Inuit Perspectives on Climate Change
How the Inuit See Global Warming
BY SONIA GUNDERSON
In the tradition of their ancestors, Simon and Lukie check the ice with harpoons. (Photo ©Will Steger Foundation)
Sonia Gunderson, a resident of Fairfield, is currently on a Fulbright Fellowship in Igloolik, Nunavut, in Canada’s High Eastern Arctic, writing a book about the community’s cultural preservation initiatives. This is the second installment of a three-part series. The first article, in the December/January issue, focused on the checkered history of Inuit research in the North. The final article gives an inside view of Inuit culture in transition.
On a Saturday in early November, Marie, the mother in my Inuit host family, tells me her husband Lukie and her brother Eugene have decided to go caribou hunting on Melville Peninsula. My pulse quickens. “Is the sea ice thick enough?” I ask, recalling frightful stories she and others have told me about hunters hot-dogging on snowmobiles across frazil ice from Igloolik Island to the mainland.
“It’s this thick,” she says, holding her right thumb and forefinger two inches apart. Crinkling her nose, she adds, “This time, he won’t let me go with him.”
When crossing Hooper Inlet in autumn, Marie advised me a week earlier, the key is to maintain mental focus and consistent speed. The sea at this time of year resembles a giant waterbed with a thin skin of pliable ice. Go too slow, and the combined weight of driver and machine might be more than the tenuous surface can bear. Go too fast, and you can slice through a wave. In either case, you will plunge into the icy sea. The trick is to read the currents and ride the waves. And pray you encounter no mechanical problems.
I had been monitoring Turton Bay through my window daily, watching the freeze-up begin. This year, like last year, it comes several weeks late. Chatting in Inuktitut over CB radio, locals had compared their observations for several days, yet until now no one had dared venture onto the eggshell ice.
Inuit hunters, renowned for their intimate connection with their surroundings, have compelling reasons to risk the trip. Igloolik Island has no caribou, so they must harvest mainland caribou in the fall before the herd migrates out of range. If the timing is off, their families may go hungry, or lack the skins they need to make winter clothing.
While hunters on our small island, 200 miles above Eastern Canada’s Arctic Circle, have earned a reputation as “moving ice” experts, the atmosphere in our home is tense as Lukie and Eugene pack their hunting gear.
These days, with warmer temperatures, Inuit throughout the Arctic report similar apprehension as they venture onto thinning sea ice or face unfamiliar weather or animal migration patterns. “We no longer trust the knowledge our elders passed down, because the weather is different now,” I heard one hunter tell polar explorer Will Steger in Clyde River last spring, as he traversed Baffin Island by dog team to interview Inuit about their experiences of global warming.
Mixed Responses to “Global Warming”
Such comments, however, do not necessarily lead Inuit to the broader conclusions Steger and visiting researchers anticipate. Despite their precise scrutiny of local environmental changes, amid media reports on warming temperatures and unprecedented reductions in multi-year sea ice, many Inuit in Igloolik and surrounding areas balk at the notion of global warming or climate change.
“We’ve been through weather cycles before . . . whatever happens, we’ll adapt,” several Igloolik residents agree, smiling. Arsene Ivalu, a community elder, tells me that climate change stems from the earth flipping on its axis, a precursor to the apocalypse predicted by the Bible.
Apart from the odd apocalyptic theory, the resistance of Inuit in Igloolik to the notion of global climate change appears to have several bases. One relates to geography. In the Foxe Basin and other parts of the Canadian Arctic archipelago that are protected from large oceanic influences, the impact of warming is less pronounced than it is in Greenland, Alaska, and the Western Canadian Arctic. Those areas have reported melting ice and permafrost, damaged buildings and roads, rising water levels, dwellings and land slipping into the sea. There, families—even whole communities—face relocation.
Also, in the last 50 to 70 years Inuit have experienced abrupt lifestyle changes triggered by colonization. Since the 1950s and 1960s, they have moved from land-based camps into permanent settlements and adopted Christianity, a wage economy, and southern-style educational, health, social welfare, justice, and political systems. As they struggle to redefine what it means to be Inuit in the modern world, many acknowledge concerns about changes in their natural environment. But cultural erosion and social problems arising from their displacement—unemployment, soaring school dropout rates, addictions, suicides, crime, and abuse—are far more pressing matters.
