Four members of whaling crew looking out into the ocean, surrounded by snow.

An introduction to the Arctic

By Amber Lincoln, Curator, the Citi exhibition Arctic: culture and climate

Publication date: 9 January 2020

You might have a picture in your mind of the Arctic – with its vast icy landscapes and plentiful wildlife – but where actually is the Arctic and what cultures live there?

Amber Lincoln, curator of the forthcoming Citi exhibition Arctic: culture and climate, reveals what life is like in the most northerly place in the world.

An introduction to the Arctic

The Arctic captures the imagination, calling to mind a pristine, empty, icy world that in many ways stands still: frozen and timeless. This romantic idea is appealing but of course false. You only have to read the news to know that today the Arctic isn't standing still. Reporting on scientific studies and assessments by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), helps us all understand how quickly the Arctic is changing as a result of global climate change. Temperatures are rising, altering weather patterns, sea ice is shrinking, raising global sea levels, and permafrost, the once permanently frozen ground that served as bedrock, is melting and sinking. These changes are dramatic and unlike any experienced in the Arctic before, but the truth is, the Arctic never has stood still, nor have its Indigenous People.

Where is the Arctic?

The Arctic is the most northern place on earth and covers 4 per cent of its surface. Its centre, the North Pole, rests over the Arctic ocean, which until recently has been covered by relatively stable, year-round sea ice. The Arctic Circle designates both the southern boundary of the Arctic and the latitude (66.5° North) at which the sun remains above, or below, the horizon for 24 hours, at least one day per year. The further north you go, sunlight is gained or lost at greater speed.

Map of the Arctic, with North Pole marked in the centre

In general, Arctic winters are dark. Moonlight reflecting off snow and ice generates light but life adjusts to the dimness. Summers are full of light and people full of energy. However, the intense sunlight reflecting off snow or ice in spring can be very harmful and cause blindness, so Arctic Peoples have made spectacles to protect their eyes. These 19th-century Dolgan examples from north-central Siberia were made from pierced metal and beads embroidered onto reindeer hide. Today, Arctic Peoples use hats and sunglasses, but these historic models elegantly protected the eyes, focused the vision, and helped communicate identity through their different styles.

Reindeer skin goggles trimmed with coloured beads, framing eyes and along sides
Man's snow-spectacles. Reindeer skin, metal, glass beads, uranium beads. Dolgan, Russia, before 1879.

Are there seasons in the Arctic?

The seasonal behavior of light helps eliminate another false idea about the Arctic – that it is always frozen and barren. Certainly, winter months are dark and cold, temperatures commonly reach -40° C and many animals migrate south. But these lean seasons alternate with periods of extraordinary abundance in the summer, when continental temperatures in areas such as north-central Siberia or the Northwest Territories, Canada, can reach 30–35°C. The continuous daylight in summer generates algae blooms in sea ice habitats, forming the base of the food chain for masses of migrating sea mammals and birds. Local plants and fungi spring to life with berries, greens and mushrooms, supporting reindeer, caribou and other land animals. Arctic Peoples thrive by harnessing the great concentrations of animals and plants during abundant times to carry them through lean stretches.

Wind has pushed floating ice near the shorefast ice making fishing difficult.
Kiliii Yuyan (b. 1979), Umiaq and north wind during spring whaling. Inkjet print, 2019. © Kiliii Yuyan.

Who lives in the Arctic?

Today, four million people live in the Arctic. They are spread across the eight countries with territory in the Arctic: Russia, USA, Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland. Only 10 per cent (400,000) of those Arctic inhabitants are indigenous to the region, belonging to one or more of the 40 different cultural groups. The Sámi are the only Indigenous Arctic Peoples in northern Europe, occupying parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and north-west Russia. There are many different groups in north-west Russia and northern Siberia. The Nenets, Mansi and Khanty, and Nganasan originate in north-west Russia. The Evenki, Even, Sakha, and Dolgan are from north-central Siberia. The Yukaghir, Koryak, Chukchi, and Siberian Yupik occupy the Russian Far East. Indigenous People in North America include the Aleuts, Alutiit, Yupiit, and Inupiat of Alaska, the Gwich'in bordering Alaska and Canada, and Inuit groups of Canada and Greenland.

Four members of whaling crew looking out into the ocean, surrounded by snow.
Kiliii Yuyan (b. 1979), Whaling Crew on Watch at Amuaq, Archival inkjet print, 2018. Photo © Kiliii Yuyan.

