The Arctic Circumpolar Route

Mary Leeds Stapleton, Managing Director of the ACR
Box 12, Site 7, R.R. 8, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, T2J 2T9
Phone: (+1) 403.931.245; Fax: (+1) 403.931.2454

Virtual routes and pathways re-tell histories of indigenous northern peoples

The Arctic Circumpolar Route (ACR), sponsored by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) and the Arctic Institute of North America (AINA), joins UNESCO’s other international projects within the framework of the United Nations International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People and the United Nations Year of Dialogue among Civilisations (2001). UNESCO has shown leadership in demonstrating a comprehensive approach to cultural landscapes and landmarks, exemplified by the Silk and Spice Route, the Slave Route, and others. The ACR forms partnerships with community-based projects in the eight Arctic countries (Russia, U.S.A. [Alaska], Canada, Denmark [Greenland], Iceland, Finland, Sweden and Norway) to create wider awareness and to disseminate information about Arctic peoples, their traditions and priorities, from their own perspectives and in their own words. The ACR’s role is to facilitate information development and exchange, and to benefit Arctic peoples by collecting and conserving their stories. The purpose of the Route is to strengthen the natural bonds around the circumpolar area, to maintain dialogue with Arctic community stakeholders, and to bring shared interests into sharper focus. The ACR aims to bridge the gap between research and policy, providing leadership leading towards increased Arctic participation in the global context. Financial and technical strengths of the more populous South can be coordinated with the development of Northern-driven solutions which respect traditional pursuits and ways of life.

The process of developing and describing virtual pathways
Electronic communication offers an opportunity to incorporate northern history and tradition into the mainstream of global knowledge systems, without negatively impacting established Arctic lifeways. Small populations, large geographical areas, and hostile climatic conditions are no longer obstacles.
It is important that these stories be told from the perspective of Northerners, balanced with interpretations of traders, scientists, explorers and adventurers who have visited and lived there. Markers and artifacts along the virtual trails and pathways, in their original context, can be described in order to retain the meaning and significance of journeys past and present. A prototype is the symbolic “meshkanu” (Elizabeth’s Walk, Indigenous Affairs 4/01), the making of a path to the future through retracing the steps of the past. Innovative partnerships, techniques, and cooperative arrangements shed new light on the history of the world.

Traditional Pathways
The stories of the circumpolar northern peoples and their unique cultural heritage are among the least familiar histories in the world today. The cold climate which makes these regions inhospitable to outsiders has also preserved the evidence of ancient cultures, and of routes and pathways by which cultural dialogue has taken place over millennia. Relatively recent contact with “southern” Asian and European cultures means that traditional languages and lifeways have endured – sometimes marginally – into the 21st Century.
At the same time, Arctic dwellers are not at present full participants in the economic wealth of their countries. There is a deep division between the riches of the South and the poverty of the North. Arctic peoples seek support for global inclusion, without weakening their sources of strength from the past. There is a need among indigenous and non-indigenous peoples for accurate, accessible information among northern communities to vitalize heritage, to share issues and solutions, and to validate values. This information also informs non-northerners of Arctic realities and priorities, leading to better environmental and cultural policies and practices.
Seasonal migrations, trade, and overlapping land use by many groups, have led to the establishment and maintenance of trails, pathways, and routes on land, sea and ice. The names on Eurasian maps reflect trade or administrative centres established by outsiders. Gathering points tell the stories of longstanding uses. Traditional place names along pathways tell of sacred sites, significant land forms, historic events, along travel routes; and reawaken the histories that have passed orally from generation to generation.

Developing the Route as a series of “nodes” and “bridges”
The ACR adopts and assists significant projects which have been launched by communities, and therefore directly reflect their values and priorities. Some partner projects are also conducted in partnership with institutions in the “south”. The priority of the ACR is the identification, conservation, and communication of environmental, education, social and cultural information which incorporates local knowledge and ways of knowing into new communication techniques. Arctic resources are being preserved and developed through a thematic digitized collection, managed electronically. An interpretive framework will incrementally relate these resources, from an Arctic perspective, to the circumpolar world’s history. Northern peoples benefit by retaining, safeguarding, and caring for their heritage; acquiring advanced skills and techniques; and sharing knowledge with related organizations and individuals. ACR participants, related by media and presenting information they choose to share, are the circumpolar “route”. Each partner is a “node”, connected to others by virtual “bridges”, their shared values and interrelationships.

