The documentary contains five Inuktitut dialects, recorded as its two directors followed Inuit elders to document their perspectives on global warming. While we read a great deal about climate change from a scientific point of view, this film provides a first-person perspective from the people most directly affected by the changes occurring.
Inuit approach climate change not only as a crisis, but as an opportunity to adapt, to find new techniques for living sustainably within the natural world. One after another, elders in our film tell us that hope lies in our capacity to be intelligent, resilient and well adapted to our environment.
Having survived and thrived through past climate changes, and the daily challenge of depending on weather and animals, Inuit experience tells us that the only constant is change itself, and adaptation is the key to a successful human future. To Inuit, climate change is a human rights issue — how people adapt to change and still respect the rights of others.
We’ve talked a number of times on this blog about the preservation of the Inuit language and culture, from both a scientific an educational point of view. Discussing the culture of the Arctic in terms of preservation alone is misleading, Inuktitut is a living language, currently spoken and being passed down to the next generation. The Arctic Bay Atlas is one more way in which the community is working to continue the transmission of this knowledge.
I personally find the ‘Spoken Map‘ page extremely valuable, as my knowledge of Inuktitut is theoretical rather than practical. Studying pronunciation guides is one place to start, yet nothing compares to hearing a language from a native speaker. Hover over each location on the map with your mouse to hear an audio clip of its name, click for further multimedia. There are several more pages on the site, including downloadable PDF maps showing locations of significance and the stories behind their importance to the Inuit people of Nunavut.
IsumaTV is an independent interactive network of Inuit and Indigenous multimedia. IsumaTV uses the power and immediacy of the Web to bring people together to tell stories and support change.
Our tools enable Indigenous people to express reality in their own voices: views of the past, anxieties about the present and hopes for a more decent and honorable future. Our sincere goal is to assist people to listen to one another, to recognize and respect diverse ways of experiencing our world, and honor those differences as a human strength.
IsumaTV uses new networking technology to build a new era of communication and exchange among Indigenous and non-Indigenous people and communities around the globe.
One huge technological issue in video and information distribution is a lack of availability of high-bandwidth internet in some areas. Isuma tackles this issue head on, offering low bandwidth access to their videos, and are continually working to expand their range into areas where internet access is less unavailable. In addition, they are working to digitize and distribute archived historical audio-visual materials, supported by the Department of Canadian Heritage through the Canadian Culture Online Strategy.
An accurate weather prediction is of critical importance in an environment where a mistaken report can create safety issues. In this story from Futurity, scientists discuss their new model of working closely with the Inuit to describe and predict the weather.
Using skills passed down through generations, Inuit forecasters living in the Canadian Arctic look to the sky to tell by the way the wind scatters a cloud whether a storm is on the horizon or if it’s safe to go on a hunt.
But in the past 20 years, something has run amok with Inuit forecasting. Old weather signals don’t seem to mean what they used to. The cloud that scatters could signal a storm that comes in an hour instead of a day.
“It’s interesting how the western approach is often trying to understand things without necessarily experiencing them,” says Elizabeth Weatherhead, a research scientist with the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences.
“With the Inuit, it’s much more of an experiential issue, and I think that fundamental difference brings a completely different emphasis both in defining what the important scientific questions are, and discerning how to address them.”
Shari Gearhead is a scientist with CU-Boulder’s National Snow and Ice Data Center who has spent ten years living at Clyde River, Nunavut, Canada, an Inuit community on eastern Baffin Island while recording climate information observation directly from the elders and hunters.
“When we first started talking about this, indigenous knowledge didn’t have the place it does now in research,” Gearheard says. “It’s growing. People are becoming more familiar with it, more respectful of it.”
Research like this is critical, not only to help document indigenous knowledge which may someday be lost, but to further science in areas it may be lacking.
“What was incredibly helpful was Shari’s detailed description of what they were experiencing on what sort of timescales,” says Weatherhead.
“That really allowed us to start focusing on our statistical tests and try to find exactly what matched their observations.
Throat singing is widely recognized as an important facet of Inuit cultural arts, represented by artists such as Tanya Tagaq whom recently toured both Canada and the United States.
