Ittoqqortoormiit, stories from yonder’ is composed of photographs taken by Tanguy Sandré, PhD Research Fellow, and Jeanne Gherardi, Associate-Professor, during research stays in fall 2021 and spring 2022 in Ittoqqortoormiit, east of Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland). Ittoqqortoormiit is a town of 354 inhabitants (2022), located at the mouth of the Kangertittivaq/Scoresby Sund, the largest fjord in the world. Ittoqqortoormiit is the northernmost settlement on the east coast of Kalaallit Nunaat (70° 30′ N 22° W). The community was founded in 1924–1925 by Ejnar Mikkelsen and 70 Inuit, mostly from Tasiilaq, to reaffirm Danish sovereignty over Norway. The community has long relied on subsistence hunting – polar bear, walrus, narwhal, muskox, seal, etc. – as their main source of income. In 2022, the Ittoqqortoormeermii, the inhabitants of Ittoqqortoormiit, are facing multidimensional transformations due to increased institutional marginalisation, a shrinking population, the absence of a doctor, environmental restrictions on hunting, an endangered language and changing climate and sea ice conditions.
The exhibition was conceived by two French researchers, our voices and our stories relate our experiences and do not substitute for those of the inhabitants of this community. This exhibition was conceived as part of the SeMPER-Arctic project (2020-2024), which aims to understand and analyze the sources of resilience in the Arctic by gathering local stories of change, disruption and their consequences in three Arctic communities, including Ittoqqortoormiit.
Note: Throughout the exhibition, we use the local-specific terminology for Greenland (Kalaallit Nunaat), Greenlandic Inuit (Kalaallit) and Greenlandic Inuk (Kalaaleq) in Kalaallisut, the West-Greenlandic Inuit language. Additionally, we also use Tunumiisut (East Greenlandic language) words and naming when possible.
By Tanguy Sandré Snow storm October 2022. Second day in a row in the snowstorm. This is the third since I’ve been here. Enough to already cover the event with a certain banality. A few days after my arrival, the flakes were hurtling down at over 150 kilometers per hour. Hit hard while trying to get home that day, Jeanne had lost her balance several times over a distance of a few dozen meters, and was only able to reach her front door with the help of people anchored to their machines. We were able to share this powerful experience, telling each other about the repeated assaults of the wind against the shaking walls of our homes. These days, the weather has become humbler. Yet, the school is closed today, the Pilersuisoq (the local grocery store) is slow, the post office is closed, and few are trying to get into the powder. Some on foot, more often on the snowmobiles that redesign the roads after each storm, before the snowplow puts them back in order. Stuck inside, lulled by the whistling of the gusts on the walls of my house and surprised by the slightest sign of life coming from outside. Outside, the visibility is variable, with each step, one does not know how many centimeters lower one will be. Caution is required, these stormy moments are conducive to the loss of orientation and the arrival of polar bears in the village. In recent years, winter storms have become more and more frequent in the fall. Sleds on ice By Tanguy Sandré June 21, 2022 is the national holiday of Kalaaleq. The city is enveloped in the animation of the great days, a day surprisingly filled with festivities from early morning to evening. A breakfast is organized in front of the municipal building, in front of which Ken Madsen, one of the vice-mayors of the municipality Kommuneqarfik Sermersooq, gives a speech before singing the Kalaaleq anthem “Nunarput utoqqarsuanngoravit” (You our old country). Later, Ida Abelsen, the pastor, celebrates the service in the oldest building of the city, the church erected in 1929, and renovated a few years ago because of the melting of the permafrost which threatened its foundations. At the end of the service, we head to the top of the village to pay our respects to the statue of Ejnar Mikkelsen, Danish polar explorer and co-founder of the community in 1924-25. In the early afternoon, the hunters harness their dog sleds for the traditional seal hunting competition. This year the ice is still well anchored in the fjord and thick enough; in other years the competition is done by motorboat. The hunters set out on the ice floes, dotted with puddles, where the ice is already starting to melt. Near the harbour, the inhabitants look through their binoculars. After about thirty minutes, the first sled comes back, we have the winner of the competition, Martin Madsen. The crowd disperses again, some will come to participate in the fishing competition in the afternoon. At the end of the afternoon, almost the entire community gathered in the gym for a big banquet – polar bear, muskox, walrus, seal, there was something for everyone. After the awards ceremony, Juulut and Kristian sing Kalaallit songs while Isaac performs a Qilaatersorneq, a traditional art form combining dance, song and music on a drum (Qilaut). The day ends with a fireworks display, before everyone disperses and the city returns to its calm. Ittoqqortoormiit from Unnartoq By Jeanne Gherardi 19 