization has left an indelible imprint on traditional Inuit life, positioning young native women like Ooli between two disparate sociocultural ethos. Although Inuit natives share similar struggles with Canadian women, their indigenous heritage exacerbates their existing marginal status. As a result, this expressed 'neither here nor there' articulates an acute symptom of modernization, and, at a deeper level, a defining feature of contemporary Inuit identity.
This paper examines Inuit women at the intersection of cultural liminality, nationhood and Canadian feminism. In doing so, it will advance three related arguments. First, it will expound the highly-contested political construction of the Nunavut nation-state, spanning from the inception of its land claims agreement to the official establishment of the Nunavut Territory (1999). In doing so, it argues that the dominant narrative of Inuit nation-building was and continues to be complicit with the political exclusion of Inuit women in its determination to establish a powerful androcentric government. Second, I examine how modernization sustains cultural liminality and ways in which the latter impacts modern Inuit women. Drawing on Homi K. Bhabha's definition of liminality, or what he aptly terms the "interstitial perspective," I argue Indigenous women can read their 'in-betweenness' as a site of resistance, thus enabling them to move beyond the homogenizing constructions of Inuit nationhood in order to secure political agency. Third, as a culmination of the previous two arguments, I raise the question of the possibility of an Inuit feminism: Can national Canadian feminism address gender inequality without undermining Inuit concerns for ethnic solidarity?
(Mis)representing the Homeland: Inuit Women and 'Arcticality'
The first waves of modernization impacted the Inuit community in the mid-19th century when Euro-American polar exploration and whaling expeditions reached the Canadian Arctic. Aboard these ships were men trained to hunt the bowhead whale, which was prized for its baleen, oil and bone. The complexity of the western world's first encounter with Inuit natives requires us to examine the geopolitical rhetoric used in constructing dominant nineteenth-century representations of the Arctic and the native Inuit. Gísli Pálsson's seminal article, "Hot Bodies in Cold Zones: Arctic Exploration" states:
Pálsson claims that the power of "othering" the Canadian Arctic was imposed through the cartographic rhetoric of Euro-American explorers rather than violent colonial occupation. In the eyes of polar pioneers, the Arctic was difficult to render in terms of Euro-American spatial organization. To express this point, Beatrice Collignon references how this rhetoric played a role in the subversion of the Inuit's sense of place: "[...] explorers and whalers felt free to baptize any place they wanted and ignore Inuit toponyms" (Collignon 188). The explorers' subversion of Inuit names served as a symbolic act of domination, which prevented establishing an accurate representation of Inuit territory.
The initial oppression of Inuit women stems from the gendered rhetoric of Euro- American cartography. For example, the Arctic was commonly referred to as a 'she,' or 'her'. Its frontier was understood in terms of a terra nullius, a virginal "land belonging to no one," which openly invited the inscription of foreign, male control. This long- standing feature of polar enterprise represented the Arctic as a larger symbol for the female body; that is, 'she' was something to be probed, conquered, settled and controlled; the surface upon which male empire inscribed its power. In effect, the geopolitical rhetoric of explorers venturing 'in' and 'out' of the polar frontier reinforces a western myth wherein the limits of civilization are believed to border the threshold of the uncharted 'beyond'.
According to Pálsson, Euro-American explorers understand the Arctic as a radically indeterminate space that challenges traditional understandings of territorial demarcation and organized human settlement. The Arctic, however, also serves as a symbolic space for life-threatening adventure, masculine feats of strength and risky enterprise:
Seen from this perspective, whaling and polar expeditions alike were gender committed enterprises; labor was channeled through hyper-masculine behavior. "Upon returning to civilized society, [whalers] were able to turn their adventure into cash and fame, drawing on their tales of youthful adventure to enhance their standing among their peers" (Thomson 79). So says critic Shawn Thompson who examines the impacts of nineteenth-century Euro-American industry on gender roles. Thomson claims that polar enterprise presented a stark alternative to the dominant model of bourgeois masculinity, namely the "educated men who went to sea to restore their health or seek adventure [i.e. whaling], experienced new modalities of masculinity outside the purview of gentlemanly society" (78). As a result, the whaling industry not only structured nineteenth-century experiences of gender through polar enterprise, but also presented an opportunity to enhance the public's perception of masculinity upon returning to the Euro-American world.
