Departing in a small helicopter with four passengers seats from Constable point, -a white no-man’s-land at the edge of the world’s largest fiord-, we feel like having embarked on a fairy-tale. Underneath us we encounter endless white hills and ice-cold waters, which move like thick soup. After a fifteen-minute flight, the town of Ittoqqortoormiit, with its colourful houses beside the bay, comes in sight. The helicopter lands and when we get out, the night starts to fall over the silent town. We have no idea what awaits us, but staying a week in this totally isolated village, we gradually learn that this fairy-tale has many angles and that underneath the snow many layers and secrets are hidden.
Ittoqqortoormiit is considered the most remote village of Greenland and the Nordic circle. Located in Eastern Greenland at the mouth of the Scoresby Sund fjord, and on the edge of the Greenland’s largest Natural Park, this village struggles for the continuation of its existence.
It was founded in 1925 as an Inuit settlement by the Danish government, in an aim to forestall the Norwegian claims on Northeast Greenland. About seventy inhabitants from Tasiilaq (800 km south) and 15 from West Greenland were relocated, and during the past century the village grew to about 500 people. Today the population counts around 320 people and the nearby settlements Kap Hope and Kap Tobin (20 km from Ittoqqortoormiit) were closed down around the year 2000.
Originally the Inuit settlers were a hunter community and this area known for seals, narwhals, polar bears, muskoxen, geese and seabirds was considered a place with good hunting possibilities. However, due to changing hunting methods (fast boats instead of canoes, snowmobiles instead of dog-sledging, guns, …), climate change and hunting restrictions (for example, only 35 polar bears can be shot per year) the number of hunters has declined today to 15 families, plus the free-time hunters.
The traded furs and some of the meat of the hunt have been, since the foundation of Ittoqqortoormiit, the sole source of out-of-town income. All other employment only contributes to the micro-economy of the village and doesn’t generate growth. Only recently, due to climate change tourism is quite slowly becoming a new way for external revenues. Most tourists however only stay a few hours in the village, after having embarked from one of the 30 cruise ships that over the summer months make a stop at this remote place. There is no real infrastructure for tourism, nor the real desire to expand possibilities within this field.
Besides the fact that the village isn’t economically thriving, it is also struggling with social issues, which at first were denied by our local respondents, but throughout our stay became inevitable not to notice. Although the history of this town started gloriously and the resettlement was thanks to great hunting grounds an absolute success, Eastern Greenland and especially this town became known as ‘Greenland’s backside’. ‘Poverty, abuse, unemployment, failure, school children with alcohol damages. The list is long, and one rarely hears a positive word when people talk about Scoresbysund. In the eyes of the rest of the population, the image of town is generally negative, and this view is unfortunately supported by statistics” (Egevang:18).
Today, many of the houses in town are abandoned. Families move to Nuuk or Denmark and only those with the least resources remain in the village, with very little future. Suicide is still a major death reason amongst young people and alcoholism remains a major problem. Inuit have among the highest suicide rates in the world. This average (11 times the average of non-indigenous peoples) is a result of colonization, dispossession, culture loss, and social disconnection (Kral 2016).
In this fast changing world with at the one hand a growing influence from global agents and at the other the undeniable changing of climate & landscape, the identity of the East-Greenlanders in Ittoqqortoormiit asks for a constant negotiation: ‘who to become after climate change’ in a Western world (Warthoe:23).
IDDERSUAR ORALUARNGISAANERMI IMALI
(house of storytelling)
In the line of reasoning of anthropologist Arjun Appadurai and his concept of “social imaginary”, -through which he argues that in our globalised world people are constantly negotiating their identity through different agents, globally and locally-, we looked for ways to activate that imaginary, through a workshop with a small group of 14 year old students.
Education plays an important role in the creation of this social imaginary, as creativity does not come out of a void, but relies on precedent notions and idea’s (Rowlands 2011). From an educational philosophy perspective the accumulation of global and local knowledge is considered as mutual important in contributing how students experience and conceptualise their world (Jaworski 1994).
We believe that is therefore essential to not only bring western knowledge to a school and an education system, but intertwine it with ancestral knowledge that in the continuous globalised media-stream is disappearing as being part of the family stories and the family identity. We therefore emphasise on a space, physical and mental for storytelling, whereby the elders of the community come together with the children and share their memories of habits and activities, but also myths and fairy tales related to their own past and cosmology.
During a workshop with a group of 14 year olds we experienced how difficult it was to keep their attention. One of the girls was chatting on Facebook with an (unknown) ‘friend’ in the Philippines. Her laughter and stories were far more exciting for the group than the stories we came up with from a book with old Inuit drawings. It was only when one of the boys, the son of a hunter family started speaking about the things he feared, such as killer whales and flies, that the youngsters refocused again on our questions and drawings. His stories, -related to a real communal and experienced memory-, captured their attention and their desire to participate.
In this preliminary phase, we designed a space in the library, not to read books in silence, -as was originally asked-, but as a place that ignites and empowers the old hunter stories and other stories, which still simmer in the collective memory and create active links in the personal memory of the children. These stories function as little light bulbs, which bring back a meshwork of stories and connections to their family, this village and the particular natural surroundings they grew up in. These little flickering’s of light can show a way to imagine a balanced identity between the global and the local. This balance is especially essential in anchoring and giving meaning to the personal life in areas of mental distress, through loss of history and cultural connection.
This is only the start of the project, which addressed a direct question from the headmaster. We wish to continue this storytelling project through the designing of different storytelling houses, throughout the village, each addressing another theme related to the creation of a strong and proud identity for the people of Ittoqqortoormiit, who not only saw their culture disappear, but who also witness how their landscape and natural environment is literately melting like snow before the sun.
Abandoned House Project
Next to the rather small storytelling space we have designed during our first field-trip in the school library, we wish to convert a few of the abandoned house in the village to spaces of meaning & identity.
The school storytelling space will be built basically with the same construction system of the semi-identical houses in the village. The room will be covered by animal skins, which the villagers and the children will bring along. These furs will already have a story in themselves and will spontaneously re-align the children of the village with its rich hunter history.
The abandoned houses scattered all-over town are now an ugly reminder of the fact that the village is somehow diminishing and maybe eventually dying. The boarding up of many houses does not contribute to the image the younger generation wishes to give their children, nor an image they want to distribute towards tourism, as this is for many younger people the only way to an external revenue, and thus a better life.
The abandoned houses add up to the existing image of a town in distress, slowly becoming a ghost town.
So our main question is how can we bring these buildings back to life in a way that they harbour the rich Inuit tradition and rally new perspectives for a sustainable and meaningful community.
The preliminary themes we are thinking of and have been discussing with local people are:
- a house for stories, where villagers can meet and share their ‘imagined past & future’ and eventually can welcome visitors and tourists to listen to the true stories of a living culture
- a house for artists who wish to add or re-activate meaning to this edge of the world
- a house for scientists and an entry gate for the worlds largest endangered nature reserve
- a house for rites de passages
During our stay, a young Inuit, Inuk, who dreams to build a future in his hometown, was our informant, translator and communicator to the village.
The headmaster Torbjorn was a second hand informant, who has been living in the village for two years and helped us understand some of the underlying village dynamics. He is responsible for the actual building and using of the library storytelling room.
It is our aim to continue this project and we’re looking for more and other people who can help with the realisation.
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