Partnerships around the circumpolar world

The ACR utilizes the Internet to present information on community projects which tell the stories of Northerners’ from their own perspective; and whenever possible, in their own languages. As new media and technology expand northward, even the most isolated communities will have the opportunity to participate in textual and visual dialogues with the world at large.
The Arctic Circumpolar Route adopts projects which have the demonstrated support of Arctic communities, and assists them in any way they request. Often there is a need for financial and technical support from outside the region. Northern projects located in small communities are vulnerable to the loss of key participants or to natural disasters. The ACR provides continuity and recognition to enable projects to reach their goals, and to create and disseminate content to an international audience. Partnerships are formed to achieve the following:

The projects described below are presently partners in the Arctic Circumpolar Route. Incrementally the Arctic Circumpolar Route will add similar projects from other areas, reinforcing the natural links among these peoples. Using the range of media available today, the ACR lays the groundwork for a genuine meeting of the peoples that inhabit the Arctic, and for those whose interests take them there. Ultimately, like UNESCO’s other routes, the ACR will illustrate the give and take of cultures caused by the movement of people, ideas and values. It is an alchemy which transforms not only the Arctic, but our world.

The Arctic Circumpolar Route (ACR) is a network of pathways through eight circumpolar countries through which world cultures have timelessly interacted.

Case study:
Lessons from the Land, Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada:
Lessons From the Land tells the stories of aboriginal peoples of the Northwest Territories through interactive maps and activities related to the lands they know, and from which their stories come. The first module describes the Ida’a Trail of the Dogrib people, between Great Slave Lake and Great Bear Lake. A second module, now being developed, tells the story of Nuligak (also known as Bob Cockney), a member of the Inuvialuit from the Mackenzie River Delta. Each module focuses on a geographical area and its trails. In the future, stories of other peoples will be developed so that a tapestry of cultural heritage is made available to a wide audience.
For the viewer, the map of the NWT is marked with sites along significant trails which can be “clicked” to obtain an overview of the land. Along the trail are place names used by native people, highlighting landmarks or events which help trail users to know their way. Photographs, films, audiotapes, and text are used to create a dynamic picture of each region on the Internet. An especially interesting aspect of the use of multimedia technology are re-creations of traditional buildings, including a walking tour of the interiors. A virtual Elder invites the visitor in, and suggests places to visit. Older learners have more text at a higher comprehension level. For younger users, virtual guides emphasize narrative and travel.
The program is interactive and allows users to choose a local and several levels of information. Steering Committees participate in the initial stages. These are made up of community members and teachers who collaborate with the PWNHC in bringing together stories, photographs, audio and other materials. The audiences are the general public, teachers, and students in elementary school and high school. Text is available in English, French, and the traditional indigenous language of the locality (see

ACR’s first intended project in Russia: Vitalization of the Itelmen language

The Itelmen tongue is the language of the ancient people of Kamchatka. The Itelmen and their language were marginalized during the period of Russian settlement. There are some 1,500 Itelmens living in central Western Kamchatka. However, only 35 fluent speakers of thew western dialect remain, mainly Elders.
Since 1990, there has been a movement to revitalize Itelmen language and culture. Building on the past ten years of community efforts, there is an opportunity to save and teach the language. Community groups have grown spontaneously, and preparation has begun to conserve, teach, and publish the Itelmen language (see ANSIPRA Bulletin No. 6B, p. 14; In Russian: Мир коренных народов - живая арктика” No. 8, 2001, p. 73). The Arctic Circumpolar Route/ Arctic Institute of North America (AINA) and the State University of Novosibirsk, Laboratory for Siberian Indigenous Languages of the Tomsk State Pedagogical University, Institute of Mathematics, Novosoft Company, propose to create a program to support and expand this initiative. The goals will be as follows:

The overall purposes of language revitalization are to reinforce self-determination and pride of identity of a valued socio-cultural heritage, and to provide information to government and industry to instigate positive reforms in public policy and practice in regard to Russian indigenous populations.

Steps are being taken to raise funding.

Conclusions: Requirements for Progress

New uses of media, and access to them, are required to meet the potential of re-telling northern stories. Traditional oral societies suggest extended use of audio and visual tools. Innovative approaches to developing content appropriate to the Arctic need to incorporate Elders, youth, and other village dwellers. It is essential that northern residents actively participate in all research and reporting which concerns their interests. Clear principles for participation, disclosure, ownership, and ongoing sensitivity need to be developed and implemented.
Holistic research is an approach well suited to the development of virtual pathways and routes. The incorporation of traditional knowledge and academic study are not always familiar to either researchers or funders. There is a clear need to develop funding programs which respond to the remote and northern context, while broadening understanding with government, industry, and the academic community on the value and uses of local and traditional knowledge.
The active participation and generous sharing of Arctic partners indicates that there is potential for further expansion of the ACR. The partners at this time include societies representing Inuit and aboriginal communities in the Arctic regions of Canada, Greenland, Norway and Russia, as well as non-Arctic researchers.

Do you know of a project which could provide a link to broaden circumpolar knowledge?

The ACR is interested in receiving information on existing projects which can help to add “building blocks” to tell the stories of the circumpolar world. Please see the Issues and Ideas section for considerations for participation in the ACR. Arctic peoples will benefit by retaining, safeguarding, and caring for their heritage; acquiring advanced skills and techniques; and sharing knowledge with related organizations and individuals.