Breaking with the Eurocentric View

Breaking with the Eurocentric View

In making The Blinding Sea, I often ran into Eurocentric views of exploration, as if to be an explorer in the polar regions, one had first of all to be a modern white male living in a city. By investigating the Inuit knowledge from which Roald Amundsen learned during his two-year apprenticeship in Nunavut, I realized more strongly than before that Aboriginals were innovative explorers in their own right. Amundsen was gracious enough always to acknowledge everything the Inuit had taught him.

I enjoyed filming scenes of dog-sledding in the Arctic, as in the image at the top of this blog, from a film shoot I did on the ice pack just off Baffin Island. With all their strength and enthusiasm, the huskies simply took my breath away. I learned during my historical researches that dog-sledding is common to many polar peoples. Even Marco Polo wrote about men driving dog-teams on the frozen steppes of Central Asia, in the late 13th century.

A dog team during a white-out, just off Baffin Island, during the filming of The Blinding Sea

But what about the combination of skiing and dog-sledding?

Two Norsemen and a Norsewoman hunting on skis, accompanied by a dog. Thanks to Marie Frenette for hand-colouring this woodcut

It is conceivable that Aboriginal Sami, formerly called Lapps, also used dogsleds alongside skis. At any rate, the woodcut above, from a masterful compendium of Scandinavian folk knowledge published in 1555 by the Swedish bishop Olaus Magnus, shows two Norsemen and a Norsewoman hunting on skis, accompanied by a dog. Of course the skis, as portrayed, are not much like our skis nowadays, at least according to the artists preparing these illustrations.

Now, consider the copper plate engraving below. It shows that the Khanty, formerly called Ostyak in Russian, combined skiing and dog-sledding. The Khanty are an Aboriginal people living in northwestern Siberia, right at the Arctic Circle. Not only that, but this Aboriginal combination of skiing and dog-sledding was common knowledge in Western Europe, at least since the time the engraving was published, in 1778, in Charles Theodore Middleton’s A New and Complete System of Geography. I am providing an image of the entire engraving, rather than a simple detail.

The Khanty (Ostyak) combination of skiing and dog-sledding was common knowledge in Western Europe, as early as 1778, when this copper plate engraving was published by Charles Theodore Middleton in his celebrated treatise on geography

But then modern Eurocentrism kicks in. Fridtjof Nansen is sometimes credited with being the first polar explorer to combine skiing and dog-sledding. Sometimes Eivind Astrup, a Norwegian accompanying Robert Peary in north Greenland, is credited as the first. Peary himself, a notorious self-promoter, also took credit for this innovation.

Such claims have the effect of simultaneously dismissing Aboriginal techniques, and misappropriating them for the uses of modern exploration, as if they were uniquely European or American creations. Of course, Aboriginal populations explored the Arctic regions long before Europeans from the cities did, and Aboriginals brought forth many innovations perfectly adapted to the polar environment.



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