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.

Glimpsing the Arctic: A Conversation with Artist Mariele Neudecker

Many people may never see a glacier or an iceberg up close, given issues of cost, inaccessibility and environmental changes. Yet artist Mariele Neudecker is making the experience a bit more accessible, as she transports a vision of the Arctic to galleries and museum floors.

Mariele Neudecker photographing glacier ice in Greenland (Source: Neudecker/Spikeworld).

Born in Düsseldorf, Germany, the 51-year-old lifelong artist now resides in Bristol, where she creates sculptures, photographs, films and paintings.  Over the past 20 years, Neudecker has produced a wide range of landscape and still life artwork, much of which seeks to capture the essence of glaciers and icebergs.

Recently, a selection of Neudecker’s Arctic-focused art was the center of her exhibit, Some Things Happen All At Once, at the Zeppelin Museum in Friedrichshafen, Germany.  Additionally, four copies of her photographs were featured at Project Pressure’s Outdoor Installation, which GlacierHub recently covered in August.

In an interview with GlacierHub, Neudecker walks us through the journey behind her glacier artwork.  A condensed and edited version of the conversation follows.


GH:  I understand the Zeppelin Museum installation is not the first project you have done focusing on glaciers.

MN: I have done a lot of work with [19th century landscape painter] Caspar David Friedrich paintings and converting them into 3D tank pieces.  The first one I did in 1997 was clearly using ice in a reference to his painting “Sea of Ice.”


Caspar David Friedrich’s “The Sea of Ice” (Source: Web Gallery of Art/CC).

GH: What attracted you to ice and glacier themed art back in 1997, when you first incorporated Arctic ice elements into your artwork?

MN: It [my work] was more of an exploration of landscapes. I looked at mountains, forests and the ocean.  However, I always thought the remoteness and difficulty to imagine the Arctic created an interesting perception… It is about the subject of glaciers and the Arctic, but fundamentally it’s about perceptions and how we have longings to be somewhere else.  You can transport people to other places through paintings, films and all sorts of artwork.

The Arctic has always been a metaphor for climate change and human shortcomings, so there are a lot of cliché images of glaciers representing the environment.  That has provoked me to add other layers to that representation.  The challenge is to avoid the clichés.


3D tank pieces displayed at the Zeppelin Museum (Source: Neudecker/Thumm/Zeppelin).

GH:  What was the most difficult feeling to capture that you wanted to convey to viewers?

MN: I wanted to hint at the unknown and to highlight that all we see are little fragments of something much bigger.  It’s hard to capture the feeling of standing in massive open spaces where you are trapped in your eye sockets and you must turn your head to take it all in.

It’s similar to deep sea projects I have done, where the camera is in the black depths of the ocean and only with artificial light can you see a fraction of the spaces. You know how massive the space is, but you only see a tiny piece of it.


GH: What was the most surprising to you when you were out in the field capturing glaciers?

MN: The sound! That really threw me. I had no idea how loud they were.  Camping on the side of a glacier the silence and then the sounds that interrupted that silence were so powerful.  I’ve seen a million images of glaciers, but no one told me about the sounds.

I tried to record them but I wasn’t able to capture it well.  That would be a future project I would love to do.


Mariele Neudecker in Greenland (Source: Neudecker/Spikeworld).

GH: Before you went to Greenland, all of your Arctic work was derived from images and paintings.  What sparked your first trip to Greenland in May of 2012?

MN:  I was lucky to spend a week with the American writer Gretel Ehrlich, who has written beautiful books about Greenland and ice.  Before my experience with her I felt I could do my work with my imagination and images, but after [that week] I wanted to have the experience of being out there in the open space that her books described so amazingly well.

I was in Greenland for a month, but I spent a week with Gretel and two subsistence hunters and two teams of sled dogs.  A major component [of my project] was to experience the history of photography in reverse as I made my way through the trip.  I started with HD digital… all the way back to a pinhole camera at the end.  I had 12 cameras in total.  I spent the following few weeks on my own [not counting the guides], traveling to fjords and far northern reaches of Greenland.  There were these very remote places with villages of only 12 inhabitants.  It was extraordinary seeing how those people lived.


GH: What was your favorite camera to shoot with?

MN: I like the Polaroid.  It was slightly unpredictable and it produced tiny pictures.  I liked the absurdity of capturing immense spaces in tiny pictures.


Ship in the ice displayed at the Zeppelin Museum (Source: Neudecker).

GH: Could you give me an overview of the Zeppelin Museum exhibit and walk me through some of the main pieces?

MN:  I will start with most recent piece of the exhibition, which is the afterlife piece of the boat in the ice.  The whole thing started with the ship… it struck me as looking like one of those early Arctic explorer ships.  I didn’t want to be too literal in following Casper David’s ship stuck in the ice, so I kept it abstract and cropped the ice around where the ship is set in.  I also decided to add [videos] in the whole exhibition to give an element of space and constant moving and change.  I then added layers with the 3D effects with the blue and red separation, which I had never done before… it took me a while to dare myself to do it but I sprayed one side of the boat red and the other blue to link it to the 3D images that were on the wall.


GH:  How did you use the 3D images and the videos to create the moving effect?

MN: When you walk into the space the white ice surface stretches all the way to the sidewalls and the back walls and monitors with the film and moving images are synchronized, so that the images are either pushing towards you or moving away.  There is a constant feeling of washing in and out.


Red and blue photo of Qôrqup Glacier, Greenland_Mariele taken with 3D camera (Source: Neudecker).

GH: What was the process behind the 3D and stereoscopic images of the glaciers?

MN: It is disappointingly easy – you just point and shoot.  I have a camera with two lenses, and it creates these double files, so in 3D stills it generates two images.  Then you have the choice of either using the two images for stereoscopic viewings or putting it into Photoshop, which generates these red and blue color images.


GH: It seems that you are trying to immerse the viewer in the Arctic world with the swaying room and various 3D pieces.
MN: That is true, but at the same time I aim to make that experience last only so long.  Inevitably, you realize that you are standing on the floor of a museum and the illusion collapses.  The art is interesting when your imagination takes over, but there is no way to simulate actually being on the glacier.



More photos of Mariele Neudecker’s work:

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