An Interview With Arctic Culture Specialist, Dianne Chisholm

Dianne Chisholm (D.Phil., Oxford) is a writer, photographer, and Professor Emeritus of English literature, whose ongoing research engages the environmental humanities and Arctic/Inuit cultural studies. Dianne has journeyed extensively through arctic Canada and Scandinavia, and especially east Greenland, whose ice fjords she continues to explore by foot, kayak and dogsled in the company of Tunumiut hunters. She is concurrently working on various art projects, including “Arctic Circlings,” a web presentation and live performance of nomadic photo-prose-poems, and “Sermilik,” a journal of meditations on her travels in East Greenland

Dianne will be joining us on board as an Arctic Expert for three voyages: Journey into the North – Labrador, Torngats & Greenland, Classic Northwest Passage & Greenland – Westbound, and Classic Northwest Passage & Greenland – Eastbound.

Can you tell us about your first voyage to the north?

My first voyage north was to Pangnirtung and Auyuittuk National Park, Baffin Island during midsummer 2010. I met up with a friend and colleague who was running a “bush school” for university students from the south. She introduced me to various village elders and let me partake in seal-lamp lighting, sealskin curing and storytelling sessions. After a week “at school,” I boated to the head of Pangnirtung Fjord and trekked up and down Akshayak Pass through a glacier gouged valley of meltwater rivers, subsiding permafrost, sliding moraines and towering, flat-topped mountains. It was here, in the village and on the land, where everyone and everything was affected and afflicted by climatic turbulence that I began to wonder at northerners’ resilience.

What is it you find yourself missing the most when you have finished a stint in the arctic regions?

What I miss most after a stint in the arctic is the weather– weather in the Inuit sense, or Sila, an all-involving gathering of forces: land, wind, breath, spirit, space. Out on the bedrock tundra, ice fjord, dwarf-spruce/tarn-pocked taiga or Greenland ice sheet and moving on foot, by canoe, kayak or dogsled, I feel exposed and propelled by the cosmos itself, a thinking-, dynamic-, living-being so much vaster and complex than finite human knowing. Then, too, I miss northern/Inuit ways of reading the land and navigating its volatility with mindful attunement, silatuniq.

What is your favourite aspect of Northern Landscape?

My favourite aspects of the Northern Landscape are the dynamic morphology of sea ice and the visual phantasmagoria of arctic light. As a photographer, I am ever surprised and enthralled by the sculptural, textural and chromatic formations/variations of sea ice and iceberg ice, and by the spectral vicissitudes of ice fogs, sun dogs, auroras. Inuit have cultivated a comprehensive and adaptative sea-ice lexicon which I am determined to learn, at least perceptually.

You have been on many expeditions of your own in arctic regions, can you tell us which oneis/was a particular favourite of yours?

My first expedition to East Greenland in 2015 was nothing less than a revelation. It entailed a ten-day trek from the head of Tasiilaq Fjord through the pinnacled, glaciated, moraine-riddled valley of Tasiilap Kua to Sermilik Fjord, followed by cliff-scrambling, tidal beach-crossing and ridge-routing for another eighty kilometres along the east shore. On our descent from the valley, we sighted the Greenland ice sheet for the first time, along with seven, massive outlet glaciers and their calamitous, chock-a-block, iceberg discharge. From as far as ten kilometres away we could hear Sermilik’s thundering cacophony of calving, colliding, exploding ice. Furthermore, we were shocked to stumble upon green twine, a sign that hunters had somehow boated this far up the fjord. Since then, I have returned to Sermilik Fjord four times, to both shores, in different seasons and for different purposes – to trek, to hunt, to fish and always to explore.

What is your favourite aspect of the Canadian Arctic Culture? About Greenland Culture?

What most impresses me most about Canadian Arctic culture is its production of new media art.I’m thinking particularly of the astounding output of feature and documentary video, as well as circumpolar/global broadcasting, in Inuktitut, by IsumaTV (formerly Isuma Productions) and its affiliate, Arnait (Women’s) Video Productions, based in Igloolik, Nunavut. IsumaTV and ArnaitVideo Productions bring traditional storytelling and innovative narrative montage, to ensure the survivance of regional and pan-Inuit culture. My favourite aspect of East Greenlandic culture is its sled-dog culture. Dogs, qimmit, are still very much part of everyday life in East Greenlandic settlements, where semi-subsistence seal hunting and ice fishing require travel by dog sled. Sled-dog culture is undergoing both decline (as a hunting practice) and revival (as a competitive sport and tourist attraction), and I’m curious to see how it develops.

What are the major cultural differences, if any, between Greenland and the Canadian Arctic?