The Guardian posted this terrific interview with two singers from divergent backgrounds, discussing their own relationships with the practice as well as how it relates to their experiences as modern native women.
Taqralik Partridge shares,
When I was a kid, we used to see throat singing on TV. Although I lived in Nunavik, an Inuit region in northern Quebec, there was nobody in the community who still knew how to throat sing and it was not widely practiced. So, we children used to pretend to throat sing and make weird sounds because there was nobody to teach us how to do it. Then, when I was at university in Montreal, I was lucky enough to have a friend who knew how to do it and I just thought I would give it a try.
For Nina Segalowitz, learning to throat sing was directly associated with reclaiming her heritage, as she was adopted to a family of very different background at very young age.
As much as my adoptive family loved me, I couldn’t see my reflection in the people around me. There was always something missing. Around 1995 or 1996, I started looking for my biological family. I met my biological family after I started throat singing. I felt it was a natural progression of discovering who I was.
Nina says that for her, throat singing is a way to bridge two worlds.
It’s also a way for us to show the contemporary and traditional sides of our lives, that we can do traditional activities and have traditional knowledge and language and yet also be contemporary in our lifestyle, where we live, what we eat and how we see the world.
Over on the Big Think blog, Tobin Hack has posted a link to a Public Radio International piece on Stephen Pax Leonard, a Cambridge University professor who will be spending the next year learning and documenting Inuktun, the local dialect of Quaanaaag, Greenland.
But this is about more than just language. The Inughuit language is in danger because their way of life is changing, as climate change endangers the animals they hunt and the environment in which they and those animals live. As Leonard explains,
“It’s a community that’s dependent on the hunting of sea mammals. Because of global warming there are fewer animals to kill and it’s increasingly dangerous to do so using these ancient traditional techniques that they use [dogsled and kayak] and so it looks like now this entire community could be moved further south within 10-15 years. And if that happens, the language, culture, the way of life will all go, will all disappear.”
“If their language dies,” says Leonard, “their heritage and identity will die with it.” Leonard has a head start on the communication front; he’ll be able to get by in his new adopted community by speaking Danish, until he gets the hang of Inukun. But he’ll be rushing toward fluency in his first few months, because all of the good stuff – all of the Inughuit’s most important songs, stories, myths, and spiritual beliefs – live in Inuktun.
I ran across some great videos today of Tanya Tagaq, a throatsinger out of Yellowknife whose reinterpretation of Inuit traditions has brought her international acclaim.
This isn’t the first time I’ve posted videos of throatsinging, but Tagaq does something simultaneously ancient and new, capturing something essential of both her culture and the landscape that has fostered it for generations.
She’s sung with many prominent artists, including Bjork, Faith No More’s Mike Patton, and the Kronos Quartet.
Tagaq is on tour right now, with an appearance tonight in Quebec and upcoming concerts in Ontario, British Columbia, Ireland, the UK and Portugal. You can check out the tour schedule on her website for more information.
California is a long way off from the Arctic, but I thought I’d pass this along to any readers who might be in the neighborhood: The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (located in downtown San Francisco) will be showcasing independent Inuit films this April, with showings of Marie-Hélène Cousineau & Madeline Piujuq Ivalu’s Before Tomorrow, Zacharias Kunuk’s The Fast Runner, and Zacharias Kunuk & Norman Cohn’s The Journals of Knud Rasmussen. Here’s the blurb from the YBCA’s website:
Igloolik is a community of 1,200 people located on a small island in the north Baffin region of the Canadian Arctic with archeological evidence of 4,000 years of continuous habitation. Throughout these millennia, with no written language, untold numbers of nomadic Inuit renewed their culture and traditional knowledge for every generation entirely through storytelling. These three brilliantly original films express the dramatic history of one of the world’s oldest oral cultures from its own point of view.
Tonight, I ran across an article about MaryAnn Sundown, a Yup’ik woman in her nineties who will be honored with a ‘living-treasure’ award at this year’s Cama-i Dance Festival in Bethel, Alaska.
I was intrigued by the article’s description of MaryAnn Sundown, whose dancing is apparently a highlight of the Cama-i festival each year.