Seen from this perspective, the extreme climate of the Arctic region confirms its status as 'other' in geographical exploration. At a deeper level, however, arcticality refers to the various discursive practices that "characterize the Arctic as both the home of howling, exotic wilderness [and] strange, ancient wisdom" (202). Similar to Said's critical term Orientalism, the rhetoric of arcticality examines the ways in which the circumpolar frontier has been, and continues to be structured in Euro-American discourse. Broadly understood, Orientalism is a western mode of representation that "deals with [a non-western culture] by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism was a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over [non-Western] culture" (Said quoted in Ashcroft 168). Arcticality then is a mode of orientalist discourse extending beyond the "lower latitudes and temperate climates" of the western world to the polar North (Pálsson 280). This theoretical point is illustrated by Arctic anthropologist S. Columb GilFillan's article, "The Coldward Course of Progress," in which he interprets the increase in average polar temperature as an organic indication that the polar North is 'warming-up,' as it were, to undergo modernization. Judging from these scientific measurements, Gil Fillan draws the semantic equivalence between fluctuations in polar climate and western constructions of socioeconomic progress.
Pálsson argues that discourses of arcticality were imbued with scientific study to augment the western vision of polar empire: "[Arcticality] represented a peculiar combination of possibilism (the notion that culture modifies the environment), environmental determinism [the notion that the environment modifies human society], and Western dreams of frontiers and empire" (Pálsson 280, my emphasis). Claiming that these scientific-anthropological theories are "tinged with racism," Pálsson cites the nineteenth-century Arctic anthropologist Vilhjalmur Stefansson's1 monograph, The Northward Course of Empire, which concludes with a vociferous call for the modernization of the polar North:
As a gendered discourse, Stefansson's rhetoric of arcticality understands the polar North as a virginal frontier bereft of its own historical record, therefore a kind of tabula rasa awaiting Euro-America to inscribe its narrative of modernization.
Modernization, Liminality and Inuit Women
Prior to the infiltration of western values via polar enterprise, Inuit gender roles reflected a "mystique of reciprocity," which sharply contrasted from the dominant narrative of western patriarchy (Pálsson 285). Janet Billson's Inuit Women: Their Powerful Spirit in a Century of Change defines this reciprocity in detail:
The [Inuit] gender calculus was elegantly simple: If the woman lacked skill in making warm clothing, the man would freeze to death on the hunt. If the man did not hunt well, the woman could not make clothing to protect
These clearly demarcated realms of labor were not designed to circumscribe women to a set of roles, but constituted a traditional mode of spousal responsibility that ensured survival in the harsh climate. In fact, the mutual importance and recognition of Inuit women balanced the power of Inuit men: "Men viewed women not as inferior but as having a "different job." The skills of one balanced the skills of the other. The Inuit do not describe these role differences in terms of nature and biology but the necessity and workability" (37). Another illustration of the Inuit balance of power between gender is a social practice anthropologists have termed, "role-crossover" (44). Succinctly defined, Billson writes: "Inuit women remain a strong relationship with the land: some women have been and are known as skilled hunters. Likewise, Inuit men maintain a strong relationship with the family and community: male midwives were and are not unknown" (44). For example, if a man's wife was ill, he would perform ostensibly female tasks, such as sewing or cooking. Collaboration and flexibility was the cornerstone of a conjugal Inuit relationship.
The arrival of Euro-American whalers in the mid-nineteenth century undergirded a dramatic shift in Inuit gender roles. Western contact with the Inuit did not reflect the dominant pattern of violent colonial occupation. One possible explanation for this unique colonial interaction is that polar explorers depended on the Inuit as a source of survival wisdom and guidance. Instead, western values were introduced psychosocially through the colonization of the woman's mind. One Inuit woman expresses: "We had everything dumped on us. New beliefs. Traditional ways cut off. They said, "You're going to live like the white man, with the white man's laws"" (qtd. in Billson 121). This psychosocial effect, or liminality, left an indelible imprint on Inuit women's consciousness. Liminality is rooted in the Latin word, 'limen,' meaning threshold. Liminality, as it is expressed here, is a feeling of 'neither here nor there,' or one's spatial occupation between two or more social worlds neither of which one wholly belongs to. These sentiments speak to Inuit women's in-between state, both as women and Indigenous natives, situated between the western and polar worlds.
