The Arctic, or circumpolar, peoples are the indigenous inhabitants of the northernmost regions of the world. For the most part, they live beyond the climatic limits of agriculture, drawing a subsistence from hunting, trapping, and fishing or from pastoralism. Thus climatic gradients, rather than simple latitude, determine the effective boundaries of the circumpolar region, and these gradients have their counterparts in the major environmental transitions. Of these transitions, the most important is the tree line, which marks the northern margin of the coniferous forest, or taiga. Between this limit and the coasts of the Arctic Ocean, the land consists of open tundra, though, in regions of high altitude, pockets of tundra lie enclosed within the forest zone.
Arctic environments are commonly imagined to be barren and inhospitable, habitable only by virtue of the extreme physical endurance and technical virtuosity of the peoples who dwell in them. Though their possession of these qualities is not in doubt, this view of the far north rests on a misconception. The image of the remote wilderness, to be conquered through a struggle for survival, belongs to the language of the alien explorer, not to that of the native. For indigenous people, the circumpolar environment is neither hostile nor forbidding but familiar and generous, offering the gift of livelihood to those who would treat it with consideration and respect.
Though there are indeed seasons of scarcity, these alternate with periods of extraordinary abundance. The continuous daylight of the warm Arctic summer, coupled with ample surface water from melting snow, allows for a phenomenal rate of growth of surface vegetation, and this in turn attracts a multitude of animals, many of them of migratory species. Warm ocean currents around some of the Arctic coasts are likewise conducive to an abundance of marine fauna. It is not, then, scarcity that characterizes the Arctic environment but rather its seasonality. […]
Adaptations to local environments
The three major environmental zones of forest, tundra, and coast, and the transitions between them, establish the range of conditions to which the ways of life of the circumpolar peoples are adapted. These conditions are strikingly uniform across both northern North America and Eurasia, and this uniformity is matched by remarkable similarities in cultural adaptation throughout the circumpolar region. Broadly speaking, it is possible to class these adaptations into four kinds. The first is entirely confined within the forest and is based on the exploitation of its fairly diverse resources of land animals, birds, and fish. Local groups tend to be small and widely scattered, each exploiting a range of territory around a fixed, central location. The second kind of adaptation spans the transition between forest and tundra. It is characterized by a heavy, year-round dependence on herds of reindeer or caribou, whose annual migrations from the forest to the tundra in spring and from the tundra back to the forest in autumn are matched by the lengthy nomadic movements of the associated human groups—whether these be of hunters (as in North America), who aim to intercept the herds on their migrations, or of pastoralists (as in Eurasia), who are in continuous association with them. The third kind of adaptation, most common among Inuit (Eskimo) groups, involves a seasonal movement in the reverse direction, between the hunting of sea mammals on the coast in winter and spring and the hunting of caribou and fishing on the inland tundra in summer and autumn. Fourth, typical of cultures of the northern Pacific coast is an exclusively maritime adaptation. People live year-round in relatively large, coastal settlements, hunting the rich resources of marine mammals from boats in summer and from the ice in winter.
Identification of Eastern and Western Arctic cultures
In northern North America the forest and forest-tundra modes of subsistence are practiced only by Indian peoples, while coastal and coastal-tundra adaptations are the exclusive preserve of the Inuit and of the Aleut of the northern Pacific islands. Indian cultures are thus essentially tied to the forest, whereas Inuit and Aleut cultures are entirely independent of the forest and tied rather to the coast. […]
As regards the history of settlement and contact, the most obvious difference is that the Russian exploration of Siberia was virtually complete at a time when the European exploration of northern North America had hardly begun. Although both movements of exploration were dominated by the fur trade and although it had very similar consequences for native communities on both continents, the former belongs to the earlier history of the trade, the latter to its later phases. In the European subarctic the contrast is even more striking, for there is a history of contact between its native people, the Sami (Lapps), and Finnish and Scandinavian settlers that dates back almost 2,000 years and that is part of indigenous cultural tradition. In the case of the Finns and the Sami, even the respective languages are closely related. This situation of continuous contact is a far cry from the encounter, in the North American Arctic, between Euro-Americans and Inuit, which brought together representatives of cultural worlds that, until that time, had had separate histories and had remained completely unaware of each other’s existence.
Relations with the encompassing nation-states
The eventual outcome of the history of contact on both continents, however, has been that indigenous groups have come into the knowledge not only of the world of their colonizers but also of one another. For the first time, for example, Sami people came to know of the existence of Inuit, and vice versa, and to realize that as the indigenous populations of their respective lands they share common problems, interests, and aspirations. This mutual awareness has been given political expression on an international level in the notion of the “Fourth World,” uniting all such indigenous minorities encompassed within the boundaries of modern nation-states. Though the notion is intended to be of global application, its force has been felt above all in relation to the peoples of the north, in northwestern Europe and North America, all of whom presently find themselves citizens of Western liberal democracies and both beneficiaries and victims of the institutions of welfare capitalism that have been developed in these countries since World War II.
