East Greenland’s Iivit Communities: An Interview with Sophie Elixhauser

Since 2005, Sophie Elixhauser has observed Inuit– or Iivit, as the indigenous people on the Greenlandic east coast call themselves– communities in the glacierized landscape of East Greenland. In her recently published book, “Negotiating Personal Autonomy: Communication and Personhood in East Greenland,” Elixhauser shares a detailed ethnographic examination of personal autonomy and social life in the region. Asserting that “a person is a highly permeable entity that is neither bounded by the body nor even necessarily human,” she argues that relationships between Iivit individuals reflect a respect for personal autonomy. By developing this idea, this work ultimately puts forward a new approach to the anthropological study of communication, exploring how personal autonomy involves the Iivit’s relation to glaciers.

In the following interview, GlacierHub got in touch with Elixhauser to discuss her book and perspective of her time in East Greenland.


GlacierHub: Right away, in the book’s introduction, you emphasize your use of a broader definition of the environment. You note that, for you, the environment “embraces both human and non-human surroundings, communicative relationships among the human beings are as much part of human-environmental relations as, for example, people’s relations with a particular mountain or glacier.” Why do you think this distinction is important, and how did it shape your research process and findings?

Hunter returning with his catch, April 2007 (Source: Sophie Elixhauser).

Sophie Elixhauser: In many societies around the world, the distinction between human and non-human persons– or more broadly between humans and their non-human environment– is not drawn as rigidly as in our Western context. I think that starting off ethnographic research with this distinction imposes a certain way of (Western scientific) thinking onto other people and closes off interesting venues right from the start.

I started my research in East Greenland with a very broad question on how people relate to their environment. In the course of my fieldwork, it happened that my research interests moved toward the interpersonal human realm, while still keeping an eye open for the non-human environment as well. Due to my language apprenticeship, my attention was drawn to the various details of how the Iivit communicate verbally and non-verbally with each other, many of which highlighted the high valuation of a person’s autonomy. At the same time, I found some interesting parallels between how humans communicate amongst each other and how they relate to the non-human world. These build on the so-called animistic way of life that East Greenlanders followed for a long time and, to a lesser extent and in some contexts, still follow today.

GH: What surprised you the most during your ethnographic fieldwork in East Greenland?

SE: I cannot think of one specific thing that surprised me during my fieldwork. What surprises me once and again during my return visits to East Greenland is how easy it is to take up the threads from former times spent in the community, even if years have passed of not having been there… Personally I very much enjoy the valuation of how you are as a person over how you perform, and people’s way of respecting other people’s autonomy, and not interfering with other people’s decisions.

GH: I was intrigued by how your research questions changed over the course of your fieldwork. This particular sentence stuck out to me as particularly interesting: “I began to realize that my former research ideas had been very much directed towards the male realm in the society, which in the long run is not easy for a woman to regularly participate in.” Could you explain this shift and when you realized that your original idea involving environmental perceptions could be linked to the male realm of society? What challenges did you initially face that made you recognize it was hard for women to participate in regularly? How did it lead to the focus on interpersonal communication?

Boats in Sermiligaaq Fjord, July 2017 (Source: Sophie Elixhauser).

SE: During my first preliminary field trip in East Greenland in 2005, I spoke only a few words of Tunumiusut, the East Greenlandic language, and was not yet very accustomed to the local habits. Through a job as a volunteer for a guesthouse in Tasilaaq, I was able to join local hunters and fishermen quite often, also on trips of several days. Those hunters were staff members of the guesthouse, and they were accustomed to taking foreign volunteers along. I really enjoyed these possibilities of being out in nature together with East Greenlanders and projected that it would continue like this when returning for my main one year period of fieldwork.

Having sketched my research plans accordingly, I returned a year later for my main one-year period of fieldwork. I was accessing a new field in the village of Sermiligaaq, and I started to live with a Greenlandic family. As the time went by, I understood more and more of the language and local ways of doing. I learned that it was not accepted by the community that I– a young woman without a husband at the time– would join the male hunting crews without any romantic interest in the hunters. Doing so would easily lead to speculations, teasing and gossiping back in the village, and jealousy on the part of some of the hunters’ wives. After a while, I therefore mostly stayed back in the village with the other women. Only sometimes I found a way out of this dilemma. For instance, I have a close Greenlandic female friend, who rather untypical for the local women, quite regularly joins the hunting crews together with her husband. If she came along, it was accepted that I would join as well…

The village of Sermiligaaq, July 2017 (Source: Sophie Elixhauser).

Other female Arctic researchers I know have had similar experiences. For a male researcher, it is much easier to regularly join in subsistence activities and all sorts of (hunting and fishing) trips. Most obviously, this is important when taking a detailed look at the theme of environmental perceptions, and orientation out on the sea, throughout the seasons of the year. Realizing that my initial ideas did not quite fit my research context and being struck by the many communicative details that seemed important in people’s daily encounters, my focus on interpersonal communication slowly evolved.

GH: Throughout your multiple trips to East Greenland in the last two decades, what environmental changes have you witnessed occurring on both the physical environment and on the inhabitants (both human and non-human)? 

SE: Environmental and climatic changes are omnipresent in Greenland and are particularly visible with regard to the massively retreating glaciers and the rising temperatures, especially in the winter months. Being on the move together in the East Greenlandic sea and landscape, East Greenlandic friends have often shown me landmarks that were formerly still covered by ice. Likewise, when looking at the available maps together, it was pointed out to me that most glaciers would be drawn incorrectly as they are much smaller now. I was often told how much warmer it is today. The summers last longer, and the winters are shorter. This means that the times when the fjord ice is thick enough for hunters to be able to go out with the dog team are shorter, which already led to a decline in dogs in the region (East Greenlandic hunters use dogs and sleds for hunting and fishing in the winter). Likewise, the transition periods between the times when the fjords are covered with ice and those when they are free of ice last longer today. During these periods, the motor boats are needed to navigate (at times they are used like icebreakers), yet the ice once and again causes severe strain and damage to the boats, and those ice conditions may lead to a substantial financial loss.

Helicopter view of the Tasiilaq region, July 2017 (Source: Sophie Elixhauser).

East Greenlanders I have talked to have not framed these changes as (global) climate change, and though consequences of the changing environment and climate are noticed and sometimes pitied, I have not come across this dramatic attention to climate change that one encounters in the international media. The Inuit […] are good at adapting to all sorts of changes be it regarding the rapidly changing environment or, for instance, technologies that are being introduced. Though the above changes are usually regarded as negative, on a national Greenlandic level, climate change is sometimes framed positively. Rising temperatures may facilitate access to mineral resources, some Greenlandic political actors hope, which could support the autonomous region on their way to independence.

GH: What are your future plans? Anything else involving more glacierized environments?

SE: For my post-doc project, I was part of a larger project in the European Alps focusing on the perceptions of climate change in local communities. Yet the project that involved the theme of glacial retreat and people’s memories about glaciers has been finished for some years. My connection with East Greenland is of a more permanent kind of project, and I think I will always return every couple of years if possible. I am not in a research post these days, as I work in the field of migration in Munich, Southern Germany. Thus, I do not have concrete research plans for the future now. But let’s see what the future will bring.


Be sure to check out Sophie Elixhauser’s book to explore more of her fieldwork and findings.