by Alexander Castleton, PhD Student in Sociology at Carleton University, Canada
Inuit Hunting Stories of the Day (IHSOTD from now on) is a virtual community formed in the social networking site Facebook. Its creator, Nick Illauq, pointed out in an interview for Nunavut's news outlet Nunatsiaq News that it "makes Inuit more proud to go hunting after seeing all those wonderful pictures and videos." (Dawson, 2013). As its name indicates, in this group people are invited to share content in relation to hunting. Fed with different content uploaded by users such as pictures, videos or comments, IHSOTD is a repository of Inuit hunting activities across the Arctic. Inuit people or anyone who is interested can join the group through commenting on pictures, asking questions, and engaging in conversations, or one can just lurk. As of now (October 23th, 2014), it has 5415 members. Caribous, Arctic chars, maaqtaq, seals, aakutuk, all-terrain vehicles, walruses, polar bears, geese, different Arctic birds, are what I am able to see as I go back and forth from the Facebook group in my laptop to the Microsoft Word document while I write these lines. People armed with their rifles and cameras or digital devices register the moments and share this content for anyone such as myself, sitting in my desk in Ottawa, to see. Since it is a public group, anyone can access the group, see its members, and its posts.
IHSOTD provides a platform of multimedia communication in which the Arctic is culturally shared by over 5000 people. The majority of members of this Facebook group are Inuit -- judging by their last name and place of residence. Christensen (2006, 2003) observed that Inuit can translate offline identities online, establishing a cultural boundary by displaying content such as language or images online that relates only to Inuit people. Thus, instead of being a place of de-localization and lack of roots in a global culture (see, for instance, Negroponte, 1995) the internet seems to be a place for the assertion of identity for anyone to see; and this seems to be the case in IHSOTD. It is a sample of how a little bit of cyberspace has been appropriated and filled with Inuit content, displaying images of animals, landscapes, traditional practices, and conversations about the land. The site shows that indigenous peoples, such as the Inuit, exist in the North as a physical place and also in the flowing space of the Internet network (see Castells, 2009, 2000).
This Facebook group plays the role of a virtual community by pulling together Inuit from across the Arctic, who share an identity related to the land and hunting. The access to such content provides a sense of identification with a continuing essence of Inuit-ness, attached to traditional practices that play an important role in the identification of Inuit culture and the making of cultural boundaries. It "makes Inuit more proud to go hunting after seeing all those wonderful pictures and videos" as Nick Illauq said to Nunatsiaq News (Dawson, 2013). He added: "This site brings everybody together and in the future, it will become even more important in fighting Greenpeace and governments". (ibid.). The point is for Inuit people to come together, sharing their stories: "Inuit are a minority and this makes them stronger by combining forces and being one voice". (ibid.). Inhabiting a place in cyberspace is a way of building Inuit roots within an increasingly globalized society. Furthermore, an attachment to place and a means to feel part of a larger history through the practice of traditional activities speak to what the core of being Inuit is today. Social media such as Facebook is an important part of the Inuit media-scape (Appadurai, 1997) in which this identity is negotiated.
In his study of the seal hunt controversy, George Wenzel (1991) stated that Westerners have defined the parameters in which to analyze Inuit culture. The anti-sealers argued that Inuit "are now just like us", because "the artifacts that made Inuit what they were are no longer part of the visible present" (Wenzel, 1991: 6). This kind of 'ethno-nostalgia' that the anti-sealers promote ignores the fact that "adaptation to new technologies and social features have also been a part of the Inuit cultural dynamic for at least one thousand years" (Wenzel, 1991: 27). The ignorance of this fact would establish Inuit peoples as frozen in time and as living museum-like pieces in order for them to be 'authentic'. Western perspectives like this fail to understand what culture is, and idealizes indigenous peoples as simple, primitive, and stuck in time. Culture means something porous, flexible, fluid, and susceptible to change. It means cultural adaptation to technical changes which has been the subsistence pattern of Inuit across time (Wenzel, 1991). Inuit did not become 'less Inuit' because they hunted with rifles rather than with spears, bows and arrows; or when snowmobiles became the principal means of transportation for them. It is the appropriation of technology which has to be understood in the broader social context, a context of change that goes all the way back to the first contacts.
A notion grasping this interaction between technology, identity, and cultural practices in its multiple dimensions is Aporta and Higgs' (2005) "ecology of technology". This concept starts from the premise that in order to understand the impact or the socio-cultural significance of the introduction of technology in its full complexity, it is necessary to have a look at the larger picture of the social relations in which the technology is introduced. To illustrate this concept, Aporta & Higgs (2005: 739) exemplify the snowmobile from its inception – a most perfect technology to solve the tension between the process of sedentarization fostered by the Canadian government with the establishment of settlements across the Arctic, and outpost seasonal camps in which Inuit hunt. The snowmobile allows for great speed of transportation across the tundra so life-in-town and hunting activities can be reconciled. At the same time, the appropriation of snowmobiles prompted Inuit to seek wage employment in order to be able to afford the expenses of going hunting using the snowmobiles. This way, "the snowmobile was a facilitator in the new cultural setting of the Inuit" (Aporta & Higgs, 2005: 740). The idea of an ecology of technology means that technologies do not have a deterministic relation to social organization and cultural patterns, rather it means that technical devices are introduced into pre-exiting social conditions which interplay with the technology, negotiating its adaptation and outcome.
With the introduction of ICTs such as the Internet and social media, the ecology is one of globalization. Social media appears to be a multimedia communication tool that is collectively appropriated as part of being Inuit in a globalized world. In fact, having a presence in cyberspace is essential in order to fight colonial perspectives which do not understand Inuit culture and its subsistence patterns. In this sense Wachowich (2006: 137) argues, "[s]ubsistence, it is surmised, must extend beyond concepts of the ecological and the material to incorporate the social exchanges, values, and actions that are part of modern hunting communities." Technology is furthermore immersed in this ecology, whereby the Internet is a primordial setting for claiming rights, influencing representations, and talking back to colonizing forces in the West. Here I want to recall the Declaration of Principles of the World Summit on the Information Society, Article 15, of 2003: "In the evolution of the Information Society, particular attention must be given to the special situation of indigenous peoples, as well as to the preservation of their language and their cultural legacy". The appropriation of such technical devices means that Inuit identity has to be understood amid global processes where Inuit-ness is deployed. It is an ecology in which global and local are shuffled within constant iteration. Social media appears to be a very useful tool for preserving and asserting Inuit identity in the 21st century.
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Dawson, S. (2013). Facebook page records tales of the Inuit harvest. "This makes Inuit more proud to go hunting". Nunatsiaq News, NEWS: Around the Arctic January 25, 2013 - 2:43 pm. Available at: http://www.nunatsiaqonline.ca/stories/article/65674facebook_page_records_tales_of_the_inuit_harvest/
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