This points to one of the major criteria of the modern world for dividing the indigenous peoples of the circumpolar region—namely, the artificially imposed geopolitical division between East and West. The Sami, as citizens of the Nordic countries, have been much more closely identified with their counterparts in North America than with the indigenous minorities of Siberia, for the recent history of the latter group was for decades shaped by its incorporation within the overall political and administrative framework of the U.S.S.R. Yet in both East and West the lands traditionally occupied by native groups have turned out to contain reserves of raw materials and energy vital to the industrial growth and prosperity of the encompassing states as well as to be of crucial significance for their strategic defense. This has brought money and jobs to the north, as well as the trappings of large-scale and advanced technology. But the jobs are largely filled, and the technology operated, not by native people but by a skilled immigrant workforce. Native people have become socially and economically marginalized in their own homelands. […]
Though it is true that northern native people have been quick to adopt certain elements of modern technology and consumer hardware, from snowmobiles to radios and televisions, this is because their use, alongside more traditional items, makes good practical sense in the context of everyday life. And, although the purchase of these and other items necessarily involves them to an increasing extent in the workings of a money economy, this involvement represents an attempt to sustain, rather than to abandon, a valued form of livelihood. People are not forced to make an all-or-nothing choice between the paths of tradition and modernity. Far from attesting to a state of transitional disorientation, as though suspended between two worlds and two times, such creative blends of the old and the new show that, for the peoples of the north, life is an ongoing concern. It is only because of the Western tendency to equate indigenous cultures with an exclusive adherence to tradition that they seem always to be on the point of disappearing. […]
In common with circumpolar peoples generally, those of northern Eurasia do not constitute clearly demarcated “tribes.” Ethnic and territorial boundaries, insofar as they are recognized at all, are ill-defined and fluid. Moreover, the enumeration of ethnic groups is further complicated by the many different names by which these groups may be known. Some names are broadly inclusive, designating populations of tens or even hundreds of thousands, whereas others apply to particular local groups of no more than a few hundred individuals. Some names are indigenous (self-designations); others are of foreign origin and have been applied by neighbouring peoples, conquering peoples, or anthropologists. In many cases, the indigenous designation is simply the term in the local language or dialect meaning “person” or “human being.” Bearing in mind these reservations, the following ethnic groups may be distinguished (with one or two exceptions, indigenous names are used throughout; where names of foreign origin have been in common ethnological use, these are placed in parentheses). […]
The fluidity of settlement throughout Eurasia during prehistoric and historical times has left an extremely complex distribution of languages. Broadly speaking, however, the languages of the indigenous peoples of the Eurasian Arctic and subarctic can be grouped into four classes: Uralic, Manchu-Tungus, Turkic, and Paleo-Siberian. […]
The human occupation of Arctic and subarctic Eurasia dates to the last phase of the Upper Paleolithic Period. At that time much of northern Siberia consisted of arid steppe-tundra, an environment favourable to herds of large grazing animals, such as the now-extinct mammoth and woolly rhinoceros as well as the reindeer. The earliest settlers were specialized hunters of these rich game resources, and their descendants, having spread as far as the northeastern tip of Siberia, became the first humans to cross into North America, perhaps about 13,000 years ago. (Some investigators, however, hold that modern humans had migrated as far as present-day Alaska by 30,000 years ago.) Several further waves of migration followed, in both directions. A general climatic warming about 11,700 years ago, marking the transition from the Pleistocene to the Holocene Epoch, led to the expansion of the taiga, or boreal forest, which was flanked to the north by a narrow strip of swampy tundra. Within the taiga zone, hunting cultures developed with an emphasis on small game procurement and fishing, whereas, around the northeastern coasts, warm sea currents favoured the exploitation of marine mammals.
Meanwhile, agricultural economies involving the use of domestic animals were expanding from their centres of origin into Southwest and Central Asia. It was this expansion that eventually led to the domestication of the horse and, in the 1st millennium bc, to the rise of mobile, equestrian pastoralism in the Central Asian steppes. Moving north into the Siberian taiga, these pastoralists were probably the first to domesticate the reindeer. They were the ancestors of the present Samoyedic- and Tungusic-speaking peoples. […]
During the 20th century the human settlement of Arctic and subarctic Eurasia has been completely transformed. […]
With the exception of the Pacific coast, the Eurasian Arctic and subarctic correspond fairly precisely with the distribution of the reindeer. More than any other factor, the reindeer and its domestication lend some cultural unity to the region as a whole, as well as distinguish the region from the North American Arctic and subarctic, where the reindeer (or caribou) remains wild. […]
Most shelter in winter was in substantial semisubterranean houses of stone or sod over wooden or whalebone frameworks. In Alaska, save for the far north, heat was provided by a central wood fire that was placed beneath a smoke hole; throughout the north and in Greenland, a large sea-mammal oil lamp served the same purpose. In 19th-century Siberia and on St. Lawrence Island, the older semisubterranean house was given up for a yurt-like structure with sod walls and a walrus-hide roof. […]