Among other natural resources harvested in the Canadian Arctic, whalers extracted baleen, a pliable whalebone that was shipped to the Euro-American world to be processed into corsetry. Baleen provided the frame of the corset, which was a garment worn by women to ensure a desired bodily image. Most importantly, however, a woman's tightly-laced corset symbolized her degree of purity and virtuosity, while a loose corset indicated a 'loose' woman. Within the male-dominated polar enterprise, baleen was an significant material in that it revealed women's oppression in two entirely different cultural worlds. That is, the extraction of this dominant material simultaneously introduced western patriarchy to the Inuit, while sustaining popular Euro-American fashion designed to suppress female sexuality. This distant parallel suggests that the activity of the male-oriented polar industry had far-reaching implications for women, and was not the strict, regionally-confined enterprise historians have purported it to have been.
The liminality Inuit women felt was exacerbated by the role they had to play during encounters with polar enterprise. First, Indigenous women were expected to produce warm clothing and food for explorers and whaling crews. This shifted women's focus from the domestic sphere to the needs of foreigners. Second, it was common for crewmen to initiate intimate relationships with Indigenous women. Polar explorer, Robert E. Peary, promulgated "an instrumentalist view of the sexual role of Indigenous women, dispensing with them to his employees as if they were his personal property" (Pálsson 205). Peary, among others, insisted that it was "an absolute necessity to render the men contented," and, that "female companionship" was "essential" because it "causes greater contentment as a matter of both physical and mental health and the retention of the top notch of manhood" (Peary quoted in Pálsson, 205). Significantly, the gendered discourses of arcticality sustained Inuit women's liminality as they occupied the space between 'wife/mother' and 'concubine;' 'native' and 'other'.
These adulterous relationships disrupted Inuit marriages and often produced illegitimate children, but because most crewmen had families of their own in the Euro- American world, Inuit women were left alone to raise their children. As a result, whalers' concubines and children remained a surreptitious second-life. Third, the introduction of alcohol aggravated the widening gap between Inuit men and women, and 'woman' from 'self.' In 1871, a Moravian newspaper focusing on Inuit missionary work cited the lasting impacts of Euro-American whalers: "The introduction of spiritous liquor" has had a "very injurious, and evidently leading to their rapid extermination" (186). Alcohol and its concomitant consequences, such as addiction, recidivism and prolonged domestic abuse, became a pervasive problem throughout the Canadian Arctic. Women were, and continue to be victims of alcohol's pernicious influences.
Although these problems originated in the mid nineteenth-century, Inuit women are still feeling their impact on daily life. In particular, Inuit women continue to be victims of sexual and domestic abuse. A recent Nunavut RCMP (Royal Canadian
Inuit Women and Nationhood
Inuit women realized that their voices needed a political platform if these issues were to be successfully ameliorated. The official establishment of the Nunavut territory in 1999 was a defining historical moment for the Inuit community; it both inducted the Inuit into the discourse of Canadian nationalism and institutionalized Inuit politics. Additionally, it brought Inuit women to the forefront of national politics and revealed their status as powerless members of the Inuit and larger Canadian community. Isabel Altamirano-Jiménez is highly critical of Inuit politics and its complicit exclusion of native women during the 1999 nation-building process. Her paper, "Whose Homeland, Whose Voices?" examines the intersection of nationalism, gender and tradition in an effort to expose women's historically subordinate role within the dominant narrative of Inuit nation-building. In doing so, she traces the exclusion of women in the nation- building process back to the contentious debate surrounding the term "tradition."
One of the most pressing concerns for modern-day Inuit women, however, has been resisting the male-centered polity that misappropriates and circulates the rhetoric of tradition. Altamirano-Jiménez states: "The fundamental idea behind the Nunavut land claims agreement was that territorial institutions, state structures, and political process should reflect the nature, values, and tradition of Inuit society" (Altamirano- Jiménez 131). Through a deliberate reconstruction of tradition, she argues, Inuit men have evoked an inaccurate history of traditional gender roles. For example, men's role as hunters has been politically codified as a tradition in which men are the natural leaders of the community. In doing so, men can simultaneously dismiss Indigenous women's rights as a threat to the Inuit liberation movement and embrace western gender roles introduced by polar enterprise. In effect, Inuit men have hijacked tradition as a way of securing women's role within the domestic sphere and their own position as government officials. From this perspective, tradition is the fulcrum that balances political power between Inuit men and women. Clarifying her point, she asserts: "The question is not whether there is such a thing as a homogenous tradition or past, rather, the question is who is mobilizing what in the articulation of the past, deploying what identities and representations, and in the name of what political purposes" (Jiménez 129). Consequently, the obfuscation of Inuit tradition leaves women without a voice, rendering them powerless.
