Much has been published about the role of indigenous peoples in the global society, most recently by Marjo Lindroth on indigenous peoples in the United Nations (Lindroth 2015). Frank Sowa's doctoral dissertation, which is written in German, contributes to this discourse with a Greenlandic case study that focuses on the self- and externally perceived relationship between Greenlanders and their natural environment. The result is a highly enlightening approach towards the contradictory perception of Inuit as guardians and destructors of nature. As Sowa rightly points out, ‘the presented depictions tell more about the inner-European (and later American) discourses of the respective time rather than about the people in Greenland’ (page 134). This is underlined on numerous occasions in this work and constitutes a crucial element in outside depiction of Greenlandic Inuit.
Sowa builds his work on fieldwork experience in the early 2000s and presents not only ethnographic data on rather contemporary Greenlandic society, but at the same time delves deeply into theoretical aspects of his topic, taking into account political, philosophical and sociological conceptions of ‘nature’, ‘culture’ and ‘identity’. Moreover, Sowa is very self-critical with regard to the interpretation of his fieldwork data. These aspects taken together, Sowa's work could certainly serve as an important theoretical and practical tool for students of globalisation and cultural studies and especially those aiming at or having conducted ethnographic studies.
Sowa presents the different elements in the nine chapters of his dissertation. For example in Indigeneity: historic representation of Greenlanders he provides a highly enlightening historical overview of six different, clearly discernible stages, also existing at the same time, in the perception of Greenlanders since their first encounters with Europeans: ‘barbaric savage’, ‘noble savage’, the ‘Eskimo as the counter-people’ as being the opposite to the western urbanised culture, ‘environmental saints’, the ‘noble eco-savage’ and the ‘unknowing environmental destructor’ (pages 131–200).
The author's treatise on the ‘noble eco-savage’ has attracted most of this reviewer's attention. Here, Sowa gives overview of the reflection of indigenous peoples’ rights in the UN system and in how far the discourse on the ‘noble co-savage’ finds reflection in international environmental governance (more detailed, see Lindroth 2015). He also touches upon traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). Sowa highlights that especially the term ‘traditional’ bears difficulties and displays that ‘knowledge of indigenous peoples does not only concern the past, but also the present’ (page 170). Unfortunately Sowa does not take into account the possibility that a tradition could also expand into the future, especially with regard to transmitting knowledge to future generations: if changing environmental conditions do no longer allow for reliable application of knowledge, future generations can no longer use this ‘traditional’ knowledge. Unfortunately rather briefly Sowa mentions the problems of reconciliation of TEK and scientific knowledge in a co-management context. Here he underlines that this socially constructed knowledge is broken up and removed from its socio-cultural context in order to embed it into a western/scientific context. Highlighting this problem is certainly necessary as political discourses seem not to take it into consideration (see also Procter 2005).
This being said, Sowa treads on rather thin ice when he appears to debunk the certainly politically used claim of Greenlanders being ‘respectful nature people’ since time immemorial. His argumentation rests on a Greenlandic fable that appears to set a standard for sustainable hunting. He claims that the fable only in recent times received the connotation of sustainability and that Greenlanders by no means only hunted what they were in need of. Sowa primarily relies on Hans Egede's and David Cranz’ accounts from the 18th century which depict large-scale hunts in order to question the claim of Inuit being future-oriented, discursively constructed, ‘respectful nature people’. While in principle this reviewer does not object to this claim, pure reliance on colonialist accounts as historical fact seems doubtful. Anthropological data or deeper socio-economic analysis of past living conditions to back up his claim would have been of benefit.
The author also presents how Greenlandic self-representation has taken over the image of the ‘steward of nature’ narrative. He touches upon political sphere by screening the political rhetoric of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (now Council) and the images (re-)produced by the Greenlandic tourist industry. The untouched, ‘wild’ Greenlandic nature and the small human in it are such productions which Sowa considers to be an ‘Eskimo counter-concept which was designed by Europeans and Americans’ and which ‘now has really become Inuit-reality’ (page 193). This approach does not consider that there may have been an incentive for Greenlanders to foster this image in order to strengthen Greenlandic political and economic power and therefore in the longer run to gain political independence. Although Sowa points to this fact in the conclusion by stating that Greenlanders are forced to ‘reproduce the image of an indigenous people. Greenlanders are not supposed to become too modern’ (page 376) in order to be able to continue their hunting-based cultural practices, throughout the discussion this element could have been covered more thoroughly. Moreover, the strong focus on nature in political and tourism discourses may also serve as an additional incentive for international environmental governance systems to take concerted and efficient action (see also Thisted 2013). However, narrative-based self-representation is by no means exclusive to Greenland and ‘adventure’ in a tourism context is commonly found. A comparative angle on Greenlandic and Danish ‘adventure’ tourism can for example be found in Rygaard and Kroløkke (2009).