Greenland and the Canadian Arctic are both Inuit homelands and both Greenlandic and Canadian Inuit derive their culture and identity from centuries of living on the land as nomadic hunters. At the same time, different homelands and different territories within homelands produce significant cultural differences, including different land practices and linguistic differences (e.g. the Inuktitut dialects of West Greenland [Kallaalisut] and East Greenland [Tunumiisut] differ significantly in vocabulary and pronunciation, the latter having no lexicon or formal written script). Cultural differences between Greenland and the Canadian Arctic derive furthermore from their different colonial histories and struggles for autonomy. Greenland attained limited self-government in 2008 (after 184 years of Danish annexation) and is currently lobbying for full autonomy, while, as of 2019, Nunavut is working out a “final devolution” of responsibilities and powers with the Canadian Government. Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (Inuit traditional knowledge) is an official epistemological component of Nunavut self-governance and a political-practical basis for Inuit cultural resilience, creativity and decolonization. Fluency and literacy in Inuktitut are vital to Nunavut governance and cultural survivance, whereas Kallaalisut (West Greenlandic) is a chief centralizing instrument of Greenlandic sovereignty and a problem for regional cultural survivance – especially for Tunumiit. Both Greenland and the Canadian Arctic are enjoying new waves of contemporary, cosmopolitan art, including in printmaking (Cape Dorset), video/cinema (Igloolik), music (Nuuk, Iqaluit) and literature (Nuuk, Iqaluit).

In the years that you have been traveling to the arctic, have you seen any major changes happening, culturally and environmentally?

In the nine years, I’ve been travelling the arctic, which isn’t very long in terms of a traveller’s lifespan and not even a wink in geological time, I’ve seen a substantial change in the icescape. Snæfellsjökull glacier (which I’ve flown over a dozen times on my way to and from Kulusuk) has visibly shrunk, the ice road between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk (which I drove on its last season in 2016) has melted away forever, and the Greenland Ice Sheet is cascading down East Greenland’s outlet glaciers in unprecedented volumes (which I measure in icebergs flowing down Sermilik Fjord). East Greenland hunters tell me that the melting of the sea ice has made dog sledding, seal hunting and ice fishing too precarious to continue their (semi-)subsistence hunting. Many have been forced to move to town for work in the market economy. At the same time, I’ve witnessed a meteoric rise in tourism: southerners coming to see the ice before it disappears. Greenland’s and Iceland’s melting glaciers are affecting regional culture. Tunu hunters are learning English and becoming tour guides and interpreters or joining commercial cod-fleets in warming Atlantic waters. Icelanders are cashing-in on the booming icescape-market while invigilating the death of “old friends” in poetry and song (glaciers have featured in Icelandic literature and lore since the Sagas). Greenland imagines an autonomous future funded by mineral resources made accessible to mining by the melting ice sheet, whereas Iceland seems determined to both sell out its hydro and geothermal riches to global interests and intensify land, language and heritage conservation.

You explore the potential that art may affect human change in terms of facing climatechange – can you elaborate on how you are exploring this question?

If science evidences the empirical realities of epochal global warming, including mass extinction and global habitat devastation, it does little to rouse change. The catastrophe is that even as we know what’s coming, we mostly carry on as usual. Since art works with sensations, not just facts, it has the potential to affect people’s thinking and to make them feel intimately, if not responsibly, connected to places and communities at the forefront of climate change. In 2017 I started giving public presentations that combine photography and poetry to affect the way audiences see, feel and think about the Arctic. I narrate my travels using the collective first-person “we” to include viewers-listeners as guests or inhabitants of the lands I visit. At visual close range and with lyrical intimacy, I place them where they can viscerally imagine how intensely turbulent arctic climate can be and how resourcefully people who live there use their adaptive traditions to meet and accommodate change. I am also writing a book-length journal of meditations on my East Greenland travels, which I’ve provisionally titled “Sermilik” (meaning place of glaciers) which I hope to publish with an arctic-focused press.

What are you looking forward to most on your expeditions with One Ocean Expeditions?

What I most look forward to on my expedition with One Ocean Expeditions is a chance to engage fellow travellers in conversations concerning all matters of arctic culture as we travel. I look forward to prospects of deepening the travel experience, of turning first and raw exposures into shared, reflective insight.

What you can expect to learn with Dianne Chisholm onboard her three voyages with One Ocean Expeditions:

Where are Nunavut, Nunavik, Nunatsiavut? Who are the Beothuk? The Tuniit? The Skraelings? What stories do Inuit tell about their encounters with the fated Franklin Expedition? About their own fateful encounters with Qallunaat explorers, whalers and missionaries? How do northerners experience global warming? How do Inuit and scientists dialogue about climate change? How are Inuit adapting new media to circulate traditional knowledge and decolonize collective memory? What does a globalized Arctic look like? Why should a changing north matter to southerners?

Our Arctic/Inuit Culture Program provides an onboard, multi-faceted forum to consider these and related concerns, including- 

• A regular “happy hour” group discussion, prepared and moderated by our cultural specialist to address subjects of topical importance to the people and places we visit as we visit them

• A recommended reading list, circulated in advance of each tour, to focus and enhance discussion• recommended reading includes novels, sagas, memoir, literary journalism, young adult fiction, oral history and storytelling, poetry, ethnography, and more

 • A series of evening film screenings, featuring documentaries and features by and about Canadian and Greenlandic Inuit

 • A session of listening to recordings of Inuit rap, rock, country/folk and experimental music 

• A map session (or two) of consulting the Inuit Nunangat (homeland) map

Have you always been fascinated by the arctic and arctic culture? Interested in travelling with Dianne Chisholm? Speak with your preferred travel agent, or contact us directly here.