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Indigenous Influences on Polar Exploration and Science

This lecture will examine and discuss how Indigenous peoples have influenced modern and historic polar exploration. Explorers John Huston (USA) will use his own expeditions and research as a vehicle for storytelling and examination of this compelling topic. Stephanie L. Pfirman, Professor of Environmental Science at Columbia University’s Barnard College will give an after word on Indigenous influences on contemporary polar science and climate change research.

Throughout the last 150 years many of the most important and successful endeavors in polar exploration have incorporated skills, knowledge and sometimes the people from indigenous cultures in the Arctic region. While polar exploration is a relatively new pursuit for westerners, several indigenous groups such as the Inuit or the Lapps of Scandinavia have lived in the Polar Regions for thousands of years. Some legendary polar explorers, such as Roald Amundsen and Otto Sverdrup from Norway, and US Rear Admiral Robert Peary, saw Indigenous people as an invaluable resource and specifically designed expeditions in order to learn from Indigenous people. Their expedition’s records represent some of the earliest anthropological work on these remote populations. Others such as Cook and Scott largely ignored the existence of the Indigenous and paid the ultimate price.

Indigenous peoples in the Arctic have developed uniquely insightful ways of observing, interpreting, and responding to the impacts of environmental changes and are important actors in terms of global climate change monitoring, adaptation and innovation. Professor Stephanie L. Pfirman will give an introduction to the role Indigenous people play in polar science, climate change adaptation strategies in the Arctic and present some of the research conducted through Barnard College and Columbia University.

This event coincides with the Scott –Amundsen: A Race to the end of the Earth exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and the International Polar Year Science Conference, the largest polar science gathering ever, which takes place June 8-12 in Oslo, Norway.


In April of 2009, John Huston and his expedition partner became the first Americans to reach the North Pole unsupported and unassisted. This grueling 500-mile, 55-day journey has been called 'the hardest trek on the planet'. In the winter of 2007/2008 John led a full length ski expedition to the South Pole. He frequently ventures to the Canadian Arctic, where he reconnects with many Inuit friends, with whom he lived for 100 days during 2007. In 2005 John joined a team of Norwegians, which included Harald Kippenes, in a re-race of the original 1911 race to the South Pole using the original equipment, food and clothing. The expedition, which took place on the Greenland ice cap, was filmed for the observational documentary 'Race to the Pole’ by the BBC and History Channel that aired as a major series in 2006. John is currently writing a book about his North Pole expedition, lecturing to all types of audiences and working as a polar guide. He resides in Chicago, IL.

Stephanie L. Pfirman, Barnard College, Chair of the Department of Environmental Science and Alena Wels Hirschorn '58 and Martin Hirschorn Professor of Environmental and Applied Sciences. In addition, she is an Adjunct Research Scientist the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, and was a consultant to the Race to the End of the Earth exhibition. Her scientific research focuses on the Arctic environment, in particular on the nature and dynamics of Arctic sea ice. Professor Pfirman is a member of the National Academy of Sciences Polar Research Board, past-President of the Council of Environmental Deans and Directors, and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Time: 6 PM

Location: New York Headquarters

Member Ticket Price: No Charge

Guest Ticket Price: $20

Student Ticket Price:

$5 with ID

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Background image photography courtesy of members Christoph Baumer, Neil Laughton, Matt Harris and Don Walsh's image of the Bathyscape Trieste