Highly enlightening this reviewer found Sowa's analysis of the importance of Greenlandic food, kalaalimernit, in the decolonisation and indigeneity discourses. Sowa's article in Polar Record (Sowa 2013) deals with this topic and I would therefore point the non-German speaking readership to this article instead of dealing with it in this review. Contrarily, the chapter on Europeans in Greenland: deconstruction of the ‘environmental saints’ is somewhat slightly mysterious to this reviewer. It is a chapter on foreigners, Germans and Danes, living in Greenland and their view on the Greenlandic treatment of the environment. Sowa treads on rather new paths of socio-anthropological inquiry, but here a rather surprising methodological shortcoming arises, even in spite of the rigorous self-critical methodological introduction of this book: only five interviews with six interview partners were conducted on which the results are based. In other words, no larger conclusions can be drawn unless the interview partners were chosen in order to adequately represent the group they belong to. The so-called Q Method could serve as a methodological tool here, which the author, however, did not apply (see for example Addams and Proops 2000). Consequently, the table, whose caption reads ‘Subjective construction of nature conceptions by Danes and Germans living in Greenland’ (page 263), is merely a snapshot of six individuals living in Greenland.
Throughout the book the dichotomy between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ can be found, as the title of the book suggests. This comes especially to the fore in the chapter on Indigeneisation discourse, ecological discourse and local people in Greenland which rests on the author's interviews with 20 Greenlanders. Paraphrasing his interview partners, Sowa presents in how far nature- and culture-perception may differ amongst Greenlanders. It is questionable in how far the nature/culture divide actually exists or indeed reflects the author's own conceptual framework. From this reviewer's own fieldwork experience with Newfoundland fishermen, this divide does not exist as ‘we are part of the sea and the sea is part of us,’ implying an inherent undividable relationship between nature and culture. Therefore, while not as such contradicting Sowa, a more critical assessment of this conceptual divide in the applied methodology, especially in the chapter referred to above, would have been beneficial.
Apart from focusing exclusively on Greenland, Sowa draws some comparisons with regard to the international (non-)recognition of coastal whaling to the Japanese whaling village Taiji, where the author conducted fieldwork. To the knowledge of this reviewer he therefore presents pilot ethnographic data of a Japanese whaling community and he shows the differences in justification for Greenlandic whaling being recognised and Japanese whaling being ostracised. Interestingly, here the author once again refers to the difference in nature and culture as on the international stage the Inuit as a ‘nature people’ hold different (discursive) rights than the Japanese as a ‘culture people’ of an industrialised nation. While the environmental impact of both may not differ in scope, a science-based discourse is therefore absent (page 361–363). Peer-reviewed English publications on the issue would be desirable.
Indeed, while the book is undoubtedly highly relevant, its scope of impact is limited due to it having been published in German. Given the highly sensitive issues that Sowa touches upon and the international relevance of this volume an English version would have been better suited. Although the book contains many direct (English) citations, on many occasions so many that the flow of reading is impeded, non-German readers will not be able to access the book's content. Also an index is missing, making it difficult to use this work as a reference book. Unfortunately, the case study of Taiji is the only direct comparative angle in this volume. Especially with regard to Greenlandic food or the (failed) reconciliation of different management systems a comparative angle to other case studies/geographical areas would have been beneficial. While comparisons are not found frequently, especially the role of food in a decolonisation context is, at least to the knowledge of this reviewer, a rather understudied element. Therefore, Sowa contributes wonderfully to this newly emerging research.
Although this reviewer found some shortcomings, this book is in many respects an impressive work as it touches upon a plethora of issues relevant in the indigeneity discourse. Indigenous peoples in the global society is without a doubt an important contribution to this discourse, especially, naturally, for a German speaking audience.