These Indigenous Arctic Peoples have traded and engaged with each other for millennia. Today they collaborate in international organisations such as the Arctic Council and the Inuit Circumpolar Council. The Inuit are a unified indigenous group, sharing a common language, culture and history, who live within four countries: Chukotka (Russia), Alaska (USA), Canada, Greenland (Denmark). In Canada and Greenland, the term 'Eskimo' is considered derogatory because it was a name given by non-Inuit people and thought to mean 'eater of raw meat'. Linguists now believe 'Eskimo' was a term used by the Ojibwe (Indigenous People from Canada and North America) for Inuit meaning 'to net snowshoes'. Nonetheless, Inuit is the name they use to describe themselves. Eskimo is more commonly used in Alaska to collectively refer to all Inuit and Yupiit. This is because 'Inuit' is not a word in the Yupiit languages of Siberia and Alaska.

How long have people lived in the Arctic?

The Arctic has been occupied for a very long time and the cultures are remarkably old. When much of Europe was covered in glaciers, the steppe (or plains) of northeastern Siberia was glacier free and it was possible to settle. Recent archaeological findings show that Paleolithic hunters occupied the mouth of the Yana River of north eastern Siberia 30,000 years ago. Inhabitants hunted woolly mammoth and other megafauna (large animals such as woolly rhinoceros, giant horse and some species of bison that are now extinct) and they developed the first Arctic art. The ancient people of Yana (in north eastern Siberia) spent a lot of time making jewellery, adorning themselves with animal-teeth pendants and beads made from mammoth tusks, hare bones or rare minerals. They also made bracelets engraved with detailed marks indicating personal or community identity. The earliest Arctic inhabitants led rich lives, created a cultural aesthetic and used resources available to them in innovative ways.

Fragments of patterned ivory bracelet
Walrus ivory bracelet, Yana-site, Russia, c. 28,000–26,000 BC. Institute for the History of Material Culture, Russian Academy of Sciences © Pavel Ivanov, Elena Pavlova, Vladimir Pitulko.

How do Arctic people keep warm?

Warm clothing that enables mobility is essential for life in the Arctic. This Inuit hunting outfit made from caribou fur from Baffin Island, Nunavut, was made in 1987. It kept the wearer warm while traveling by sled or snowmobile in the winter. But clothing serves multiple functions.

Caribou parka with polar bear fur and fringe at bottom
Man's winter parka. Inuit, Iglulik (Nunavut). Caribou skin, sinew and polar bear fur, 1950–1985.

Sámi garments often communicate identity and belonging. This Sámi women's hat, called Ládjogahpir, or 'foremother's horn hat', was made with a piece of wood called fierra. It identified the wearer as a Sámi woman of Norway. These hats fell out of use around 1870 after missionaries, who interpreted the horn as representing the devil, considered them sinful. Today, hats in the style of the Ládjogahpir have taken on a new identity. Amid wider Sámi revitalisation movements, Sámi women have started making and wearing the ládjogahpir again as colonial resistance art.

A hat embroidered with colourful triangular stitching, tassels and a large rounded peak
Woman's hat or ládjogahpir, Sámi, Norway. Wool, horn, cotton and silk, pre-1919.

How do people make a living in the Arctic?

Overhead view of snow-covered low-rise buildings
Utqiagvik, ones of the largest cities in the US state of Alaska. Kiliii Yuyan (b. 1979), Utqiagvik at Twilight. Archival inkjet print, 2017. © Kiliii Yuyan.

Today Arctic Peoples are fully participating global citizens, engaging in all sorts of markets and industries. Many Arctic Peoples live in southern or Arctic cities, working various jobs including in the oil and gas industries, tourism and commercial fishing. Others pursue education. Some Arctic Peoples live in smaller settlements, within or near their ancestral homelands, engaging in more traditional economies. Because the Arctic does not support agriculture, in the past, Arctic Peoples have relied upon animals. Diets and livelihoods were dependent on hunting, fishing, trapping and reindeer herding. Many Arctic Peoples today continue to pursue these ways of life, maintaining close links with their homelands and traditional cuisine. Some reindeer herders, such as the Nenets of north central Russia, travel seasonally with their migrating herds of reindeer. Similarly, hunters or fishers might make journeys from their villages to hunting grounds, by crossing land or sea ice.

