Photo: Galya Morrell
To the Inuit, the ice is the essence of their culture and character, and they depend on it for their survival. They understand its nature, how it moves, how it retreats and expands, and it is those seasonal changes that define the Inuit spirit. To quote renowned author, Gretel Ehrlich, who lived among them for many years, “They have no illusions of permanence. There is no time for regret. Despair is a sin against imagination.”
Drawing on collective experience, observation and knowledge handed down from one generation to the next, the indigenous peoples who inhabit the territories across the Arctic are able to not only recognize subtle changes in their environment, but they can offer vital insights into the causes.
It is crucial to view the issue of traditional knowledge from its more apropos perspective, in that the indigenous peoples are not primitive tribes whose lifestyles we have the responsibility to preserve, but to the contrary. We in the modern and seemingly more civilized world, would do well to adopt some of the age-old wisdom employed by the aboriginal populace that existed sustainably for thousands of years before the industrial revolution changed the world – ours and theirs.
In a global system where everything is interconnected, it is important to remember that the environment, the economy, foreign policy, global health and sustainability are not separate concerns, but that each of these domains has a profound effect on all of the others. The Arctic is the planet’s barometer, and because the impacts of climate change are felt there more immediately and dramatically, its indigenous cultures are facing unprecedented challenges.
While the same could be said for all the peoples of the Far North, the Inuit, who view themselves as the early warning system for the rest of the world, have become a symbol of adaptation and cultural survival. Their resilience, however, is now being tested as they confront conditions beyond their capability to control. The rules have changed, and even the elders are themselves uncertain of what wisdom they should pass on to the younger generation.
On the Cumberland Peninsula on the eastern coast of Nunavut’s Baffin Island is a national park called Auyuittuq. In the Inuktitut language spoken in the region, auyuittuq means “land that never melts.” Yet in 2008, the permafrost in the park and surrounding area thawed, and heavy rains washed away the soil down to the bedrock, ravaging not only the park but a few small communities nearby. In recent years, ice conditions have become increasingly unpredictable, altering animal migration patterns, and leaving the residents unable to cope with changes so profound that they undermine Inuit ideals of patience and resolve. The stories are very similar all across northern Canada.
For Sheila Watt-Cloutier, an Inuit activist, these events are categorical evidence of global warming, and few people have done more than she to champion the rights of those whose lives are threatened by the changes in the world’s climate. Born in Kuujjuaq, Nunavik, Ms. Watt-Cloutier grew up deeply rooted in her native culture, and soon after receiving degrees in education and human development, she became a formidable leader in Nunavik. In 1995, she was elected President of the Canadian branch of the Inuit Circumpolar Council [ICC], which thrust her into the national and eventually the international arena. In 2007, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her advocacy work in linking the impacts of climate change with human rights.
Well known for her focus on solutions, one of her objectives is to change public opinion into public policy. Ms. Watt-Cloutier played a key role in negotiations at the United Nations to ban a class of poisonous chemical pollutants that have been accumulating in Arctic waters and subsequently showing up in breast-milk of Inuit women. As later Chair of the multinational ICC that represents the 150,000 Inuit living in Canada, Greenland, Russia and the United States, she petitioned the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights with a claim that unchecked emissions of greenhouse gases from the United States violated Inuit cultural and environmental human rights.
Ms. Watt-Cloutier’s main mission is to put a human face on climate change. In her own words: “Most people can’t relate to the science, to the economics and to the technical aspects of climate change. But they can certainly connect to the human aspect. The key is to move the issue from the head to the heart.” It is her Arctic voice and the individual stories she shares that enlighten and inspire.
Storytelling is a critical element in the passing down of indigenous traditional wisdom from one generation to the next, but if also imparted from one culture to another, stories can teach us to think differently. Initially presumed to be erroneous, but later authenticated, one particular account that is a testament to the tenacious adaptability of the Inuit people is well worth retelling. It is an narrative shared by noted Canadian anthropologist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, Wade Davis, in his book titled “The Wayfinders | Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World.”
As Wade Davis relates, “The Inuit did not fear the cold: they took advantage of it.” Before other materials became more readily available, the fact that runners of their sleds were originally made of fish wrapped with caribou hides proves the point. During the 1950s, in the process of establishing their sovereignty in the region, the Canadian government forced the Inuit people into settlements. Because the grandfather of one of these displaced Inuit families refused to stay in the new dwelling, the family was forced to take away all his tools and weapons, which would prevent him from being able to sustain himself on his own. Unthwarted by his family’s restrictions, the man slipped outside, and at some distance away from the structures, he pulled down his sealskin pants and defecated into his hand. As the feces started to freeze, he shaped it into a blade, and then added a sharp edge from his own saliva. Once this ‘knife’ froze solid, the man butchered and skinned a dog with it, he fashioned a harness out of the dog’s hide, improvised a sled using its rib cage, harnessed a second dog to this new ‘sled,’ and disappeared into the Arctic night. “Talk about getting by on nothing!” Wade Davis ends.
Indeed this story is a perfect example of human imagination combined with traditional knowledge that is brought into being by culture borne both from and by the environment to which these people are so closely connected. It proves that all humans of all cultures, ancient or contemporary, possess the power to adapt and change. Therein lies hope for the future, not only for the Inuit people, but for the rest of us – as long as we are willing to listen, learn and understand the value and providence of their wisdom.