Tiny, bow-legged and stooped, she waves hips and sways arms like a teen, her long wrinkled face flashing between deadpan suspense and wild laughter. . . [Her son,] Harley Sundown said diet’s a key factor in her spunk. She prefers raw fish, and the occasional soup.
“Nothing but Yup’ik food,” he said.
Harley, lead singer for the Scammon Bay Dancers, said she doesn’t think a whole lot about being honored as a Living Treasure.
She’s like most older Natives, who have “almost no pride or gloating of personal achievements.”
“She doesn’t think a whole lot of it, just like Michael Jordan would say it’s the team,” he said. “It’s not even a big part of her day.”
Here’s a video from the 2007 Cama-i festival (found via the Bethel Arts website).
I ran across an intriguing image today, of a tactile map used by the Inuit of Kalaallit Nunaat (aka Greenland) to navigate the coastline. The maps, carved from wood, were held inside the users’ mittens, and read by feel, rather than visually. Made from wood, they were durable, floated if dropped in the water, and were unaffected by weather and damp. The contours of the land are exaggerated, allowing users to navigate entirely by feel.
There are frustratingly few images of these maps online — I don’t know if it’s my web-research skills, or the fact that I couldn’t find any reference that gave the Inuit name for these artifacts. But I did find quite a few blog posts about the maps, all of them written by non-native posters, many of whom were intrigued by the idea of non-visual mapmaking.
Over at SpaceCollective.org, Manuel Lima cites a passage from Leo Bagrow’s 1960 History of Cartography that mentions the maps:
…wood was, and is, the most distinctive medium used by the Greenland Eskimos in mapmaking. Blocks are carved in relief to represent the rugged coastline of Greenland with its fjords, islands, nunataks and glaciers, the shapes of the various islands being linked together with rods. In order to reduce the size of the blocks, the outline of the coast is carried up one side and down the other.
As Bagrow notes, the maps are abstracted, conveying essential information about the coastal geography and marine features and creating a concrete evocation of a place in a tremendously portable medium, usable under even the most difficult conditions.
Over on Middle Savagery, Colleen Morgan, an Ph.D candidate in anthropology at UC Berkeley, points out that these maps are just one of the tools used by Inuit to navigate.
Peter Whitridge wrote a brilliant article titled Landscapes, Houses, Bodies, Things: “Place” and the Archaeology of Inuit Imaginaries that queried the binary set up between space and place wherein space is portrayed as empty, scientific, geometrical, and place is embodied, historical, culturally-constructed. To do this, he demonstrated Inuit placemaking in songs, myths, legends, even tongue-twisters where Unalakleet place names are strung together–mnemonics of places along travel routes. Personhood incorporates place, and every personal name corresponds with a place name; both people and places are signified as important by the very fact of being given specific names.
The Inuit made songs, but they also made maps. These were often sketched in snow or sand, but some of them were sketched on paper with pencil for European explorers, and were intelligible to these Westerners. These are interesting in comparable abstractions of space (thus directly addressing Whitridge’s question about the space/place binary) but I am more interested in the 3D wood carvings of the East Greenland coastline, with the details of inlets and islands in sculptural relief. These could be employed by at night in conjunction with the stars, feeling your way along the coastline, navigating at an intimate scale.
As abstract as the maps are, they are also remarkably accurate. An article in the April 1990 issue of Geography Review entitled “A Cultural Interpretation of Inuit Map Accuracy” cites several European explorers who noted the outstanding accuracy of Inuit maps, and the remarkable ability of Inuit cartographers to find and record subtle features in even the most unfamiliar landscapes. The accuracy and detail of the maps conveys something about the Inuit relationship with the land:
To guard against the often violent force of nature, Inuit enveloped themselves in the environment rather than fighting to extricate themselves from it.
Many aspects of Inuit culture, the article notes, encourage mimicry, be it of the sounds and movements of marine animals or the the contours of the landscape. The accuracy of the Inuit maps captures not only the intimate bond between their makers and the land, but the immersion in the landscape that has shaped and informed Inuit culture for centuries.