Engraved harpoon head attached to a hide thong
Harpoon head. Yupiit; Kuskokwim. Ivory, brass, and seal or walrus skin, pre-1900.

One piece of adaptive technology used to hunt seals, as well as whales and walrus, is still used today. As year-round inhabitants of the Arctic, seals provide crucial nutrients and materials for Inuit.  The toggle-head harpoon is an ingenious hunting tool because it prevents hunters from losing their prey to the sea. They were often beautifully engraved, like this late 19th-century Yupiit model, in order to attract animals and show them respect. Harpoon heads were fitted into shafts and thrown by hunters. The toggle-head swivelled upon entering the animal's skin so it couldn't easily exit the wound hole. Attached to a line, hunters could easily retrieve harpooned animals and avoid wounding and losing one.

Rocks and green landscape of the Arctic with water and snow and ice landscape in the distance.
Tundra in Ilulisaat, Greenland. Kiliii Yuyan (b. 1979), Ilulisaat's Living Ice Fjord. Archival inkjet print, 2018. © Kiliii Yuyan.

In addition to hunting and fishing, Arctic Peoples in Asia and Europe herded reindeer. Herders tailored their pastoral practice to the ecosystems of the Arctic. The tundra is generally located near the coast at very high latitudes. No trees grow in the tundra but lichen, which reindeer eat, grows in huge quantities. The unobstructed views and open landscapes enable herders to keep very large herds. Migrating with hundreds or even thousands of reindeer, the Nenets, Chukchi and some Sámi groups travel hundreds of kilometres across the tundra each year to winter and summer rangeland (open country for grazing or hunting animals).

Colourful patterned beaded harness, predominantly in red, with orange, blue and white
Reindeer harness, Evenki, Yenisei (Russia). Reindeer skin, cotton, glass beads, ivory, wood and metal, 1840s–1870s.

Taiga (referred to as the Boreal forest in North America) has small, but in some places, thick tree growth. Trees of the taiga offer herders less visibility and more obstructions, therefore herders keep fewer animals and focus on riding and packing their reindeer. Rather than using sleds, which can get entangled in the branches of the forest, the Evenki use bags of reindeer hide to store their equipment and food while traveling or hunting. Both Evenki men and women ride special reindeer that are trained to manoeuvre through the taiga. This women's reindeer saddle, made from white reindeer fur and wood, provides both the rider and reindeer comfort. Reflecting their value to herders, reindeer often are often made beautifully decorated harnesses, pack saddles and other tack, such as this Dolgan beaded harness (above).

Snowy landscape of bare trees
Taiga or Boreal forest. Kiliii Yuyan (b. 1979), Boreal Forest Dash. Archival inkjet print, 2019. © Kiliii Yuyan.

These traditional livelihoods remain important today for the nutritional and material products they provide families and communities but also for their role in asserting cultural identity. Today, Arctic Peoples creatively blend modern and traditional ways of life in practical responses to their needs.

Decorated saddle with fur on top and around edges
Woman's reindeer saddle. Dolgan, Krasnoyarsk Krai (Russia). Reindeer skin, wood, cloth, and beads, 1890s–1920s. Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkamera) of Russian Academy of Sciences. © MAE RAS (Kunstkamera).

How is global climate change affecting people in the Arctic?

As the ice melts because of rising global temperatures, Arctic Peoples face very real challenges. Arctic communities are vulnerable to erratic storms and freeze/thaw conditions, eroding coastlines, melting permafrost and rising sea levels. In response, Indigenous Arctic organisations are advocating globally about these challenges. Collaborating with researchers, and national and international agencies, Indigenous Arctic organisations are pushing for innovative solutions to develop plans for action to sea level rise and sea ice loss. Through organisations like the Inuit Circumpolar Council, the Arctic Council, and the Sámi Council, elders, leaders and young people advocate for measures to search for answers to the most challenging problem of the 21st century, serving as exemplars of how to remain unified in a rapidly changing world.

Read more blogs from the Citi exhibition Arctic: culture and climate.

Lead supporter Citi

Supported by

Julie and Stephen Fitzgerald

AKO Foundation

Arctic exhibition book cover showing title and prow of boat in icy water

Buy the beautifully illustrated book accompanying the exhibition.

Included in The Times' Best Art Books of the Year 2020.

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