One way Inuit women can counter the misappropriated rhetoric of tradition is by articulating their own definition of the term; namely, by recovering the historical continuity of the 'role-crossover' discussed earlier. In doing so, indigenous women can draw on this past tradition to evoke the reciprocity and flexibility of gender roles that once sustained the power balance between men and women. This would mobilize a counter-discourse by reintroducing role-crossover as a progressive political model, one in which native women can move beyond their liminality and make valuable contributions as political leaders.
Towards an Inuit Feminism
The clash of indigenous perspectives on gender and constructions of western feminism has prevented the formation of an recognizable Inuit feminism. Jane Billson once again points out that "like many other Native women in North America, [Inuit women] find mainstream feminist notions, such as the such as the inevitably and universality of male subordination of women, irrelevant and lacking in the explanatory power for gender relations in their culture" (220). Inuit women are reluctant to adopt the postulates of western feminism because it risks ethnic solidarity. If Inuit women wish to address women's issues without weakening ethnic solidarity, perhaps drawing on traditional Inuit ethics may provide a starting point from which women can begin working through oppression and liminal status.
Critic Homi Bhabha employs the term liminality within a postcolonial framework to examine how "the liminal can become a space of symbolic interaction" wherein "cultural change may occur" (Bhabha 131). As such, an "interstitial perspective" is a critical outlook Inuit women can adopt when navigating the space between fixed identities, such as 'self' and 'other,' 'male' and 'female.' The key question then is how Inuit women can translate Bhabha's notion of "symbolic interaction" into a praxis that enhances women's political agency within the Inuit and larger Canadian community. As Bhabha suggests, liminality is a space of resistance wherein a dialectical 'play' between thresholds, borders and limens stresses the instability of fixed identity; that is, occupying the space between the defined borders of identity is an anti-structural one.
Taking Bhabha's dialectical play of difference one step further, however, we can ground its perspective on the Inuit practice of nakli. In doing so, Inuit women can maintain ethnic solidarity and address women's issues. Nakli is the Inuktitut word for "beings-to-be-nurtured"; its ethical logic embraces nurturant feelings and mutual understanding over hostile feelings of difference and opposition (defined in Burnford 189). As an ethical logic, nakli recognizes the borderline as a symbol of separation, but most importantly, the meeting point of difference and opposition. As such, nakli understands difference to be relational. Without subsuming difference, nakli maintains that every human is a being-to-be-nurtured, therefore understanding difference as a human commonality that transcends binaries, such as 'man,' 'woman'; 'self' and 'other'. In the emergence of an Inuit feminism, Bhabha's notion of symbolic interaction becomes an ethical imperative similar to nakli, a communal nurturing and responsibility that moves borderline, 'in-between' identities closer to the horizon of cultural intelligibility and equality.
Ironically, the Inuktitut word for the Inuit homeland, Nunavut, or 'our land,' indicates a national reciprocity, balance and equality that does not yet exist for all its citizens. Today, Inuit women continue to face the challenges of cultural liminality and marginalized status in Nunavut society. In conclusion, nakli may be the starting point in rethinking women's liminal position in society and how it might ground a public model of government that equally represents both men and women. In understanding liminality, the main challenge Inuit women face today is finding the balance between collective indigenous and individual democratic rights so that Nunavut truly becomes the land of its people.
Altamirano-Jiménez, Isabel. "Whose Homeland, Whose Voices?" Indigenous Women in
Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. Post-colonial Studies: The Key
Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994. Print.
Billson, Janet, and Kyra Mancini. Inuit Women: Their Spirit in a Century of Change.
Burnford, Sheila. One Woman's Arctic. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1972. Print.
Pálsson, Gísli. "Hot Bodies in Cold Zones: Arctic Exploration." Ed. Sverker Sörlin.
Thomson, Shawn. The Fortress of American Solitude: Robinson Crusoe and Antebellum Culture. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2009. Print.
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