Canada’s Inuit, Legendary Masters of the Arctic, Dec 07 | Listening to Canada’s Inuit, Legendary Masters of the Arctic


Writer Sonia Gunderson at Siuraajuk, an Inuit outpost camp 40 miles from Igloolik. Photo by S. F. Said

On my first trip to the Canadian Arctic, in the summer of 2000, I went as a tourist, eager to canoe Baffin Island’s pristine Soper River, camp in its national parks, and meet Inuit artists in five remote settlements. Planning the complex journey, I assumed my six weeks in the polar region would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But by the time I boarded my plane in Iqaluit to fly home, I had contracted a tenacious case of Arctic Fever. The only known cure was to return to the North.

Over the next seven years, I flew to Nunavut, Canada’s newest territory, three more times in the role of journalist, writing about Inuit arts and culture for Canadian magazines. In September of this year, I traveled North again, this time for a nine-month stint to study the High Eastern Arctic community of Igloolik, renowned for its Inuit cultural preservation initiatives.

To my dismay, my Canadian work permit tagged me as a “researcher,” since I had received a grant to fund my work. In practice, I do my best to avoid the label, since the term can trigger resistance in the North. In Igloolik, I call myself a writer, but adopt the role of listener, since quiet observation serves me best around Inuit, who often find direct questions impertinent or intrusive.

A Troubled History

Over the years, Inuit have been studied to death, sometimes literally. Many now dread the annual influx of researchers, whom some call siksik, the Inuit name for Arctic squirrels that poke their heads above ground only in summer. The arrival of these fair-weather scientists can be as jarring to Inuit as harsh fluorescent bulbs in a landscape accustomed to the soft light of qulliit, stone seal-oil lamps. But, like everything else in today’s changing Arctic, scientific research is undergoing a profound transformation.

Since the 1950s and 1960s, when they first began to leave their traditional nomadic lifestyle and move into permanent settlements, Inuit have suffered seemingly endless, often repetitive, interrogation and examination by outsiders. They have been poked and prodded, even seized against their will and taken onto ships for medical tests.

Last spring, during an interview with Paul Quassa, the mayor of Igloolik, he held out his arm to show me scars where, two decades earlier, a scientist had removed two patches of his skin to graft onto others in the community, then grafted the skin of two locals onto him, “to gauge compatibility.” Since then, I have seen the same scars on others his age.

Apart from the disruptions caused by researchers parachuting into their communities, Inuit often regard their research findings—if they get a chance to see them—as, at best, obvious or irrelevant.

At worst, they consider many of the reports erroneous, or the impact harmful to their way of life, as when studies result in the imposition of hunting quotas for polar bears, bowhead whales, or other wildlife. This is serious business for a culture whose identity, to say nothing of its subsistence, still relies on hunting. In addition, Inuit often claim researchers steal their knowledge.

Perhaps the most distressing aspect of the researcher-native relationship for locals has been that, until recently, Inuit—legendary masters of the Arctic—were rarely consulted for their expertise about the region.

Long accustomed to these indignities, Inuit have sometimes retaliated with humor. In a series of articles for various publications, Inuk satirist Zebedee Nungak coined the term “Qallunology” to refer to a proposed academic discipline that turns the tables on Arctic researchers by studying the strange, exotic customs and habits of white people. The term “Qallunaat” has long been used by Inuit to refer to non-Inuit. The literal meaning of the word, presumably based on the first observations by Inuit of European whalers, is “people with bushy eyebrows and big bellies.”

In his “fieldwork,” Nungak describes a range of Qallunaat behaviors that baffle Inuit, whose culture has thrived because of traditional values such as cooperation, sharing and humility. In his 2003 article for This Magazine, Nungak wrote:

"One of the most distinctive features of life among Qallunaat, the one most markedly different from Inuit life, can be summed up in this expression of theirs: Keeping up with the Joneses. Not much is communal and very little of life’s essentials are shared. It is based on competition, going to great lengths to “get ahead” and amassing what you gain for yourself. People around you may be in want, but that is their problem."

While Nungak tackles a sad chapter in the history of northern research with humor, recent shifts in the political landscape toward Inuit self-government have brought about more enlightened research policies in the Arctic to address this serious issue.

Forming New Alliances

Now, every prospective researcher in Nunavut—including me—must apply for a research permit, submitting a proposal in both English and Inuktitut that goes through a series of reviews, from the national to local levels, over a period of four months. Ultimately, my proposal had to be approved by the hamlet of Igloolik, an island community 200 miles above the Arctic Circle whose population of 1,500 consists almost entirely of Inuit.

Local representatives scour each proposal to insure the project will benefit the community and will involve residents as paid collaborators and sources. Once project results are determined, they must be shared directly with the community. Typically, that happens by way of an oral presentation in the hamlet or on local radio, a primary source of local news and community-wide conversation for the perpetually social Inuit.