May 2022. From the village of Ittoqqortoormiit, looking east towards the mouth of the fjord, you can see the hamlet of Unnartoq, located 7 km away as the crow flies. From this place, in return, one has a singular sight on the village. This year, the entrance of the fjord is entirely covered with ice, it has not happened for 20 years. All this ice as far as the eye can see, explains the absence of animals which are usually very numerous around the hamlet. “The ice is very far away this year, it must be hard for the hunters. You have to go farther to hunt. This hamlet of about twenty houses along the cape was closed at the end of the 1980s, the electricity was cut off, and the inhabitants were relocated to the larger town of Ittoqqortoormiit. However, the houses were not abandoned. Many have kept them and now consider this place a valuable vacation spot from which to escape the hustle and bustle of the village. It is also the place where one goes to observe the polynya, that area of ice-free water that usually attracts many marine mammals. Finally, it is the privileged observation post for bears. Every winter, Evald, among others, comes to settle in his old house, with his binoculars and spend hours observing the lord of the place, counting them. He keeps a register for several years in which he notes all his observations. For example, in 2019, he observed 153 bears from January to mid-April. He also notes the day when the quota of 35 bears allowed for professional hunters in the village is reached; it was April 16 in 2019, the 22nd in 2020. Unnartoq looks out to both the vastness of the ocean to the east and the vastness of the fjord to the west, the quality of the silence, the clarity of the air and the clarity of the view are conducive to contemplation. Dogs at rest on the ice floe By Jeanne Gherardi May 2022. Every day I go walking on the ice floe, making my way around the village. After passing through the nerve center, around the store, I reach the bay at the frozen river, which is totally covered with ice and snow as well, and I walk around the village to the gas station. I love the sound of my footsteps on the snow of the ice floe, I love to stop and listen to the cry of the seagulls and the croaking of the big crows, when they are not chatting. And that’s it, no other noise. I’m talking about those moments when the dogs are at rest, barely lifting an ear when they hear me passing by, those magical moments that are not interrupted by the sound of an engine. I stop and observe. I look towards the other side of the fjord, and depending on the light, I see the shadows of an imaginary crowd of ice blocks of varying sizes that mark the newer and thinner part of the ice pack, a more unstable area, where it is more complicated to venture by snowmobile. It is quite fascinating to note the multitude of variations in the landscape. Always the same view, and yet never the same. The slightest shade of light generates a new impression. The tabular iceberg that serves as a giant stage for all this crowd also undergoes minute variations that make it multiple throughout the day. The evening light is probably the most spectacular because it brings a touch of color to this beauty, a touch of softness. This is if my gaze shaves the ice floe. As soon as it rises a little, it is caught by these peaks culminating between 800 and 1900 m of altitude, connected by glaciers which appear like magnificent blankets of thick white velvet. During the conversations, I understand that this year, the winter was obviously particularly cold, and it has been a long time since the entrance of the fjord has been frozen like this, more than 20 years. So, since the beginning of March, you have to go quite far, beyond Cape Tobin, to hunt seals that come to bask on the ice. This is also the reason why the bears are not very close to the village at the moment, they stay on the edge of the ice pack, to be able to feed themselves. It is quite interesting to note that the extent of the ice this year imposes longer trips for the hunters, and that it has become unusual for them. Polar bears’s skin By Jeanne Gherardi May 10, 2022, I arrived the day before, and already I feel that this second field will be very different from the first. The permanent daylight, the clarity of the non-night, is already a physical adventure in itself. Early in the morning, I head towards the school to feel all the activity of the village. It is 7:50 am, the children arrive at the school, dropped off by snowmobile by their parents. I find familiar figures who welcome me with a smile. Among them, Josef, a professional hunter, who had given me the honor of fresh seal liver, a real local delicacy during my autumn stay. I congratulate him for the beautiful bear skin hanging in front of his house, drying on wooden structures. He proudly tells me that he has beaten his record this year, with 9 bears to his credit. In this month of May, the quota of 35 polar bears for the community was recently reached, but 5 more were granted, because of their “omnipresence” this winter? because of an evaluation of the local population of ursus maritimus? Nobody knows the answer to this question, but the hunters are happy about this situation, and the inhabitants of the village are reassured: they don’t have to live in