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“We who live in the Arctic region”: Iceland’s belonging in the Arctic

“We who live in the Arctic region”: Iceland’s belonging in the Arctic

A few weeks ago I was interviewed by the Icelandic newspaper DV in relation to a news piece attempting a critical look at Iceland’s engagement with the Arctic. In Iceland – as elsewhere – The Arctic has become an extremely important topic of discussion among scholars, policymakers and the general public. It might even be said that there is a sense of a ‘Gold Rush’ in Arctic tourism at the moment, as both myself and at least one other person interviewed phrased our sentiments when assessing the general state of things.

The former Minister of Foreign Affairs in Iceland began the prelude to a report in 2007 with “We who live in the Arctic region…”, thus in a powerful way emphasising, with this one little word ‘we’, Iceland’s claim to enter the discussion about the future of the Arctic. The Icelandic Parliament approved a resolution on Iceland’s Arctic Policy in 2011. The resolution found it necessary to establish that Iceland should be seen as part of the Arctic, reflected in phrases such as “Iceland is geographically located by the Arctic Circle and is therefore within the Arctic.” The aim of Iceland’s Arctic policy states that it should: “secur[e] Iceland’s position as a coastal State within the Arctic region as regards influencing its development as well as international decisions on regional issues on the basis of legal, economic, ecological and geographical arguments.” As the former Minister’s words mentioned earlier, this part of the resolution similarly affirms Iceland’s legitimacy as both a political actor and stakeholder in the Arctic region.

It is interesting to contextualise these claims about Iceland’s relationship with this part of the world prior to the Arctic becoming a ‘hot’ issue internationally. My point here is obviously not to claim that Iceland is not a part of the Arctic (to use double denial) or that it shouldn’t be seen as part of it, but rather that this emphasis on belonging within the Arctic should be located within a particular historical and political environment. Where does this somewhat sudden utterance of ‘we, the Icelandic Arctic people’ come from and what is the historical continuity with other claims of belonging in Iceland? There is nothing innocent about geographies and geographical belongings, as scholars have shown for long time now.

I have written about how 19th-century Icelandic intellectuals actively tried to disassociate themselves from other colonised populations, Iceland having remained until 1944 a Danish dependency. For that purpose, Icelandic actors relied on and translated travel narratives by Europeans explorers, such as stories about Henry Morton Stanley, a highly controversial figure in his own lifetime. That is still not reflected in the Icelandic discussions about his explorations.

The Arctic, as other places explored and colonised by Europeans, was thus interesting as an object of inquiry that allowed these Icelanders to situate themselves among the mobile elite of Europe who travelled around the world for pleasure and – ostensibly – the advance of science. Icelandic anthropologist Gísli Pálsson points out how in Western discourses stimulated by early explorers and anthropologists, the Arctic was situated as a ‘radical other.’ This was reinforced in travel descriptions that often used phrases such as ‘going in’ and ‘coming out’ which indicates, according to Pálsson, how civilization ended where the Arctic began.

In fact, Icelanders actively tried to dissociate themselves from neighboring Greenland and the Greenlandic people, aiming to establish that they were not like Greenlanders and should not be conflated with them. Historian Kristján Sveinsson has shown that Icelanders had very limited interest in Greenland in the 19th century, which was then a part of Denmark, as was Iceland. In the early 20th century, some Icelandic politicians even stated that Iceland had claims to Greenland on the basis that it had been settled centuries ago by the ‘Icelander’ Eirík the Red.

Looking at recent history, there has thus been little interest in associating Iceland with the Arctic, the Arctic apparently existing primarily as an object to be investigated, studied or used.

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