PSU Professor Receives Grant to Study Inuit Communities in Arctic Canada

March 29th, 2006 by Adam

A long-distance friendship, a lifelong interest in the Inuit communities of Alaska and Canada and a grant from the Canadian Embassy have given Plymouth State University geography and tourism development professor Mark Okrant the chance to plan a trip to several arctic Baffin Island communities next fall.

Thanks to a $5,000 grant from the Canadian Embassy Faculty Enrichment Program, Okrant will travel to the communities of Iqaluit, Lake Harbour, Ivujivik and Cape Dorset in the fall of 2006, as a participant in a program celebrating the life of author, artist and filmmaker James Houston, who has helped bring worldwide attention to Inuit and Indian art and culture.

During his time in these arctic Baffin Island communities, Okrant, a self-proclaimed “Canadaphile,” will gather research material for his class at PSU on Canadian and Alaskan geography and tourism. He will also collect information for scholarly publications and, upon his return, will develop an electronic Web link designed to foster discussion among university students in Alaska and Canada.

Okrant, best known for his research on tourism in New Hampshire, has traveled to Arctic and Sub-Arctic regions five times in the past 10 years, spending time in Alaska and the Swedish Arctic. From 1995-2000, he conducted tourism development assessments for the University of Alaska, concentrating on Yupik, Chupik and Aleut communities. He developed his interest in the Arctic while working on his master’s thesis, which focused on Canadian Inuit cooperatives, native-owned businesses designed to promote economic independence through traditional skills, including boat-building, handicrafts and fishing.

During his study this fall, Okrant will look at whether the establishment of these cooperatives has helped or hindered tourism development in the four communities. He will also accompany filmmaker and gallery owner John Houston (Never Cry Wolf) on an expedition to remember Houston’s father, James Houston, who has been honored as a filmmaker, designer, author and expert on Inuit and Indian art and culture.

Okrant is delighted to be participating in the program honoring the late James Houston, who helped found the artisan cooperative movement in Arctic Canada and bring attention to Inuit arts and culture through film, literature and community partnerships. James, born in Toronto in 1921, was the author of 17 books for children, half of which have won international book awards. He also wrote several works for adults, and has produced several documentary and animated films. Houston was also a renowned sculptor, creating pieces inspired by Arctic themes in crystal, metal and Plexiglass.

“James Houston became one of my heroes while I was working on my master’s thesis on Inuit cooperatives. Years later, while I was working on another project concerning cooperatives, I tried to locate Mr. Houston. My efforts led me to his son, John, a well-known filmmaker in his own right. John and I struck up a friendship via, of all things, the e-mail,” said Okrant.

Last year, Okrant invited John Houston to serve as the Fall Convocation speaker at PSU. While Houston was in New Hampshire, he returned the favor, inviting Okrant to participate in a special ceremony devoted to his father. John Houston, who has also dedicated his life to the culture of the North, worked on the films Never Cry Wolf and Fly Away Home, and is co-owner of the Houston North Gallery in Nova Scotia. Both Houston men are considered among the most important advocates of Inuit art and culture in the world.

Okrant hopes to bring what he learns about Inuit tourism, Inuit cooperatives and the Houston family’s role in community development back to students at PSU. Since 1986, Okrant has been offering a course on Canadian and Alaskan geography and tourism. The information he learns, through observations, interviews and photographic records, will add a depth and breadth to his students’ understanding of Inuit culture.

“Academic literature on tourism activity in Inuit communities remains minimal,” said Okrant. “This project will enable me to impart current, accurate information, and will support students’ own processes of making cross-cultural comparisons and contrasts, electronically, with students in Canada and Alaska.”

Mark J. Okrant is professor of geography and tourism development, and director of PSU’s Institute for New Hampshire Studies. He has coordinated tourism research for the State of New Hampshire since 1990, conducted tourism assessments in Aleut and Yupik communities in Alaska, and has presented tourism marketing and planning workshops in Alaska, Canada and Romania. Okrant is a member of the International Association of Scientific Experts in Tourism, is past president of both the Travel and Tourism Research Association and the New England-St. Lawrence Valley Geographical Society. He was the 1998 recipient of the Association of American Geographers’ John Rooney Award, for excellence in applied tourism research, and is the author of two books: Judson’s Island, a tourism planning text, and A Last Resort, a murder mystery.

Plymouth State University (PSU) is a regional comprehensive university offering a rich, student-focused learning environment for both undergraduate and graduate students. PSU offers 42 majors and 62 minors in programs that include education, business, humanities, arts, and natural and social sciences. The College of Graduate Studies offers coursework that promotes research, best practices and reflection in locations on- and off-campus as well as online. For non-traditional students, PSU’s Frost School of Continuing and Professional Studies offers working professionals opportunities to pursue an undergraduate degree by attending classes in the evenings, weekends and online. Located in a beautiful New England setting, Plymouth State University has been recognized as one of the “Best in the Northeast” by The Princeton Review.