fear of an attack, the hunters are watching. While making my usual tour on the snowy roads of the village, I can indeed notice in front of the hunters’ houses, or on their container serving as workshop, that sumptuous skins are stretched and put to dry. The conditions of this end of winter are ideal, a dry cold which allows to dry the leather without blackening it. I feel anchored in this village again when I realize that I find these skins beautiful and that I am happy for the hunters. Woman on this ice By Tanguy Sandré Together with the community, we have been asking people to tell us stories, stories that matters to them. Sea ice was a ‘character’ that featured in many of these stories. ‘Naluarnga! I don’t know in Tunumiisut (East Greenlandic). This is an uncommonly short word, performed as a refrain escaping from the mouth of the Ittoqqortoormeermii, the inhabitants of Ittoqqortoormiit during the autumn 2021. The days were getting shorter at the mouth of Ugeer (‘Winter’ in Tunumiisut), and I was randomly asking to locals this question: “When will the ice wrap itself again around the 350-inhabitant town?” I rapidly understood it was a humility-deprived, a question from a world we aim at foresee, at control’ (Tanguy Sandré, rewrite from fieldnotes, October 2021). In the meanwhile, convergent stories were told: it was earlier before, we are now waiting a long while for the ice to be stable and thick enough to be anew covered by the tracks of sled dogs and snowmobiles. In June 2022, the question could have been reverted: “When will the ice melt again around the town?” But we, researchers, we have learnt, we already know the answer. We therefore pay attention to new convergent stories: this is very unusual that there is still ice now, we haven’t seen that for 20 years. Change in sea ice are ubiquitous and non-linear, hence impossible to foresee or to imagine. Hence, people rely on their ability to live with high uncertainties, which is culturally rooted in the attitude of not making plan. Daily colourfulness By Tanguy Sandré October 19, 2021 is just another day, infinitely unrelated to the previous one. Time compresses and lengthens, brings simple joys and deep solitudes, it is palpable and diffuse, it is counted and counted. Even my field journal loses its sense of linearity: some days are absent; others tell old stories. I am not sure when I became a tourist. This morning, I learned with some amazement that it was -7°C today. On November 3, 2021, quads, pickups and big cop cars are becoming rarer, slowly being replaced by snowmobiles. The last boats are sailing in the fjord. Usually, the ice pack takes place in mid-October. This year it will be later, the first ice cubes appeared last week, and since yesterday, frozen carpets appear on the horizon, offering countless shades of blue. The dog sleds have not yet taken their place, but the dogs’ rations have already doubled – seal fillets and beautiful portions of orcas are now daily. In the meantime, the village children spend entire evenings on miniature sleds tuned to all sorts of vehicles. The last bicycles were seen more than two weeks ago. On November 18, 2021, the ice pack finally comes to huddle around the village, more than a month late. Subreptitiously, the sea ice has settled that night. When I wake up, for once, I don’t feel alone to be subjugated by the horizon. Some people stop, others turn their heads insistently from their quads, which have resisted longer than I thought to the depth of the snow that covers the village. Still, it’s pretty warm, with a high of -2°C yesterday. Last week, some hunters rode their dog sleds again, caught by musk oxen near Qinngaaiva/Walrus Bay. But no way to slide on the sea ice yet, it is still far too thin and fragile, forming pancakes that nothing connects to each other. As we get closer, the sounds of cracking intertwine with those of flowing, sweeping the silence. The dance of the iceberg By Jeanne Gherardi September 2021. For more than a week now, brought by one of these famous gales that I had taken for a storm, a magnificent iceberg has taken its quarters in the village bay. At this season, those that we see come from the numerous ramifications of the fjords in which we can find many glaciers. Those at the bottom of Kangertittivaq/Scoresby Sund, such as in Kangertertivarmît Kangertivat/Nordvestfjord, Rødefjord or Vestfjord are even in direct connection with the ice cap that covers Greenland via the Daugard-Jensen, Rolige and Vestfjord glaciers respectively. All these glaciers regularly release colossal masses of ice, this is called glacier calving. The icebergs coming from the ice cap are of a size that is hard to imagine, several hundred meters, or even a few kilometers long… And imagine their thickness. The other glaciers, independent of the ice cap, also calve numerous icebergs of very variable size and shape which can feed a whole imagination. All this ice universe drifts slowly in the narrow but deep fjords, according to the wind and the currents. In this month of September, we can distinguish along the south coast of the fjord, a majestic fleet that drifts slowly towards the mouth to join the East-Greenland current that will take them to the south of the country. These are “small icebergs” compared to those on the bottom of