By Jessica Segall
A close friend of mine passed away while we were camping in the Brooks Range, hundreds of miles from a telephone where someone could reach me with the news. Knowing now, it is filtering the way which I experience this place. It is a challenge to be so far from home, 3,361 miles from home, to be exact. Much of the last weeks have been spent calling friends and relatives to plan the memorial. However, there is some comfort to being here. With a heavy heart I can walk out to edge of town to study the Chukchi Sea, or walk 5 miles to the tundra expanding beyond the horizon.
We were lucky enough to be invited by the Parks Service to return to the Brooks Range last week, and camp in a new location, 200 miles from Kotzebue. In between that time I pulled in nets at fish camps and with subsistence fisherman in town, learned how to catch and fillet a salmon. Living in the Alaskan arctic means participating directly in the food chain. Daily life is sustained by the hunt, and requires defending oneself from larger carnivores. When the average Western consumer is part of a cash economy, purchases food from secondary or tertiary vendors imported from all corners of the planet, it creates a disconnection from region, season and a sense of an integrated whole. When the largest predators have been hunted to extinction on most of the American continents, it is reasonable to feel, at the top of the food chain, a dominion over other life forms, power over nature.
The Wilderness Act defines wilderness as a protected place where "man, himself is a visitor." While the intent is of the act is to protect our natural resources from destructive human intervention, the language draws a violent division, not only in terms of gender relations, but also in suggesting that man (and not woman) is not of nature, spawning from Judeochristian ideas of man as a likeness of God that has dominion "over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth." Changing the conversation to encompass other worldviews, animistic and non – Western could re-enforce an interconnected sense of self and responsibility.
Considering protected wilderness areas only ones that have not had a human history is problematic to archeologists, who are researching the millennium of human occupation in arctic Alaska. Some of the archeological viewpoints are also representative of a Western bias, especially ones that consider Indigenous cultures as part of natural history, but Western culture as part of human history. Searching around the archeological sites, items we saw were either deemed historic (oil cans dropped from planes for potential, future refueling) or pre-historic (stone tools, petroglyphs). By this definition, something becomes part of history is once it is recorded in writing, (written language which can be translated – Hieroglyphics were considered part of pre-history until the Rosetta stone). In 2005, I visited the South African Museum in Cape Town, the first natural history museum in sub-Saharan Africa. The museum displays were in the process of renovation, removing dioramas of indigenous people working with stone tools, updating the idea that African history is natural history and colonial history is cultural history.
As a visual artist, part of my job is to find ways to speak outside of language – which can operate on a physical, sensorial, absurdist or spiritual level. When finding artifacts in the Brooks Range, each object told a story tantamount to written language. Mike Holt, lead archeologist for the The Western Arctic National Parklands, explained to us how to identify lithics (stone tools) among the exposed gravel of the tundra by looking for marks of intention. His trained eye can tell the difference between an apprentice and the marks of a trained craftsman making a projectile point. As such, a trained painter can look at a painting and tell from the marks what the interior life and ideology was of the maker. Setting aside easily dated material such as subject matter, the maker can be read by the size of the canvas, the speed in which it was made, the dexterity of marks and which marks are withheld. A straight line is an ideology. A curved line is a different worldview. This is the written language of the artist, the human hand. Coming down to it, the terms of history and pre-history, culture vs. civilization, man vs. nature is married to an idea of progress, and a straight line as a worldview.
Images by Anitra Haendel