No Man's Land - Man's Land

No Mans Land 01

No Man’s Land – Man’s Land
Marit Anne Hauan

The environmental challenges and rapid changes the high Arctic has been undergoing in recent years have helped bring these areas from the extreme margin of global consciousness to its centre. On the one hand, the impact of retreating glaciers on the polar regions is an important indicator of global warming and a warning of ecological risk, while also being a harbinger of new opportunities. On the other hand, economic prospects in terms of tourism, transportation, energy production, fisheries, and global shipping are beneficial to future development of the High North. From a natural-science perspective, the polar regions are laboratories for research on climate change, sustainability and the management of biodiversity, while there has been an expansion of social-science research in such fields as geopolitics, indigenous cultures, and tourism development. Even though the polar regions have been the object of extended research interest in recent years, only very few researchers have been interested in gender perspectives.[i]  

My research field is the hunting and trapping culture associated with Svalbard and the surrounding sea areas. My particular interest is folk culture, and I have a dual perspective: the thick descriptions of hunting and trapping life and interpretations of gender linked to polar life.


Gendered museums?

I work in museums – in museums of culture and science. Museums are public and social institutions, and as such have the power to confirm or disrupt our experiences, including our experiences of gender. Previously understood as neutral and objective (Merriman 1999), museums have become recognised as knowledge-production arenas (Haraway 1989; Gumbrecht 2004; Bäckström 2016). Despite decades of feminist criticism and extensive women’s studies, the relative absence of women in museum displays is striking. Museum exhibits on polar history are particularly male-biased. Lena Aarekol has studied the representations of Roald Amundsen in exhibitions at three renowned Norwegian museums in 2018: the Polar Museum in Tromsø, the Fram Museum, and the Ski Museum in Oslo. She finds that, although, in his books on his own polar successes, Amundsen surprisingly often mentions and recounts stories of order, hygiene, attire, a homely atmosphere, care and comfort, these aspects of expedition life are undercommunicated. For her, Amundsen emerges as an ‘ideal housewife’. Conversely, for the museums, it is other narratives that prevail: “Maleness is given an explicit place in the exhibition and is represented, for example, through planning, heroism and extreme hardship...” (Aarekol 2018, in press). The same reproach can be made of the Polar Museum’s exhibition of overwintering, hunting and trapping in Svalbard. A diorama[ii] containing an authentic hut creates the main narrative. While the hut’s interior space is sparsely fitted out and uncommented, the exterior surroundings are teeming with weapons, trapping gear, catch, a stuffed dog barking at visitors, and two mannequins dressed as trappers working on wood-cutting and plucking a grouse. A text explains that the two men who lived in the hut in 1911-12 suffered from scurvy. One of the men died in the hut, while the other saved his life by making a three-day trek to the main Norwegian settlement of Longyearbyen. This is a hut built by men, used by men and transposed to the museum. Along with James Clifford (2013), we can ask what the diorama’s blind spots are. And ask, furthermore, if it is evident that the museum’s gender blindness prevents us from finding out what knowledge the men possessed in terms of diet, hygiene and housekeeping, and who they had learned from. Who provided the good clothes? What relationships did the men have with the mainland, their loved ones, wife, family, children? The narratives we are given access to create associations with daring, death-defiance, and great sacrifice. If, taking inspiration from Karen Barad, we choose to look at exhibitions ­– in this case the selected diorama, as intra-acting phenomena, it becomes clear that these representations of polar life affect us and act on us. In our meeting (each audience’s meeting) with exhibitions, things act on us, and one of these is further repetition and reinforcement of the perception of the Arctic as a masculine geography and ambit. If we allowed ourselves gender-sensitive representations of the polar heroes, ordinary people, the men and women, we would begin to appreciate the relationships between the mainland economy and the hunting and trapping economy, between women’s and men’s knowledge, and perhaps also appreciate the complexity of men’s knowledge. The role actually presented is devoid of relationships, without history and, through the weariness of things, without contemporaneity – lacking presence. Men are presented as one-dimensionally, as fairytale characters.

And so we need to return to the beginning.


Becoming polar heroes

Around the mid-19th century, a public stage was set for polar explorers in an international world. Roald Amundsen’s victory over Robert Falcon Scott in the battle to reach the South Pole in 1911 is still the most dramatic and frequently publicised race of all times (Into the Ice 2006, 61). Fridtjof Nansen entered the scene as the first truly recognised Norwegian polar explorer as early as 1888. Amundsen came onto the scene somewhat later, but at the same time as Norway’s struggle for and gaining of national independence. They both gained, of course, an extraordinary position in the hierarchy of masculinity in national narratives. The main period of Norwegian overwintering activity came in the wake of, and partly coincided with, Nansen and Amundsen’s scientific and adventurous polar expeditions.