Another factor relates to how Inuit have historically dealt with perils inherent in their nomadic lifestyle. For millenia, the key to their survival in one of the most extreme environments on the planet was to remain intensely focused in present time. Now, as residents of settlements where threats to physical existence have diminished, most Inuit still prefer to live in the moment and let the future take care of itself.
In the current milieu, locals tend to regard campaigns related to climate change, polar bear protection, and assertions of Canadian sovereignty, triggered by the newly ice-free Northwest Passage and associated political, military, mining, and business development activities, as highly suspect and intrusive “outsider” agendas.
Are Polar Bears Threatened?
Inuit find the polar bear hysteria particularly galling. Contrary to generalizations prevalent in the south, only a handful of Arctic polar bear populations are declining, including the one near Churchill in Western Hudson Bay, where most heart-tugging “starving polar bear” photos are taken.
According to polar bear scientist Ian Stirling, past president of the Society of Marine Mammology, polar bear populations in five of the 13 regions in Canada have decreased. Others have increased. Currently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is in the process of deciding whether or not to designate polar bears as “threatened,” a preliminary step towards classifying them as “endangered.”
A “threatened” or “endangered” designation would have a devastating impact on both traditional Inuit hunting practices and Nunavut’s lucrative sports hunting business, a core economic resource for the territory’s communities. For years, local Inuit have been working with the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board to establish hunting quotas for each community to insure sustainability, and they regard outside interference from the U.S. as harmful and meddlesome.
Climate Change Initiatives
Several Inuit leaders have focused on climate change and spoken eloquently about the issue. Foremost among them is Sheila Watt-Cloutier, former president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council who was a co-nominee with Al Gore for the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.
Watt-Cloutier was the first person to frame global warming as a human rights issue. She insists that Inuit have a right to be cold. In an August 2007 column in the Ottawa Citizen, she wrote, “It’s not just about environment—it’s about culture. It’s about a way of life.”
For the last 12 years, Watt-Cloutier has traveled internationally to bring her message that “the Inuit hunter who falls through the melting sea ice is connected to the cars we drive and the disposable world we have become.” In 2005, with the support of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference in Canada and Alaska plus 62 Inuit hunters, Watt-Cloutier filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, claiming that U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases threaten Inuit culture and violate their human rights.
Other groundbreaking initiatives include research collaborations. Climate change scientists such as Henry Huntington, Shari Gearheard, Igor Krupnik, and others are forging partnerships with Inuit throughout the Arctic to share traditional and modern scientific knowledge in an effort to find comprehensive, culturally appropriate solutions to problems. One such partnership involving Gearheard, Natural Resources Canada, the Government of Nunavut, and Inuit in Clyde River seeks to create a climate change adaptation strategy for Clyde River and the territory of Nunavut.
Of course, Nunavut’s indigenous families lie at the heart of these initiatives. Back in our own family, we await word from Lukie. Before long, his voice crackles through on the CB radio, and we heave a collective sigh of relief. Several days later, when the ice has thickened, he returns with fresh caribou. Marie calls the community radio station to invite friends and extended family to join us for a feast. Soon the living room and kitchen are brimming with guests, food, stories of the hunt, laughter, and games.
After guests leave, Marie and the three youngest children drag mattresses into the living room and huddle beside Lukie for the night, a family ritual marking his safe return from the hunt. Light radiating from the TV, its volume turned off, blankets the family as they sleep. In olden days, the soft light of a qulliq (stone seal-oil lamp) would have cast a similar glow over family members as they slept together on caribou skins in an igloo. As I gaze at my winsome family, I wonder what the future holds for these children. When they are ready to venture out and hunt caribou for their own families, will the ice still be there?
Read Sonia's other articles: Legendary Masters of the Arctic and Inuit Culture in Transition.
Reach Sonia at
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