Natives, scientists collaborate in arctic book

Posted: Thursday, February 06, 2003

A few years ago, travelers in Nunavut's hinterlands came upon a startling sight: "an antler forest" where a caribou herd fell into a lake, drown and were suspended when it refroze.

That surprise is one of many in "The Earth is Faster Now: Indigenous Observations of Arctic Environmental Change," an unusual new anthology. It looks at arctic climate from the dual viewpoints of Native traditional ecological knowledge and arctic science. It puts a human face on the effects of climate change -- the face of an Inuit or Athabascan subsistence hunter.

"Too often, scientific attention on climate change stops with the environmental effects or the plight of certain sentinel species in the arctic such as the polar bear or caribou," wrote a Canadian team specializing in Native public health.

"Forgotten seems to be the understanding that in the North, humans are situated at the top of the food chain as they live off land and sea. Through this relationship with the environment, Inuit are at risk of suffering from the magnified and accumulated effects of environmental change."

The book is timely in two ways.

First, it contains important recent developments. Most of its information is less than five years old.

Second, its advocacy of partnerships between villagers and scientists reflects the progressive and, one might say, politically correct, views of the traditional ecological knowledge movement. Contributors advocate a sophisticated understanding of indigenous knowledge systems and respectful dialog to benefit both groups.

Fikret Berkes from the University of Manitoba noted that a 1993 conference on northern climate change made no reference to Native input. He described "a spectacular burst of activity" since, remedying that omission.

The book is written by and for academics, and may be heavy sledding for general readers. Parts detail how to set up study projects, and those interested only in the results may wish to skim over the technical details.

But the compelling content overcomes the dry prose. For readers with a serious interest in contemporary arctic life or environmental problems, it is well worth the effort.

The heart of the book is observations by Alaska and Canadian villagers in northern communities from the Kuskokwim Delta to Labrador. Unlike many climate discussions, which focus on computer forecasts of the future, contributors discuss real effects already under way. Local people describe shrinking ice pack, drying terrain, ailing wildlife and unpredictable, treacherous weather, and say changes are most noticeable and rapid since 1990.

Based on traditions passed down through generations and lifetimes spent "on the land," traditional Inuit have no doubt that the land and sea they are changing.

For example, thinning ice makes travel on the arctic ice pack, frozen rivers and snow roads not only less available, but more dangerous for humans and animals

These climate changes have social implications: more difficulties obtaining and preserving subsistence foodstuffs, increased disease risks and even diminished status for elders, who express frustration that their ancestors' ways of predicting weather no longer work.

However, "The Earth is Faster Now" is not a litany of environmental gloom and doom, but a careful, nuanced look at the complexities of change.

Villagers point out that some changes bring benefits. These include the earlier return of migrating birds, lower heating fuel costs, fewer mosquitoes in drying areas and, for one enterprising carver, new supplies of aged bone and antler emerging from receding ice fields.

Arctic residents are not passive, and the book portrays resilient, intelligent people confronting a crisis.

"Inuit see themselves as part of the ecosystem and want to be included: not as victims, but as a people who can help," wrote Jose A. Kusugak, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Canada's national Inuit organization.

The meat of the book is descriptions of 10 collaborative projects documenting and discussing environmental changes. Researchers or Native organizations initiated some; villagers started others by requesting ethnic input.

The authors suggest that combining Native and scientific traditions can lead to a more complete, holistic understanding of the frightfully complex phenomenon of climate change.

Randall Tetlichi, an Old Crow Gwichin chief quoted in the book, said, "When the white people first came here, the Native people said, 'How?' and the white people said, 'Why?' A good thing today is that people have to come together. We have to know why and how. We have to double understand. I have to engage myself in both what science and the elders are saying."

Natives can provide vital information previously unavailable to science. For example, community surveys of sea ice around St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea revealed that locals evaluate currents, winds and ice thickness: factors invisible to satellites upon which many climate scientists rely.

"If our experience with a topic as challenging as anomalous behavior of nearshore sea ice is representative, (traditional ecological knowledge) is richer than most newcomers can grasp," wrote David Norton, from Arctic Rim Research.

The information flows in both directions.

Igor Krupnik, who works with the Smithsonian Institution's Arctic Studies Center, wrote, "Whereas previously people believed they shared the land and the sea with spirits, hunters of today speak increasingly in terms of 'ecosystems,' animal 'behavior,' contamination and stock 'health.'"

The book describes rural Natives studying satellite maps and inviting scientists to present findings, in lay terms, to village meetings.

Establishing partnerships and gathering information are first steps to meet a looming 21st century problem. Arctic residents feel they have the most to lose from climate change, but little power to change its causes. Instead, they look toward adapting to new realities.

As for the scientists, they plan for this volume to be just the first in a new series called "Frontiers in Polar Social Science."

Global warming remains a controversial topic, but this book is a compelling plea for attention to its implications.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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