the fjord, residual fragments of the latter. These icebergs usually drift, but if they are high and voluminous, they can rub the shallower bottom of the eastern part of the fjord, the widest, towards the mouth. A real contest of forces then begins, between the winds, the currents and the friction, and the iceberg always comes out on top. In the calm of the place, it is not uncommon to hear a deafening and heartbreaking cracking sound, it is the cry of the iceberg that splits, cracks and collapses. The smaller pieces must then rebalance themselves in a crash and tumult that is best avoided. Our iceberg, the one we are interested in, has a singular shape. It looks like a sledge, with a long seat on which we can see dancers, small blocks of ice collapsing from the higher ledges. It looks like a vast liner on whose deck one can imagine bears wandering peacefully. According to the time of the day, and the light, this small world seems to agitate. In the early morning, we are in a blue-grey-white gradation, with darker shadows marking the movements of the ice debris, it is there that the bears wander, in the bright whiteness of the seat of the vast sledge. In the setting sun, the deck has taken on a pale pink hue on which skilful dancers play, this warm color contrasts with the icy blue of the ship’s bow and the black and cold waters of the fjord. It makes the link with the sun, like a colored caress. A real magic inhabits the fjord in these moments! Ice fishing By Tanguy Sandré At the end of June 2022, the sea ice is still shaping the horizon, thus extending the ice fishing season. Some of us post up on the still thick ice around the city, others go to the frozen lake of Qinngaaiva/Walrus Bay. It is there that I find Camilla and her family. The children came to play on this beach so crucial for the inhabitants of the community. They are not yet old enough to jump from iceberg to iceberg, like the older ones. Camilla offers me to accompany her to fish on the thin ice, I methodically follow her footprints. When she finds the right spot, she stops and carefully reveals her gear. A hook caught in fishing line that unwinds from a gold Playstation controller. We are ready to fish! The ice is not very thick, maybe twenty centimeters. We reuse the gaps opened by the other fishermen and fisherwomen around us, sometimes using a door (a stick usually used to probe the ice) to widen the ice opening. In Ittoqqortoormiit, ice fishing is practiced mainly when the ice is forming in the fall and when it is about to break up in early summer. In the summer, other fishing practices (angling or netting) are deployed in the fjord and in some rivers. If fishing remains a recreational activity here, the changes in ice conditions and the warming of the waters in the fjord could give it a whole new importance in the years to come. For the moment, the polar cod (Uungar) and the Arctic char (Kavorniangar) are the main preys. After several tens of minutes of waving my forearm up and down, I caught my first Kavorniangar. It will be our only catch of the afternoon. Weather Station By Jeanne Gherardi Impossible to talk about the weather station, without mentioning Tore Hartmann, manager of the weather/radio station of the village for 41 years. I had been in contact with him via the DMI (Danish Meteorologisk Institut, the Danish equivalent of our MétéoFrance) before my departure, and I had written him about my 2 projects. It is an old man, a little gruff at first sight, who welcomes me (or rather does not chase me …). I first present the approach of our project Semper Arctic which aims to understand and analyze the sources of resilience in the Arctic by gathering local stories of changes, upheavals and their consequences in three Arctic communities. Knowing that he has been in his position for a long time, I ask him if he would be willing to participate in this process, which necessarily requires him to give up “a little”. Perhaps I am too direct with him, but it is a clear and definite no. As relaxed as possible, I take out my “instrumentation” card, ready to show him the little slide show I have prepared with photos of the installation of a Picarro laser spectrometer that I would like to be able to set up within a few years. It allows to measure continuously some elements of the water vapor (the isotopes, 18O, 16O). These measurements are very useful to trace the trajectory of air masses, and in the current context of climate change, understanding how polar air masses evolve is very important. But here again, I am not very successful! I am not going to stop there, just to relax the atmosphere, I ask him if he can show me the station (I should have started there… beginner’s mistake!). Then, this big man starts to relax, his tired eyes start to shine and it’s time for the commented visit with historical and personal anecdotes! The weather station is first and foremost a radio station, initially set up during World War II and maintained during the cold war. It was originally established in Cape Tobin, the old village. But it has been above the hill of Ittoqqortoormiit for 41 years. He himself has lived in a house next door for all that time, and he is still amazed by the view, the silence and the tranquility of the place! He has a twinkle in his eye when he talks about