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Walking in Two Worlds: Inuit-led Research in the Arctic

The Arctic is warming faster than any place on Earth and its effects can be observed in everything from receding ice to invasive insects to public health issues.

Western Science has been concerned about the changes in the Arctic for decades, but only recently has it turned to Inuit researchers and their expertise in the Circumpolar North to determine what exactly is at risk. Collaboration between Inuit and academic researchers has demonstrated a more fulsome understanding of both the tangible and intangible losses associated with rising global temperatures in the Arctic.

The benefits of this collaborative model, and the future of Inuit-led research, can be found in Rigolet, Labrador, where the community is incorporating both Western and Indigenous ways of knowing to establish integrated environment and health monitoring systems.

Michele Wood, Researcher/Evaluator for the Nunatsiavut Government, Department of Health and Social Development in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, explains that community-led research contributes to more complete data collection and research that reflects the context of the region. Community members in the region rely on both ways of knowing.

“It’s walking in two worlds,” she says. “You’re using qualitative and quantitative data that you obtain using western methods, but you’re also using the contextual pieces in the traditional knowledge that exists in the region and then marrying the two together.”

For Michele, monitoring the environment is deeply connected to interpersonal and community aspects of public health.

“We look at the environment as a sort of circular thing,” she says of Inuit worldview. “There isn’t one aspect that influences our communities. There are always many factors that could have an equal amount of importance in how we view our environment, our community, and ourselves. So, in the context of public health monitoring we are looking at how the environment can affect the personal.”

The more you know, the better questions you ask. And community-led research has helped to illuminate some pretty big problems in public health. A great example, of how things work in a combined approach is the study related to the gastrointestinal illness (GI) concerns that could be linked to murky waters caused by an increase of ice and snow melt, known as spring runoff. This study couldn’t have a fulsome investigation without the leadership of community research.

If temperatures rise quickly, a community could be faced with water turbidity, which can affect the quality of drinking water from natural sources and wells and it’s important to know what to look for when it comes to water quality.

“It’s about knowing histories from communities and land-based practice and then pairing them with the skills learned from years of practice for individuals to better understand the landscape. This combination of oral history sharing and skill building helps to shape the next generation in being able to study the land and know when it’s safe to use. Like well water, if it’s spring runoff, wait until you know the water sources have settled and boil it before drinking, it’s those kinds of combinations of learned experience to read the environment and western science (through water testing) that the oral information transmission helps with.”

Life in the North requires highly specialized knowledge of the land as a means of cultural connection and food security. While the region’s economy is driven partly by seasonal work in mining or fisheries, the community finds time to be out in the land outside of the regular 9-5 work shift.

“In October, people often take time off to go goose hunting and berry picking,” Michele shared. “They also get salmon or char around that time of year because, with food security being a concern, the more we can stock our freezers with country food, that offsets the cost of buying from the stores which are very overpriced and have a limited selection of fresh food.”

In the spring of the year, people go ice fishing. They also harvest seals,  “jumpers” (which are porpoises), and even polar bear meat since polar bears are not an endangered species on the Atlantic Coast and a very controlled annual allocation of licenses is permitted. Every month of the year there is something that people can do to stay well-stocked and stay connected.

“[These activities are a way] to get away, to reflect and work hard. To feel in tune and in touch with nature, which is an extremely important part of our culture, which we do by caring for the land, to be there, and to harvest [what] we need.”   

Michele is excited for a future that builds on the models that are being established in communities like Rigolet with skilled and respected community researchers. She would like to see Inuit communities involved in the design of all of the research being done in the North.

“We often say: nothing about us, without us,” she shared “If you look at Indigenous groups, we’ve been doing this kind of climate change tracking and land assessment, as we are using the land. We’re looking at harvest and migration patterns of animal populations and of the animals we harvest. We’ve been doing this for such a long time, it is almost second nature. In some ways science is just catching up.”

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