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Our Global Neighbours: Arctic Ice-cream

By: Dr Stan Florek, Category: Science, Date: 03 Nov 2016

And other examples from ingenious Inuit culture.

Inuit Children

Inuit Children
Photographer:  © Public domain

Our Global Neighbours is a blog series containing stories from and about cultures around the world.

To make ice-cream, grate reindeer tallow. Add seal oil slowly while whipping. After some seal oil has been mixed in, add a little water while whipping. Continue adding seal oil and water until it is fluffy. Any berries can be added for flavour. This recipe was offered by a student from Shishmaref Day School, Alaska in the 1950s.

Inuit People made their home in the North Polar regions which for most of us looks extremely inhospitable. Ingenious technology and clever methods of subsistence account for their success.

For example, an ice scratcher from Point Barrow, the northernmost tip of Alaska, was carved out of walrus ivory and fitted with three claws, a head of a seal with red beaded eyes, drilled nostrils, etched whiskers and mouth. Hunters stalked seals in late winter or spring when the animals liked to bask on the ice. Hidden behind a shield of white fur, the hunter crept close to the resting animal, raking the ice with the scratcher to imitate the sound of a seal working on its breathing hole. This calmed the seal, allowing the hunter to get close to the prey. The animal’s wound would be plugged by a bone stopper to prevent the flow of blood while the hunter dragged the seal’s body over the ice back home.

Our earliest artefacts from Inuit people were collected during Captain Cook’s third expedition to the Pacific (1776–1779). On this occasion Cook ventured to Chukchi Sea – a southern extension of the Arctic Ocean. It was a quest for finding the Northwest Passage – not the first or last. This passage became a dream of Western merchants only a few years after Christopher Columbus completed his memorable voyage to the Caribbean in 1492.

There are also Australian connections. John Franklin, a Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen's Land (1836-1843), now Tasmania, also went searching for the Passage. His two ships were trapped in ice off King William Island in September 1846 and the expedition perished.

In contrast, Inuit people equipped with much simpler than European technology, lived in this icy world with relative comfort. Their ancestors lived there for some six millennia, if not longer. Their remarkably effective tools and local knowledge helped to develop a way of living that fascinated Westerners. Hunting whales from tiny watercraft is an astonishing undertaking. But original eye shades, clothing, transport, homes and much more illustrate Arctic adaptation by cultural and technical means.

A good part of our Inuit collection was assembled by prominent explorers and passionate naturalists in the 1890s and 1900s, showing snippets of this amazing culture.

Sixteen artefacts acquired from the American Museum of Natural History were collected at Smith Sound in north Greenland by Lieutenant Robert Edwin Peary (1856-1920), a somewhat unfortunate hero - deficiency in navigation and record keeping made his claim as the first explorer reaching the North Pole hotly contested and virtually unresolved.

A collection of nearly 100 artefacts acquired from the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania was assembled at Point Barrow – the northern tip of Alaska - by Edward Avery "Ned" McIlhenny (1872–1949), an American explorer, conservationist and ornithologist.

Another part of the University of Pennsylvania Collection consists of 24 artefacts collected in western Alaska by archaeologist George Byron Gordon (1870–1927), long-time Director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, who tirelessly built its large anthropology collections.

Fifty artefacts from Greenland were acquired in the 1920s from the National Museum of Denmark – our long-term partner in collections exchange, dating back to the 1850s.

A sizeable part of the Arctic Collection is currently on display in the Discovery Centre located at Castle Hill. It would help the residents of Western Sydney to cool their thoughts in coming summer months and to reflect on human ingenuity millennia before we invented the refrigerator and “esky”.

Additional information:

The Ice cream recipe is from Eskimo Cook Book (c. 1952) – prepared by Students of Shishmaref Day School, Alaska, assisted by their teacher, Isabelle Bingham.

Shishmaref is an Inupiaq Eskimo community on Sarichef Island in the Chukchi Sea, just north of the Bering Strait. It is predicted that about 600 inhabitants will be forced to relocate to the mainland within coming years - their native land will be taken by the sea as a result of global warming. Shishmaref may be one of the first communities of climate refugees. The project 'The Last Days of Shishmaref' documents this dramatic process by a feature-length film, a photobook and a travelling exhibition.