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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


November 30, 2002 - Issue 75


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Canada’s Inuit: Sharing Traditional Knowledge for Survival

Poler Bear Mother and CubsIn the Arctic, the Inuit people have survived for centuries using their knowledge of the environment. Now, their future could be threatened by rising levels of contaminants in traditional food.

The Inuit understand conservation. For centuries, they’ve used traditional knowledge about the arctic environment to ensure there’s enough food to hunt and fish, to sustain them through its harsh climate.

Inusiq Nasaliq, a local elder from the village of Pangnirtung, 40 kilometres from the Artic Circle, says ‘country food’ has always been the basis of the Inuit food supply. "It’s very important, because it keeps them alive," he says.

Ame Papatsie’s own father made sure his son learned the lesson, that you kill only what you can eat. As a child, Ame once caught a bird for fun. His father made him eat it. "I cried eating it," Ame says. "My parents didn’t want anything of it. Once I ate that, I understood I have to kill what I want to eat."

Teaching for survival
Today, Inuit traditional knowledge is being taught in schools and universities. But elders still play an important role in teaching about living on the land.

Ame Papatsie has returned to Pangnirtung after graduating from McGill University to teach at the town’s Arctic College. He gives seminars about Inuit traditions for Aboriginal college students as well as Canadians from southern universities.

Ame says elders used to tell him that learning about the land would take a lifetime. "By the time you finish learning it, it's another person's turn to learn it," he told reporter Wojtek Gwiazda of Radio Canada International.

Contaminants raising concern
The balance that has existed between the Inuit of northern Canada and the natural environment could now be under threat. Local knowledge as well as scientific studies suggest that the food that has sustained them is becoming increasingly contaminated.

No one’s certain how bad the problem has become. As the manager of Pangnirtung’s Hunters and Trappers Association, Moe Keenanaq, explains, it’s critical to the Inuit to find out.

"We’d like to know exactly how much contaminants there are in the food that we eat, so we can decide if we should be eating them or not," says Moe.

So far, most of this information has not been made available to the Inuit. Scientists visiting from southern Canada to carry out tests on the food have not reported back to the local people with their findings.

A two-way learning process
To rectify the situation, the Worldwide Fund for Nature is planning a collaborative project with the Hunters and Trappers Association in Pangnirtung and a scientist from Trent University, Gordon Balch.

The project will enable Inuit hunters to share their ancestral knowledge of animals in the region with scientists, says the WWF’s Susan Sang.

It’s hoped that the Inuit knowledge, along with scientific sampling of some of the seals and fish they eat, will show exactly what level of pollutants is present in their country food.

The Arctic challenge
The Arctic presents a special challenge, according to WWF scientist Susan Sang. Water and air currents bring pollutants like the banned insecticide DDT from southern climates into the Northern system, where they become trapped.

"When the contaminants reach the Arctic, because of the cold climate, they tend to stay here. And very little is evaporated, and gets out of the system," Sang explains.

Pangnirtung also has other contamination problems. Local residents have complained about the impact of burning garbage in the town’s dump, as well as the sewage pool situated dangerously close to the water they fish in.

The Inuit hunters are also concerned about global warming. Already, the ice is breaking up earlier in springtime, making it harder to go hunting. And there are other signs - the seals’ fur is a different colour and the caribou have swollen legs.

Breaking down barriers to understanding
Although all sides are optimistic about the project, they know it is not going to be easy. According to Gordon Balch, studies in the Arctic are often logistically difficult. He says that when there are delays, it will be especially important to keep the lines of communication open.

In the past, barriers have existed between environmentalists and the Inuit, who have had a hard job convincing groups like Greenpeace that it is not their traditional practice to over-hunt.

More recently, these groups have come to understand the importance of hunting for the Inuit and have recognized their highly-developed understanding of conservation.

The Inuit message is clear – action has to be taken now for the sake of future generations. As Ame Papatsie says, "If I’m disrespectful to nature, I’m not only going to hurt myself, I’m also going to hurt my blood line."

"My descendants are going to have a hard time growing up, or a hard time living. Pay respect toward nature, right now, or your descendants are going to pay in the future."

International Institute for Sustainable Development
For development to be sustainable it must integrate environmental stewardship, economic development and the well-being of all people—not just for today but for countless generations to come. This is the challenge facing governments, non-governmental organizations, private enterprises, communities and individuals.

Pangnirtung, Nunavut Mao
Maps by Travel

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