In terms of research collaboration, Inuit empowerment, and cultural initiatives, Igloolik has led the way in Canada’s North. Over the last 22 years, its exceptional Oral History Project has systematically recorded the knowledge of local elders who grew up living on the land, covering a broad range of topics, from navigation on land and sea, weather, hunting, the preparation of animal skins for clothing, and sewing, to childrearing, kinship, leadership, and shamanism. As the most extensive collection of Inuit oral histories anywhere, the project has been an invaluable resource for Inuit, as well as for researchers, museums, and media throughout the world.

Noah Richler, the distinguished author and broadcaster for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, drew from Igloolik’s oral histories for his Ideas series and his recent book This is My Country, What’s Yours? A Literary Atlas of Canada.

“The Igloolik project is part of Canada’s library of stories, and stories are the bedrock of a society,” he told me. “As elders die, each passing is tantamount to the loss of a library room and its stacks of knowledge. Without the foresight of John MacDonald and others [at Igloolik Research Centre], this knowledge would have been lost.”
Igloolik elders have also conducted Inuit culture camps, Inuktitut language training, and a variety of other programs for the community. In recognition of their achievements, in 1998 Canada’s Department of Indian and Northern Affairs presented Igloolik’s Inullaarit Elders Society with its Northern Science Award, praising the group for providing “a way for elders to share their traditional knowledge with the young people in their community and with the world at large over many years.” The event marked the first time an indigenous group had won the award.

Imagine . . . Inuit acknowledged as researchers!

In another sign that the research landscape for scientists and Inuit has changed, guidelines for the current International Polar Year (IPY) call for anyone conducting research in the Arctic to incorporate the unique perspectives of people living in the region. Thousands of scientists from 60 countries will conduct studies in the Arctic and the Antarctic between now and March 2009 as part of IPY, a massive global initiative undertaken every 50 to 60 years to encourage scientific research on the polar regions.

Circumpolar Collaboration

Throughout the Arctic, Inuit are taking a more active role in research projects. Shari Fox Gearheard, a geologist from the University of Colorado who lives in Clyde River, on the east coast of Baffin Island, has long promoted enlightened scientist-Inuit collaborations. For more than a decade, Gearheard has worked in Nunavut on projects exploring Inuit knowledge of the environment and environmental change.

She currently heads a three-year sea-ice knowledge exchange program whose team members include Inuit from Canada, Alaska, and Greenland, along with scientists. Together, the group is studying the sea ice in each location from their various perspectives. Since the team works, plays, and travels together by plane and by dogteam, Gearheard reports that they have developed lasting friendships that transcend their respective roles and spill over into a productive work relationship. “The value of the relationships this project creates does play out in the [quality of the] research,” Gearheard says. “Everyone on the team is an equal member. We all have input and we all have responsibility. If we lost one of our partners, the project could fail.”

As for the benefits of working as a team, Gearheard says scientists tend to compartmentalize their knowledge into lists, flowcharts, and boxes. “For Inuit there is more—stories, feelings, memories. In our project, we try to respect both approaches—understand them, link them.”

Inevitably, linking detailed local observations to remote sensing devices and local knowledge of small-scale processes to a macroscopic understanding of climate and ocean processes leads to more comprehensive results. “The more sources of information you have,” Gearheard says, “the more complete picture you are likely to have [in the end].”

Watching how Inuit approach their environment has been instructive for the scientists. “Inuit are always observing,” Gearheard says, “always taking the moment and comparing it to what they already know or have heard about, continuously forming new knowledge.”

Living in Igloolik has provided me with a chance to form new knowledge of my own, and the learning curve has been steep. I’m staying with an Inuit family, striving to learn at least rudimentary Inuktitut, perusing Inuit oral histories, spending time with elders and youth, attending community events, going out on the land, always keeping my ear to the ground. Every now and then, inevitably, I stumble into a cross-cultural pothole. But I pick myself up and go on, marveling at my good fortune to learn firsthand from the Inuit.

As the days grow shorter and the winds howl across the sea ice in Turton Bay, I can almost hear the whispers of the ancient Dorset culture that lived here for more than 1,500 years. “Listen,” they seem to say. “Listen.”

Read Sonia’s other articles: Inuit Perspectives on Climate Change, and Inuit Culture in Transition.


Sonia Gunderson, a resident of Fairfield, Iowa, writes regularly for the Inuit Art Quarterly and Above & Beyond, an in-flight magazine. She is currently on a Fulbright grant in Igloolik, Nunavut, living with an Inuit family and writing a book about the community’s cultural preservation initiatives. This is the first installment of a three-part series. Subsequent articles will examine Inuit perspectives on global warming and an inside view of Inuit culture in transition.