Arctic Silk Road

Photo: Natalia Magnani


Roads, railways and airports facilitate new forms of mobility for people, goods, and ideas, but also the expansion of settlement, extraction, and administration. Their planning and anticipation has the potential for equal transformation. Through time, unrealized transborder infrastructural corridors--from British railways in East Africa to German roads in Fenno-Scandinavia--have shaped labor migrations and colonial imaginaries, but also been acted upon by the people whose lands they were planned to cross. How does the anticipation of large-scale infrastructural development impact the people along these routes? More importantly, how can anticipation shape outcomes? What can be mobilized in this anticipatory space to strengthen ties to land and community? 

This project springs from the controversy over anticipated infrastructure linked to the Northern Sea Route in Sámi transborder lands, Sápmi--from the currently halted Arctic Railway, port and other industrial infrastructure in Girkonjárga, to the Russian Arctic coast. China's Arctic White Paper has created a “Polar Silk Road” in the public imagination, a transnational shipping and trade lane via a melting Northern Sea Route between Asia and Europe. International preparations have fostered local uncertainty, collective mobilization, and competing interests along the envisioned routes. This is weaving new relations between economic and cultural interests in Sámi areas and northern industrial centers, state governments, and international organizations. At the same time, it has raised memories of past infrastructural development to bear on the present moment--the effects of state incursion on self-sufficiency and local production. 

In order to inform understanding and action in relation to the Polar Silk Road, the project involves comparative ethnographic, historical, and archaeological study of infrastructure across space and time. What can be learned about the social, environmental, and material relations of large-scale infrastructural endeavors, built and non-built, around the world, across Sápmi, and historically? Through collaboration with Sámi artisans and cultural institutions, we contribute to ongoing discussion of infrastructural impacts in Sápmi and globally.