the hunting he no longer does because of his age, the muskox meat he will miss when he is in Denmark, the changing and bright light of the place, and the quality of the silence. Tore retired in November 2021, moving to one of “the few Danish islands on which there are cliffs and rocks.” Arctic Royal Line By Tanguy Sandré October 3rd, 2021. The Royal Arctic Line cargo ship has just left the fjord under a modest fireworks display that the inhabitants of Ittoqqortoormiit have a secret for. For two and a half days, there was a constant back and forth between the cargo ship, moored a hundred meters from the coastline, and the sheds of Pilersuisoq, the local grocery store. In the meantime, the containers are moved from the ship’s platform to a motorboat that will connect to the shore, before a truck takes over on land to cover the last thirty meters to the sheds. In front, the employees are on the lookout, soon joined by the residents who are often also waiting for personal deliveries. This is the second and last cargo of the year. This great logistical operation takes place only twice a year, once at the beginning of August and again at the end of September/beginning of October. It will therefore take ten months for the grocery store shelves to be refilled or for bulky supplies to be brought in. Many residents maintain that with the reduction of the ice pack in the fjord, it is now possible and desirable that a third boat connect Aarhus (Denmark) to the community in the fall. In October 2022, the inhabitants of the city launched an online petition to support their request, especially since this year many deliveries would not have been honored by the Danish company. The rest of the year, light shipments of fruit and vegetables or eggs arrive by air from Iceland at often prohibitive prices. Restlessness By Jeanne Gherardi Thursday September 23rd, a day tinged with a nice excitement: with the idea to enjoy the beautiful days to come, after 10 days of bad weather, and the desire to go explore other places than the village, I rented a shotgun at Nanu Travel, the tourist agency of the village. For 150 Danish kroner, about 20€, you can rent a shotgun. Olena who works at the agency, showed me the characteristics of this rifle and then let me leave with it… It is inconceivable to go away from the village without a weapon, to be prepared for the possible presence of polar bears. It is the occasion to go in the direction of the reservoir lake in the north of the village, to realize the vulnerability of this resource in this context of accelerated warming. The path is well marked, despite the snow that has accumulated in places, but it is too far from the village to venture out unarmed. The day of Tanguy’s arrival, we decide to take the direction together Once out of the village, well away, it seems the right time to load the machine. Except that I don’t have complete control over this machine, if at all… I am very careful when loading it, pointing the gun towards the valley, where there is nothing else but the torrent and the rocks. I check that the safety is on, I feel that it is, but as soon as I touch the trigger, the gun goes off into the void… it’s resonant, it’s terrifying… arctic adventure maybe, but I’m stunned, and fortunately Tanguy doesn’t seem to be more distraught or to realize the seriousness of the situation, otherwise I think I would have fallen apart. I pull myself together quickly, and we decide to continue the walk. We notice hunters much further down the path, so it’s not essential to reload the rifle for the moment. I keep an ammunition in the hand, for lack of replacing it in the cylinder, and it is only a long time after having passed these hunters that Tanguy suggests me that perhaps, it would be more prudent to reload it. I start the maneuver again, trembling, first the safety, check several times and everything goes well this time, the gun is loaded, but it is well blocked. We can continue. In spite of the novelty of the way, in spite of the landscape of snow-covered mountains, glaciers, and lakes, in spite of the overhanging sight of Qinngaaiva/Walrus Bay, I do not taste anything, I am completely dismayed by this serious incident. I have difficulty to be attentive to our conversations whereas I was looking forward to exchange finally with him. On the way back, well before the village, I unload the gun and I am relieved to put it at home. I don’t want to use it anymore, it’s not safe, neither for me nor for the others. Definitely more of a gatherer than a hunter! The next morning, when I noticed one of the police cars stopping several times in front of different houses, it didn’t take much for me to resume my ranting. We must certainly wonder about the origin of yesterday’s gunshot at the end of the day… I go to give the gun back to Nanu Travel as soon as it is open, and I confide my terrible clumsiness to Olena who smiles and plays it down as calmly as possible. It happened outside the village, so there is no problem, these things happen… Age laughs at me when I tell her about the incident, especially when I mention my apprehensions towards the police… and Mette reassures me that it is the classic beginner’s mistake… I am not sure I want to laugh about this mistake. Calamity Jane’s adventures in the Northeast, ends here!