Cultural Appropriation

There is a lot of concern in the world nowadays about cultural appropriation, which the Cambridge English Dictionary defines as “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.” The implication is that any cultural exchange is a kind of transaction, in which a person from a dominant culture appropriates, or more correctly misappropriates, what by rights belongs to the dominated culture.

Amundsen et ses co-équipiers ont vécu parmi les Inuits Netsilik pendant deux ans - illustration par Iona Fournier-Tombs Iona Fournier-Tombs made this illustration of the Gjoa wintering next to an igloo

Iona Fournier-Tombs made this illustration of the Gjoa wintering next to an igloo

This film is about something completely different: how to share between diverse cultures, without domination, exploitation or ill feeling. Roald Amundsen and his fellow crew-members spent two years living among the Netsilik Inuit.  The Norwegians shared with the Inuit, who shared back. Amundsen never ceased praising the Inuit for their ingenuity and resilience. The Inuit remember him well to this day.

The secret of this mutually satisfying relationship, I believe, lies in the fact Amundsen was a Norwegian. Enough of Norway is north of 60 for Norwegians to be considered a polar people in their own right. From a practical point of view, it made a lot of sense for budding polar explorers such as Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen to learn the techniques of ski expeditions from the Sami (formerly called “Lapps”).

Bøe - Sami on skis in northern lights, 1885

Frants Bøe – Sami on skis under Northern Lights, 1885

It made just as much sense for Nansen and Amundsen to learn the techniques of dog sledding from the Inuit. Skiing and dog-sledding are described in Norse literature from a thousand years ago. This means that in a cultural sense, neither technique was “new” to Nansen and Amundsen. Both men met with great success as polar explorers, but their real starting-point was their own ignorance. They knew they had to learn from the masters of polar techniques. This attitude turned the concept of domination upside down. And it meant learning not from a book, but directly from the people who best knew how to survive in the polar regions – the aboriginal Sami and Inuit.

Dog musher George Konana, Gjoa Haven

Dog musher George Konana, Gjoa Haven: photo by GT

A century and more ago, traveling in the polar regions was like going to another planet. It was a life and death proposition. As I discovered making this film, the polar regions can still be extreme.

Sun Dogs over the Beaufort Sea

Sun dogs over the Beaufort Sea: photo by GT