An Arctic Awakening

Northern lights over Finland
Northern Lights over Oulu, Finland (Photo Courtesy of Rachel Seidman)


Last week the Fulbright Finland program staff brought us to Oulu, about 400 miles north of Turku, for the Fulbright Artic Initiative Symposium. Oulu (oh-oo-loo), a city of about 200,000 people, sits on the coast of the Bothnian Bay, which feeds into the Baltic Sea. It’s one of the largest cities in the world at such a northern latitude, and fancies itself “The Capital of Northern Scandinavia.” The event took place at the University of Oulu, which prides itself on its entrepreneurial and scientific accomplishments–critical indeed for a region whose economy was decimated in the early 2010s when Nokia’s dominance was wiped out by Apple and Android. Nokia had at one point employed 5000 people in Oulu. But thanks in part to the university and its Innovation Center, the city has regained a sense of optimism from the proliferation of small businesses. Our two-day visit started with presentations by three start-up companies fostered by the university’s “business kitchen: one farms insects for food; one uses virtual reality to improve speech therapy for stroke victims; and one created an app geared toward providing a “low threshold” for civic engagement by allowing people to voice their opinions on a variety of local issues.

Before and after the start-up “pitches” we had a chance to look at posters created by the two teams of Fulbright Arctic scholars, whose presentations we would be watching the following day. As I browsed through them, I was immediately struck by the realization that the Arctic scholars’ work, which I had originally assumed would be relatively irrelevant to my own research, was in fact, deeply connected.

Rachel Seidman
Rachel Seidman, director of UNC’s Southern Oral History Program.

The sixteen Fulbright Artic scholars, from all eight arctic countries, work on individual projects and on interdisciplinary teams to tackle major challenges facing the global arctic region. Eight are focused on issues of sustainable economic development. The other eight are using the Community Based Participatory Research framework to study health-related issues in indigenous communities of the artic. Their approach and their topics are deeply tied to our work at the Southern Oral History Program and the Center for the Study of the American South. Although we study The Global South and they study the Global Arctic, literally opposites in terms of placement on the globe, many of the challenges—climate change, lack of broadband infrastructure, underemployment, marginalization—are familiar. And the scholars’ commitment to the idea of engaging communities in their research design and projects, and treating people as experts of their own experience whose knowledge is essential for scholars and policymakers to understand, aligns perfectly with ours. I particularly enjoyed talking with Elizabeth Rink, from the University of Montana, who studies reproductive health issues in indigenous communities in Montana, Greenland, and Finland. She talked with me at length about her methods, including interviewing community members over many months and even years, starting with topics far more comfortable for them and only slowly building toward discussions of reproductive health. Likewise Josée Lavoie, of the University of Manitoba, shared her experiences with Ongomiizwin—Research Indigenous Institute of Health and Healing and in the challenges of reckoning with countries like Finland that are so committed to the notion of equality that they are not always ready to admit differences in culture and the implications.

The following day—after a morning walk on the frozen Bothnian Bay and watching (younger, more agile) colleagues learn to play Finnish floorball (Salibandyliitto), a hockey-like game with colorful plastic sticks and ball—we attended the main event, the Arctic Symposium. There we got a better sense of how the teams were working together. I was intrigued by the health group’s presentation. The theme under which they had originally been organized by the program leaders was “Resilient Communities.” After surveying the indigenous communities with which they worked, the researchers argued that the term “resilient” was not one the communities embraced, and so instead they were now suggesting a framework of “thriving” communities. In one way, based on our interviews with people in the South, I understood this impulse—after all, “resilient” does not seem to convey any joy. “Resilient” conveys to me an image of surviving—like a tree that manages to stay upright despite being battered by winds and storms. But we have heard how many people in the South love living in their communities and feel a sense of pride in the values, talents, and relationships that thrive in their homes, families, and among their neighbors. I can imagine that they, too, might not think that “resilient” does justice to the creativity of their lives.

In the Q & A time, however, I asked whether these researchers saw any tension or risk in arguing both that there are major problems to be addressed in these communities (for example, the terrible suicide rates among Sámi men that Jon Petter Stoor, a Swedish/Sámi clinical psychologist works to solve) and that the appropriate label for them is “thriving.” If we argue that these communities are thriving now, I wondered, why would they need more resources? Is it possible to convey both notions to policy makers at the same time? I hope the conversation we started there is one that will continue.

Discovering these connections in the midst of the Arctic Symposium was almost as surprising and exciting as our lucky encounter with the northern lights later that night. Benjamin and I completed our Arctic adventure by travelling further north to Rovaniemi, where we stepped across the Arctic Circle, and spent some time in the snowy woods. All told, a memorable trip.

Arctic Forest


By Rachel Seidman, the director of the Southern Oral History Program in UNC-Chapel Hill’s College of Arts & Sciences. Seidman is currently living abroad as a Fulbright Scholar in Turku, Finland, from January 2019 to May 2019. She is documenting her experiences on her blog.