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The Hearth of the Home

Editors David G. Anderson, Robert P. Wishart, and Virginie Vaté look from many angles—history, cosmology, and architecture—at the idea of home in About the Hearth: Perspectives on the Home, Hearth and Household in the Circumpolar North, which will be published next month. Below, co-editor Wishart discusses the importance of home and shares a bit about how life is constructed in the Arctic North.



Berghahn Books: What drew you ‘to the hearth,’ or to the study of the home in the circumpolar north?


Robert P. Wishart: For myself it came originally through observations on the importance of building cabins among the Gwich’in.

One elder who took me under his wing is a passionate builder of cabins. His family jokes that he is like a beaver that way, always building. I was at first shocked by how these cabins were built without any written plans and yet they all ended up being safe, warm and comfortable. For someone raised with the idea that a house is supposed to be a terribly complicated thing needing multiple professionals to bring into existence, it was incredible to watch and participate in building one without these hang-ups. 

Then during a study of Gwich’in forestry practices I became intrigued by how logs were selected and how they were moved to building sites. It became apparent that each log in a cabin has a story to tell about how it got there but this is only the beginning in its witness to Gwich’in home life. When I began to discuss these things with the other members of the Home, Hearth and Household project it became apparent that at the centre of all our interests were these seemly simple things (a fire, a home, or who stays there) that were in reality incredibly complex. We tried to capture a good deal of that complexity in the book.     


BB: Did any perceptions on the subject change from the time you started your research/compiled the contributions to the time you completed the volume?


RPW: I learned so much through all the research, the conferences and workshops, and finally from the reading, editing and re-reading the individual contributions, that it would be hard to single any one thing out. However, I think that in a way each of the chapters discusses fascinating historical particularities that I continue to reflect upon in trying to come to grips with a wider understanding of the history of the circumpolar north.


BB: Do you think there are aspects of this work that will be controversial to other scholars working in the field?


RPW: Hard to say. I am always surprised by what other scholars find controversial. There are points of potential controversy in the book such as revitalization and repatriation efforts, the contrasts and conflicts between the practical and the political, the archaeological evidence on hearth rows, the reading of census data in relation to household analysis, cosmological analysis, and the theoretical positions that some of the authors took on fire, architecture, the hearth, and smoke. There are of course others as well. Time will tell.   


BB: What is one particular area of interest or question, that hasn’t necessarily been the focus of much attention, which you feel is especially pertinent to your field today and in the future?


RPW: For myself, and a few of the contributors to this book, there has been a move to investigate the notion of domestication in the Arctic context. The Arctic and sub-Arctic have been imagined as spaces devoid of domestication and this has had real impacts on the lives of people who call these places home and it has influenced the way that human-environment relations have been theorized. We are looking much more closely at these assumptions, and doing research on these relations, to get a better sense of what we might want to index with powerful terms like domestication. All of this is funded by a European Research Council Advanced Grant led by David G. Anderson.      


Anderson, Wisehart, Vate Q and APhoto by Virginie Vaté


BB: What’s a talent or hobby you have that your colleagues would be surprised to learn about?


RPW: Well some might be surprised that I am attempting to become a scratch golfer. Those who know me would not be surprised that I am failing spectacularly in this attempt. Working for a university does not give one the time needed to really lower that handicap… at least that is what I tell myself.


BB: Who is one iconic figure featured in one way or another in your field of research, living or dead, for whom you have particular admiration and why?


RPW: Well for myself I am always drawn to those who were writing against the grain of academic and/or public orthodoxy and never received much credit because of it. This comes from the Gwich’in who told me that there were lots of crazy ideas about them out there but some folks got things right. In relation to studies on the Gwich’in, one of these was Richard Slobodin whose work I return to often.  



Robert Wishart completed his doctorate in anthropology at the University of Alberta, Canada, and joined the department in September 2003 as a postdoctoral researcher, then as an RCUK Fellow, and was appointed to lecturer in 2010. He has done fieldwork on the Gwich’in-Dene of the Mackenzie Delta in Northern Canada, the Ojibwe of Ontario, and Scottish fishermen. He led an associated project on vernacular architecture in the Gwich’in settlement area for the HHH: Home, Hearth, and Household in the Circumpolar North research consortium and is currently a member of an international research project funded by the European Research Council.


David G. Anderson is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen. He is the author of a monograph on Taimyr Evenkis and Dolgans, and the editor or co-editor of several collections published by Berghahn Books, most recently, The 1926/27 Soviet Polar Census Expeditions (2011). He was the project leader of HHH: Home, Hearth, and Household in the Circumpolar North and the principal investigator of the Norwegian independent project within that network while an adjunct professor at the Centre for Sámi Studies, University of Tromsø. He is presently the principal investigator of a five-year international research project funded by the European Research Council.


Virginie Vaté is an Anthropologist at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in France. Since 1994, she has been doing research in Chukotka (Northeastern Siberia), particularly among Chukchi reindeer herders. In 2011, she began investigating missionary activities from Alaska directed toward Chukotka, in particular native-to-native ministry. Within the BOREAS network, she led a project associated with the collaborative research program on New Religious Movements in the Russian North (NEWREL). She is a co-editor of the NEWREL volume, currently in preparation.