A digression: The Russian Pomors who operated an overwintering hunt on Svalbard from 1700-1850 developed a lively folklore associated with Grumant, as they named the archipelago. One of the songs that has been preserved tells of the trapping life and concludes with the following lines: “You, old Grumant, are gruesome. Completely covered in mountain. Encircled by ice on all sides. On you, it is dangerous to live. No need to be surprised if death comes.” In 1598, Geerit de Veer’s description of Barents’ expedition was published. This account also refers to the unknown and the perilous. De Veer explicitly recounts the lack of knowledge, fear and despair in the face of the unknown, from polar bears to the grumble of ice, cold, lack of food and disease followed by death. Captain Junge’s report from 1834-35 gives the same impression. The captain and his crew of six all perished, despite having a house to live in, fuel and sufficient weapons. In the ship’s journal, he expresses intense impotence and despair in the face of polar nature, writing: “It is wearisome to overcome this dark winter”. The polar masculinity that we recognise today was created in the late 19th century and is bound up with the re-evaluation of nature, from wild and ugly to beautiful and an aspect of national identity. Despite its strong standing, polar masculinity is a very recent construct in both Russia and Norway, and perhaps in other parts of the Arctic.

Back to Svalbard

Svalbard was terra nullius until Barents’ expedition of 1596 discovered new land during the Dutch quest for open water to navigate a Northeast Passage. Over the archipelago’s short 422-year history, various commercial operators, researchers, and adventurers from different nations have found their way there. Whaling, dominated by English, Dutch, and Basque companies, was the first commercial operation in Svalbard. Around 1700 Russian companies and monasteries began equipping overwintering expeditions to the archipelago.

The first Norwegian overwintering group arrived in 1796 to hunt walruses, foxes, bears, seals, and other animals that could provide a livelihood. Up until the 1890s, the occasional volunteer hunting expedition overwintered. Around the turn of the century (1890-1900), overwintering hunting/trapping expeditions to Svalbard gathered pace, with about 400 people participating and more than 1,000 people overwintering in the period up to 1941. The life of the overwinterers is my main empirical interest. To survive as an overwinterer at a trapping station in Svalbard involved catching as much as possible in order to create a good financial return. In addition, it was necessary to survive all the dangers, withstand isolation and loneliness and return home in good shape with a decent, or better, financial profit.  

The hunters and trappers arranged for themselves a main settlement – a hut called the main station. In addition, most had a number of small huts at one or more day’s march from the main station. Between all the huts, trapping trails were laid out. Driftwood was the main source of heating in the huts and they brought provisions with them from the mainland.

Despite this brief history of hunting/trapping, involving only a few people, the overwinterers have gained a unique place in the male mythology of the High North. The stories about their lives and achievements have been recounted for generations and have gained attention locally, nationally, and internationally. As an example, Henry Rudi’s book about his years as a trapper was reviewed in newspapers the length and breadth of the country, and he sold more than 18,000 copies in 1958 alone. After he retired and returned to Tromsø, various national and international media regularly interviewed Rudi, he became an honorary graduate student, and Tromsø’s skippers formed a guard of honour at his funeral. How can one explain this attention? Through the way they created their lives and life stories? One can read about the establishment of trapping terrain with huts, traps, trails, and depots as a civilising of the wilderness. However, the way this was achieved, with small, basic huts built from unpainted materials, serves to highlight that they were still very much in the wilderness. These men knew about the geography in which they acted: Arctic nature and men are co-produced (Ween 2015). The Arctic was portrayed as an arena of opportunity. Helge Ingstad wrote “In the land of the north, a man starts again. He is judged by his courage and everything else counts for nothing in the wide world” (1958).

In their narratives, the overwinterers reflected a lot on their freedom. Freedom involves defining oneself, “... a human being, alive, due to my efforts”, as Odd Ivar Ruud put it. Another dimension of freedom dealt with doing their work regardless of the weather and how they were feeling: “I have prevailed over powerful forces, therefore I am free”, said Henry Rudi (Hauan 2004)

Rudi describes himself as being “as careful as a wild animal in battle” when he was hunting walruses. In addition, they mastered the total isolation. The isolation is rewritten as freedom and the Arctic is rewritten from “no man’s land” into “every man’s land”.

The overwinterers portray the Arctic as being extreme and become part of this extreme. In doing so, they reinforce the national epic hero and the northern masculine ideals attributed to our heroes Nansen and Amundsen. The trappers have a joint role, both discovering and producing the national wilderness. There is an important difference between the overwinterers and the Norwegian polar heroes; whereas the heroes conquered nature, the hunters and trappers mastered it by surrendering themselves to it.


No Man’s Land?

Sir Martin Conway’s book No man’s land from 1906, subtitled A history of Spitsbergen from its discovery in 1596 to the beginning of the scientific exploration of the country, is recognised as the first historical work of Svalbard. This book, which deals with how men have increasingly ventured north to exploit the resources there, contains the following interesting sentence: “…having on board Monsieur Biard and his young wife, who wrote an account of her visit to the arctics” (1906, 300). The reference is to the exploration of Svalbard by the French Recherche expedition in 1838, and ‘his young wife’ is the first woman in Svalbard. Léonie d’Aunet dressed as a man during the trip and, in 1854, wrote Voyage d’une femme au Spitzberg. The book became a bestseller, appeared in many editions but was only translated into Norwegian in 1968. In it, she refers to discussions between the crew that speak of her as pallid and thin, unsuited to life on board a ship in the Arctic. One of the crew changes their attitude by pointing out that if they have to overwinter, their task will be to keep her alive, and that alone will keep their spirits up. Léonie d’Aunet was transformed into an instrument for rousing the men’s courage and will to survive. In a new book entitled Polar Heroines, we find a similar displacement. The book was published in 2012 and was written by a Norwegian woman journalist. In it, a female overwinterer is narrated as, above all, the girlfriend of a male hunter and trapper. There are tenacious structures and standards that define the Arctic as a male world. Men and the polar regions are intertwined in narratives that have been of national significance. This appears to be a durable dimension in the Norwegian national identity, and the International Polar Year 2011 reminded us that this still applies today.

In his article Displaying the Polar Nation: Nordic Museum Exhibits and Polar Ambitions (2013), Anders Houltz wrote that the Antarctic was unusually crowded in 2011. Crowded by Norwegians celebrating Amundsen’s winning the race to the South Pole in 1911, by either hiking in his footsteps, as did the leader of The Norwegian Polar Institute[iii] or appearing at the Pole, as did Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg. Houltz claims “re-enactment rituals such as this show with great clarity that century-old narratives of polar exploration are still relevant in modern society, both culturally and politically.” (2013, 293)  

Is this a uniquely Norwegian dilemma? One of many examples of this being a transarctic dimension is found in Alaska. Deadliest Catch, the TV series about Alaskan crab fishers, has enjoyed enormous success, not just domestically but also in Europe. Fearless roughnecks represent masculinity and, through seamanship and fishing, refer back in a way to the white Europeans’ conquest of the High North.      


“The Arctic of the others”?

What can contribute to modifying the common stereotypes of Arctic masculinity? We need to bring out the missing narrations in museums and other channels that mediate Norwegian national epics. This means both narrations about women and their participation in, or relationship to, the Arctic. But also narrations of “the Arctic others”. Just as Léonie d’Aunet was passed over in half a sentence, many women’s active polar lives are undercommunicated. To mention just a few: Wanny Woldstad, a Norwegian woman hunter and trapper with five overwinterings in Svalbard and her own hunting biography. Louise Arner Boyd (1887-1972), amateur polar researcher from San Rafael, San Francisco, told to be of Indian origin, [iv]documented and supported American Geographical Society expeditions to the Arctic. The thrilling accounts of Ada Blackjack’s (1898-1983) participation in the expedition financed by Vilhjalmur Stefansson to Wrangel Island in 1921-1923 have many facets. She was chosen as an expedition member because she was Inuit and could sew skin and fur. In the relatively recent biography about her, her response patterns are explained as Arctic hysteria, a diagnosis that is easily attributed to women but has no medical validity (Niven 2003). She survived the male expedition members and demonstrated an ability to master the situation, both mentally and physically. She hunted and trapped, taught herself photography, and wrote a diary of the time she was left alone on the island. Blackjack was chosen because she could sew. Stefansson took seamstresses on the expeditions that he himself led. The Dane Knud Rasmussen also took Inuit women on his Arctic expeditions.

It is a democratic challenge that museums are gendered so as to confirm the white western male’s superiority and to marginalise other groups (Brenna 2018). One possible approach is museum representations based on differences, and with the perspective that gender must be considered together with other oppressive mechanisms such as ethnicity, age, sexuality and class (intersectionality). Not least, a diverse gender perspective must be employed.


The Anthropocene revisited

Far from being the untouched wilderness of much public imagination, the Arctic includes areas marked by centuries of human presence. The polar regions are also spaces imbued with gendered perceptions of the past, present and future that affect life and work there. The achievement of a sustainable future therefore involves acknowledging its gendered aspects, revising its grand masculinist narratives and formulating strategies that take this past into account for the future. The gendered heritage of centuries-old narratives of polar explorations has continued relevance, both culturally and politically. We need to update the connection between the past and the future and use the past to think critically about what is to come. This is of crucial importance for regions where the key perceptions, ideas, and values are rooted in masculine dominance.[v]

The effects of the Anthropocene are not yet dramatically visible in Svalbard. It is still driftwood from Russia, small hunting/trapping huts and the man-made mining settlements that attract the attention when sailing along the coast of the archipelago. However, more familiarity with patterns of use from the last 422 years of resource exploitation reveals some dramatic experiences. The future is literally under threat. Cultural monuments such as the 2000 or so tombs from the whaling period, ruins from overwintering for annexation and hunting are under intense pressure. Permafrost melt is destroying cultural relics faster than ever, and glacier melt is leading to erosion, causing graves to slide into the sea. Another effect of human activity and presence is naming. Nature is defined through description and naming. The reciprocal influences between geography and gender are complex, deep, and help co-construct each other according to Massey (2005). This is justification enough for gendered investigations and is further underlined by the fact that around 10% of Svalbard placenames are inspired by women. It is of the utmost importance for a sustainable future that new versions and images of polar history are created.


The historical distance between Svalbard and the Norwegian mainland has collapsed. After 400 years, it is no longer difficult to reach the Arctic. The wonder, however, is not diminished. What does the nature of the heroic become in meeting with the threatened landscape of the Arctic?


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